China has enlisted the help of popular celebrities in mainland China and Hong Kong to promote its denouncement of the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong that have been ongoing since March this year. Over the past few weeks, celebrities have been posting pro-China images, messages and music on their personal social media accounts that has in turn been promoted by Chinese government-backed media outlets.
This show of patriotism towards China by celebrities is not unusual, but in the context of the anti-extradition bill protests, this open rejection of calls for democracy by citizens of Hong Kong highlights the ways in which China is engaging its resources to sway public opinion and curb the ongoing protests.
Why are celebrities publicly supporting China regarding anti-extradition bill protests?
“The pop stars who perform in China are willing to support the Chinese government for the simple reason of keeping the hugely profitable Chinese market. The stars make exorbitant amount of money if they cooperate with the government,” said Kang Liu, director of the Duke Program of Research on China at Duke University, in an interview with indianexpress.com. There have been several instances where Chinese stars have rejected multi-million dollar commercial ventures and have been publicly critical of international companies or institutes if they did not promote the ‘One-China policy’.
Last month, Chinese actress Yang Mi ended her role as Versace’s Chinese ambassador after the company released a line of t-shirts that featured fashion capitals of the world and listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent nations. “China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacred and inviolable at all times,” said Yang in her statement, implying that Versace’s t-shirt designs were disrespectful of her country’s One-China policy. “As a company of the People’s Republic of China and Yang Mi as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, we are deeply offended. It is the duty of all Chinese citizens to uphold the ‘One China’ principle and adamantly safeguard national unification.”
The Company apologizes for the design of its product and a recall of the t-shirt has been implemented in July. The brand accepts accountability and is exploring actions to improve how we operate day-to-day to become more conscientious and aware. pic.twitter.com/5K8u3c4Dbm
— VERSACE (@Versace) August 11, 2019
To get their pro-China messages out, these Chinese stars are using VPNs to access global social media platforms that are officially banned by the Chinese government and cannot be accessed otherwise.
Is China using celebrities and social media to sway public opinion among overseas Chinese citizens on diplomatic issues?
“Hong Kong’s situation is perceived by the government as a threat not only to Hong Kong but also a potentially destabilising factor to the mainland,” said Liu, explaining that the Chinese government’s main concern is to maintain stability at all costs, something that has been threatened due to the scale of protests in Hong Kong since March. “Pop culture celebrities are highly visible and persuasive icons of commercial advertisement. Likewise, they are useful public images for political purposes in China, where commercial and political advertising are normally mixed up.”
In August, many celebrities from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan who work overseas in the Korean pop music industry posted propaganda images on their social media accounts with captions like “Hong Kong is part of China”. Among these superstar celebrities were Victoria Song, member of K-pop group f(x) and K-pop group EXO’s Lay Zhang. Song posted a photo on her Instagram account with the caption “I love China and I love Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a part of China.”
View this post on Instagram
Leaving his international fans divided, Zhang expressed support for Hong Kong police amidst criticism faced by the law enforcement agency for harassment and violence against protestors. Zhang, who is a model for Calvin Klein, recently warned the American company to stop listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent regions. Earlier this month, Zhang also terminated his contract with Samsung Electronics stating that the company did not adhere to the One-China policy.
相信国家 反对暴力 希望中国香港平安🇨🇳 pic.twitter.com/mukHmeGBqI
— Lay Zhang (@layzhang) August 14, 2019
Jackson Wang, originally from Hong Kong, is a part of the popular K-pop group GOT7 and works mostly in South Korea and China, while Taiwanese rapper Lai Kuan-lin is a former member of K-pop group Wanna One and now works as an independent artist in South Korea. Both artistes pushed the One-China narrative on their individual social media profiles as well.
Jackson Wang lists Hong Kong as a part of China on his social media platforms and he joined ‘The Five-Star Red Flag has 1.4 billion guardians’ campaign launched by government-backed broadcast channel CCTV following the start of protests in Hong Kong. The campaign features some of China and Hong Kong’s biggest celebrities, including Jackie Chan and Angelababy.
Jackson Wang’s pro-China stance has been met with intense criticism from some of his fans and the artiste recently pulled out from the ‘Head in the Clouds’ music festival in Los Angeles that was organized by 88Rising, an Asian hip-hop collective.
Since most western social media platforms are blocked by the government in China, the social media posts by these celebrities pushing the One-China narrative were possibly aimed at international fans, particularly those in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
How is rap music being used by China to influence opinion?
The Chinese government’s use of rap to influence opinion, particularly among the youth is interesting. Last year, the Chinese government unleashed an official crackdown on Chinese hip hop and rap music after a reality TV show ‘The Rap of China’ attempted to commercialise the genres into a multi-million dollar business that till then had been an underground movement. The Chinese state authority, which oversees press and television in the country and has full control over what is broadcast, issued a memo that banned TV programmes from featuring rap artists.
According to the Chinese government, hip hop and rap are western cultural imports and the use of misogynistic, offensive lyrics that feature themes of money, drugs, sex, women and violence are contrary to the values of socialism and those of China. Following the government’s ban on hip hop and rap in the country in 2018, several live performances by local artistes were subsequently cancelled.
Despite its ban on hip hop and rap, the Chinese government has been actively promoting the music of a gangsta rap group, CD Rev also known as Chengdu Revolution, known for producing propaganda rap music and is believed to be backed by the government. This month, the group released a rap video called “Hong Kong’s Fall” pushing China’s narrative that “somebody want to split Hong Kong from us” and wove the Chinese government’s key arguments regarding the Hong Kong protests into the lyrics. “Yeah, I’m talking about American hypocrisy/they know nothing about love/just wars and casualties/and Mrs. Clinton you know nothing about Chinese citizens,” raps CD Rev.
Watch: CD Rev’s rap video titled ‘Hong Kong’s Fall’
(Video credit: CD Rev/Official YouTube channel)
The video includes a mash of footage of protests in Hong Kong and footage of Donald Trump saying, “Something is probably happening with Hong Kong….because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice.” China’s government mouthpiece People’s Daily gave the rap video government-sanctioned approval by tweeting it through its official Twitter account and other state media outlets broadcast the rap on their own platforms as well.
CD Rev, a group of four rappers from the city of Chengdu in south-west China, produces propaganda rap videos on subjects that are usually issues of geo-political and diplomatic significance to the country. The group has rapped on Seoul’s decision to install THAAD missile defence systems and China’s persistent territorial claims in the South China Sea. Despite its reservations regarding the music genre, China understands the appeal of hip hop and rap and has been actively promoting the music, but only when it benefits the government.
Why does China use celebrities to push government propaganda?
Since the Cultural Revolution, the culture industry in China has essentially been a joint venture between the government and commercial businesses, including state owned traditional media outlets like newspapers, radio and television and private sector enterprises like Tencent and Alibaba, explained Liu. The Communist Party of China took cultural affairs under its control after the People’s Republic of China was founded and the last four decades of reform allowed consumer culture to flourish in the country only as long as it followed the ideological directives of the Communist Party. “Simply put, consumer culture business or (the) culture industry makes lucrative profit and the government gets its propaganda mission accomplished,” explained Liu.
Along with the other forms of government influence, violence and cultural propaganda that China is deploying to exercise control and manipulate public perception, this time it is also using hip hop and rap music to suppress dissent in Hong Kong.