Lamenting China’s 2021 Cancel Culture

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What China lost and what it still has.

by Austrian China via Substack

View from China with an Austrian School of Economics Perspective

In our next post, Man Tianmai (漫天霾) reflects on what China lost in 2021 – too many goodbyes, as he puts it. Due to a long list of unfamiliar references, this can be challenging to present in an understandable way to a Western readership; moreover, Man’s goal is not to present a balanced picture. This post provides some critical background information to both help understand Man’s year-end resumé and to make sense of developments in China in 2021.

China’s new cancel culture bears some distinct resemblances to its Western counterpart: It is authoritarian and increasingly intolerant of everything deemed politically incorrect – even if that “incorrectness” lies far in the past. What is politically incorrect in China is of course different: there are still only two genders in China, for instance; there is no organized campaign to change or abolish traditional cultural values, and no-one is being banned from society due to personal health choices. Moreover, the Chinese cancellation regime seems to be much more top heavy than the one enforced by Facebook and Twitter. Those who get cancelled tend to be prominent. But when a ban comes (遭封杀了), as it has come to so many in the United States and Europe, it tends to be complete. Social media, commercial platforms and social status – all can disappear overnight, with not only their public presence but even their past publications and videos gone. All down the memory hole.

It is not only these individuals who lose out. The entire society is impoverished by their loss.

However, this is not the only kind of cancellation which is taking place. There are other subtler kinds, as well, cancellations which involve society and culture as a whole. The world as a whole has moved from a culture of open debate to one where only certain opinions are tolerated and all others are castigated, and in this, China is absolutely no different. Just as travel has been cancelled and constricted, opinions have, as well.

At the same time, bit by bit China is being transformed from a country with a decentralized minimalist government nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship, competition and private sector-driven innovation into a country with an increasingly centralized big government propagating the idea that better governance is the cure to all ills.

This is the actual focus of Man’s essay. It is also the focus of this essay, albeit with a somewhat broader perspective. Part of that broader perspective is the important reminder that not yet all is lost, and the good fight is still being fought.

Thus far, Chinese big government has a track record of hardly more than a decade. Notoriously inefficient and often technically incompetent1, it is anything but omnipotent, and memories of the bankruptcy of Mao-era socialism are still intact. There is still effectively no welfare, the regulatory state is still far slimmer than the stifling straightjacket which passes for normal in much of the West, and despite some dark clouds on the horizon, respect for property rights and personal financial freedom remains (mostly) intact2. Moreover, civil society (民间力量) remains strong, and when big government egregiously fails, the private sector continues to remind people of the superior results it can deliver.

That reality does not however change the fact that there were a number of goodbyes which bear remembering.

Goodbyes to key opinion leaders

Before we go on to the wider societal issues, just to provide a rough idea, here are a few examples of the kinds of individuals who ended up getting themselves cancelled.

Gao Xiaosong (Image: Austrian China)

They include public intellectuals such as Gao Xiaosong (高晓松) or Yuan Tengfei (袁腾飞), celebrities from the entertainment industry such as actress Zhao Wei (赵薇), but also increasingly many prominent Chinese entrepreneurs with a social media presence such as Wei Ya (薇娅).

We published an entire post on the Wei Ya case, and it forms a key part of Man Tianmai’s article, as well.

To be clear, this does not mean that these people were ‘disappeared’, as adherents of the ‘China dystopia’ narrative might imagine. Just as in the West, it’s a virtual jail, not a physical one. On the ground this means that victims are blocked from a role as a public figure, be it on social media, on the screen or on the domestic Internet.

Yuan Tengfei (Image: Austrian China)

Yuan Tengfei became famous for his entertaining and insightful lectures on Chinese history, some of which were highly critical of Mao Zedong and complimentary towards Mao’s rival Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek). When he first rose to fame 13+ years ago, the government was still highly tolerant of such viewpoints, permitting frank discussion of most historical events in the past 100 years. Yuan called Mao one of the “three great despots” of the 20th century. Since then however, the red lines have completely shifted3. Yuan Tengfei was cancelled on November 25, 2019.

Gao Xiaosong, one of China’s best known public intellectuals with a following of 44.6 million on Weibo, was likely also banned due to his frank and balanced discussions of historical topics. Weibo is China’s leading blogging platform and has long been a preferred target for the censors. To give an idea of the breadth and depth of Gao’s following, his insightful and erudite talk shows on history and culture regularly enjoyed 6 million+ views as soon as they became available online, with one of his “Morning Call” episodes on the Youku platform exceeding 40 million views. He is also a composer, novelist, director and film producer, with both top-10 hits and films to his credit. In April 2014 iQiyi outbid Youku, agreeing to pay Gao the equivalent of $16 million to produce a series of talk shows for their platform. In July 2015 Gao Xiaosong was named the chairman of Alibaba’s AliMusic group, which acquired Youku in November of the same year. This brought Gao back to Youku, where he continued to produce regular talk shows. In his role at AliMusic, he had a very close relationship with Jack Ma, and was also appointed as the head of Alibaba’s Entertainment Strategy Committee. He was cancelled in September 2021 and all of his content taken offline4.

The actress and top-10 celebrity Zhao Wei was also axed around the same time, for unknown reasons.

Fair use excerpt. Read the whole article here.