As China Ramps Up Scrutiny of Culture, the Show Does Not Go On

Cancellations spread across the country: a Japanese choral band touring China, live comedy shows in various cities, jazz performances in Beijing. Within the span of a few days, the performances were among more than a dozen that were abruptly cancelled, some just minutes before they were supposed to start, with virtually no explanation.

Just before the performances were cancelled, authorities in Beijing had fined a Chinese comedy studio about $2 million, after one of its stand-up performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a prank; North China police also detained a woman who had defended the comedian online.

Those penalties, and the sudden series of cancellations that followed, point to increasing scrutiny of China’s already heavily censored creative landscape. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has made arts and culture a center stage for ideological repression, demanding that artists align their creative ambitions with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party and promote a nationalist vision of Chinese identity. Performers are required to submit scripts or set lists for verification and postings are closely monitored.

On Tuesday, Mr. Xi sent a letter to the National Museum of Art of China for its 60th anniversary, reminding staff to “stick to the correct political orientation.”

Xi’s emphasis on the arts is also part of a broader concern for national security and the elimination of supposedly evil foreign influence. In recent weeks, authorities have raided the corporate offices of several China-based Western consulting or advisory firms and expanded the range of behavior covered by counter-espionage laws.

Many of the canceled events were supposed to feature foreign artists or speakers.

It was to be expected that Beijing would also look to the cultural realm, as its deteriorating relationship with the West has made it more obsessed with maintaining its grip on power at home, said Zhang Ping, a former journalist and political commentator in China who now lives in Germany. .

“One way to respond to power anxiety is to increase control,” said Zhang, who writes under the pen name Chang Ping. “Dictatorships have always sought to control people’s entertainment, speech, laughter and tears.”

While the party has long regulated the arts (one target of the Cultural Revolution was creative work deemed insufficiently “revolutionary”), the intensity has increased considerably under Xi. In 2021, a state-backed performing arts association published a list of morality guidelines for artists, which included recipes for patriotism. The same year, the government banned “sissies” from appearing on television, accusing them of weakening the nation.

Officials have also taken note of stand-up comedy, which has grown in popularity in recent years and offers a rare outlet for limited commentary on life in contemporary China. The government fined a comedian for making jokes about last year’s coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a comment in November that he said jokes had to be “moderate” and noted that stand-up as an art form was a foreign import; The Chinese name for stand-up, “tuo kou xiu,” is itself a transliteration of “talk show.”

The recent crackdown began after an anonymous social media user complained about a set that a popular comedian, Li Haoshi, performed in Beijing on May 13. Mr. Li, who goes by the stage name House, said watching his two stray dogs chase a squirrel reminded him of a Chinese military slogan: “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The user suggested that Mr. Li slandered the soldiers with wild dogs.

Outrage grew among nationalist social media users, and the authorities quickly joined in. In addition to fining Xiaoguo Culture Media, the firm that manages Mr. Li, the authorities, who said the prank had a “vile social impact,” have indefinitely suspended the company’s performances in Beijing and Shanghai. Xiaoguo fired Mr. Li, and the Beijing police said they were investigating him.

Within hours of the sanction being announced on Wednesday, organizers of stand-up shows in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and the eastern province of Shandong canceled their performances. A few days later, Chinese social media platforms suspended the accounts of Uncle Roger, a British-based Malaysian comedian whose real name is Nigel Ng; Mr. Ng had published a video mocking the Chinese government on Twitter (which is banned in mainland China).

But the apparent consequences were not limited to comedy. Scheduled musical performances also began to disappear, including a stop in southern China by a shanghai rock band which includes foreign members, a Beijing folk music festival and various jazz performances, and a Canadian rapper show in the southern city of Changsha.

The leader of a Buddhist-influenced Japanese choral group, Kissaquo, said last Wednesday that his concert that night in the southern city of Guangzhou had been cancelled. Hours later, frontman Kanho Yakushiji said a performance in Hangzhou in eastern China had also been cancelled. And the next day, he announced that the Beijing and Shanghai shows had also been cancelled.

“I was writing a set list, but I stopped in the middle,” said Mr. Yakushiji, whose management company did not respond to a request for comment. wrote on his Facebook page. “I still don’t understand what the meaning of all this is. I have nothing but regrets.”

Announcements from organizers of nearly all the canceled events cited “force majeure,” a term meaning circumstances beyond one’s control and, in China, has often been used as shorthand for government pressure.

Organizers of the stand-up show did not return requests for comment. Several organizers of canceled musical performances denied that they had been told not to host foreigners. An employee at a Nanjing music venue that canceled a tribute to Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto said not enough tickets had been sold.

Since then, some of the foreign musicians whose shows were canceled have been able to perform in other cities or at other venues.

But a foreign musician in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said his band was scheduled to play at a bar on Sunday and was told several days beforehand by the venue that the concert was canceled because foreigners were participating. it would bring trouble.

lynette ong, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto, said it was unlikely that the central government had issued direct instructions to encourage the recent cultural crackdowns. Local governments or venue owners, aware of how the political environment had changed, were probably being especially cautious, he said.

“In Xi’s China, people are so scared and fearful that they become extremely risk averse,” he said. “Overall, it’s a very paranoid party.”

In the past, when nationalism had gone to extremes, or local officials overzealously enforced the rules, the central government would eventually step in to cool the rhetoric, in part to preserve economic or diplomatic relations. But Professor Ong said that Beijing’s current emphasis on security above all else would not give it any reason to intervene here.

“If people don’t watch comedy, there’s no loss to the party,” he said.

Joy Dong and li you contributed research.