Men’s pierced ears and historical drama are now being censored on Chinese television. Such excesses are hardly a sign of strength on the part of the Chinese Communist Party.
For a regime that since the collapse of the Berlin Wall has been so obsessed with studying and avoiding the mistakes made by its defunct ideological predecessor in the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has, rather oddly, begun to repeat many of the excesses that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Much as in the Soviet Union, the party’s tight controls on every aspect of Chinese society might initially seem like a display of strength, in that they reaffirm, depend upon, and reinforce the power asymmetry that exists between the party-state apparatus and its citizen subjects.
Much as in the Soviet Union, however, the Chinese authorities’ need to spy upon, silence, censor, control, disappear and repress critics, artists, religious figures and would-be contenders within and outside the party, is a symptom of deepening paranoia. The party-state, all-powerful, crushing in its might, bristling with missiles and aircraft and tanks and submarines, is but a paper tiger, fearing all forms of criticism, overt and not.
Arguably, today’s CCP is comprehensively more powerful than the CPSU ever was, due in large part to the size of its economy and the role the country it rules plays in the global economy. And yet, for all its power, the challenges it faces — a larger population to control, one that furthermore is empowered by the tools of social media and the Internet — are just as daunting, and therefore the party’s fear of its own shadow is just as obsessive and self-consuming. As a result, the CCP today, especially amid signs of growing unrest and economic slowdown, is engaging in the same kind of excesses that turned much of the Soviet population against the CUPP, even if many of them could not say so openly lest this land them in Lubyanka or the Gulag.*
Never mind the thousands of prisoners of conscience held in Chinese prisons, the crackdown on underground Christian churches, the military occupation of Tibet and the large-scale concentration camps that have been erected in Xinjiang, the party propaganda spewed at home and abroad, the relentless censorship on social media, the silencing of intellectuals, the vast surveillance network, the inability to countenance even the mention of a sovereign Taiwan — all are aspects of the CCP with which we have grown accustomed over the years.
The paranoia, and the inherent signs of weakness, have been taken to new Orwellian excesses in today’s China, reaching such heights (or lows) of folly that they cannot now but alienate the very people they are supposed to protect from “ideological pollution.” China, the much-feared China which, some would have us believe, could within as a little as a decade displace the U.S. as the global superpower, cannot allow its 1.3 billion subject-citizens to see “impure” acts on television or the Internet. This includes such things as the depiction of homosexuality or marital unfaithfulness. Men’s ears are now being blurred on TV channels, lest public morals be undermined by the sight of an earring or a tattoo. Yes, dear reader: state censors (and presumably AI) are watching for such transgressions; state resources are being expended on such matters, while the environment continues to be poisoned, food remains unsafe for many, and healthcare and care for the elderly remains accessible to but a fraction of the overall population.
When a party feels the need to control such things, we know that its leaders have their priorities in the right place!
As if that were not enough, we learned at the weekend that two of the most popular TV series in China, 《延禧攻略》(Story of Yanxi Palace) and 《如懿傳》 (Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace), have been pulled off the air for violating no less than five principles established by the state’s media censors. The infractions include (1) “promoting a keen interest in pursuing the royal lifestyle and making it a fashion”; (2) “depicting plots and conspiracies that undermine social harmony”; (3) “beautifying the image of emperors and ministers to the detriment of the current regime”; (4) “promoting luxury, personal enjoyment and lack of good morals”; and (5) “promoting the one-sided pursuit of commercial interests and the weakening of positive spiritual guidance.” According to media reports, by Jan. 26, most TV channels in China had stopped airing the programs and replaced them with other shows. The irony, of course, is that the popular series — produced by the Chinese — were already abiding by various guidelines established by the party-state apparatus, such as listing (the inevitably dubbed) Taiwanese actors in the end credits as being from “Taiwan, China.”
But clearly that was insufficient. History, even in the form of historical fiction, is now also seen as a threat to the CCP, perhaps due to the possibility that the luxury, plots, and excesses of the imperial system depicted with such artistry could somehow remind the Chinese public that the new imperial system — the CCP under Xi Jinping — is just as rotten at the core, just as marked by conspiracies, inequality, unimaginable luxury (just ask the princelings) and bad morals (ask the million or so Uighurs and members of other minority groups who are rotting away in internment camps).
It is no longer just the Tiananmen Square Massacre that is off-limits to the Chinese public: ancient emperors — history itself — must not be erased, silenced, and beautified (be beware: none can be made to outshine the current Emperor Xi). Accuracy itself is dangerous — everything now must reflect positively on the one reference point that matters: the present. Imagine how much poorer English culture as a whole would be if, say, London were to ban all performances of Shakespeare from theaters or black out screen adaptations because in many of those plays British royalty behaves, well, immortally and often quite violently. Does Shakespeare undermine the legitimacy of the current British prime minister? Absolutely not: British audiences and readers enjoy Shakespeare because he teaches us something about the past — and he entertains the hell out of us.
Not only will ordinary Chinese see through that charade, as citizens of the Soviet Union saw through the CPSU’s censorship of artistic expression then, but they are bound to be upset — and rightly so — by the state’s removal of some of their favorite entertainments. This isn’t might; it’s cowardliness.
*Besides arresting and shooting people and censoring artists, the party even went as far as to arrest books, including Vasily Semyonovich Grossman’s momentous Life and Fate. The Soviet regime — and any repressive regime, for that matter — failed in large part due to the fact that it stifled freedom and thereby amputated the creativity that was needed for the empire to renew itself. This is the error that the CCP is also in the act of committing.
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