The show doesn’t go on: Chinese performers cancelled over ‘political orientation’

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Beijing: The cancellations rippled across China: a Japanese choral band touring the country, stand-up comedy shows in several cities, jazz shows in Beijing. In the span of a few days, the performances were among more than a dozen abruptly called off – some just minutes before they were supposed to begin.

Just before the performances were scrapped, authorities in Beijing had fined a Chinese comedy studio around $US2 million ($3 million), after one of its stand-up performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a joke; police in northern China also detained a woman who had defended the comedian online.

A bookstore in Zibo, China. Literature is also closely regulated by the authorities.Credit: Qilai Shen/The New York Times

Those penalties and the sudden spate of cancellations that followed point to the growing scrutiny of an already heavily censored creative landscape. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made arts and culture a central arena for ideological crackdowns, demanding that artists align their creative ambitions with Communist Party goals and promote a nationalist vision of Chinese identity. Performers must submit scripts or set lists for vetting and publications are closely monitored.

This week, Xi sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China for its 60th anniversary, reminding staff to “adhere to the correct political orientation”.

Xi’s emphasis on the arts is also part of a broader preoccupation with national security and eliminating supposedly malign foreign influence. Recently, authorities have raided the corporate offices of several Western consulting or advisory companies based in China, and broadened the range of behaviours covered under counter-espionage laws.

Many of the cancelled events were supposed to feature foreign performers or speakers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a screen as performers dance at a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021. Xi wants other performers to align themselves more with the CPP.Credit: AP

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

“One way to respond to anxiety about power 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 sharply under Xi. In 2021, a state-backed performing arts association published a list of morality guidelines for artists, which included prescriptions for patriotism. The same year, the government banned “sissy men” from appearing on television, accusing them of weakening the nation.

A billboard at a People’s Liberation Army Flag Guard barrack near the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.Credit: Bloomberg

Officials have also taken notice of stand-up comedy, which has gained popularity and offered a rare medium for limited barbs about life in contemporary China. The government fined a comedian for making jokes about last year’s coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a commentary in November that 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 from “talk show”.

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

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

Within hours of the penalty being announced on Wednesday, organisers of stand-up shows in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and eastern Shandong province cancelled their performances. A few days later, Chinese social media platforms suspended the accounts of Uncle Roger, a Britain-based Malaysian comic whose real name is Nigel Ng; Ng had posted a video poking fun at the Chinese government on Twitter (which is banned in mainland China).

But the apparent fallout was not limited to comedy. Scheduled musical performances began disappearing, too, including a stop in southern China by a Shanghai rock band that includes foreign members, a Beijing folk music festival and several jazz performances, and a Canadian rapper’s show in the southern city of Changsha.

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

“I was writing a set list, but I stopped in the middle,” 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.”

Organisers’ announcements for nearly all of the cancelled events cited “force majeure”, a term that means circumstances beyond one’s control – and, in China, has often been used as shorthand for government pressure.

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

Some of the foreign musicians whose shows were cancelled have since 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 retaliation, said his band was scheduled to play at a bar on Sunday and was told by the venue several days before that the gig was cancelled because featuring foreigners 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 spur the recent cultural crackdowns. Local governments or venue owners, conscious of how the political environment had changed, were likely being especially cautious, she said.

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

In the past, when nationalism has gone to extremes, or local officials overzealously enforced the rules, the central government would eventually step in to cool down the rhetoric, in part to preserve economic or diplomatic relationships. But Ong said Beijing’s current emphasis on security above all would give it no reason to intervene here.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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