🇨🇳The Great Cancellation
What’s going on in China, what does it mean for us and where in the world is Vicki Zhao?
There’s no getting cancelled like getting cancelled in China. Just ask actress and investor Vicki Zhao. That is, if you can track her down. Since Zhao got blacklisted on August 26th, not only have all mentions of her been deep scrubbed on the Chinese internet, she’s physically disappeared as well. Is she laying low in Beijing? Or has she hopped it to join her husband on their vineyard in Bordeaux (“Chateaux Monlot”)?
One thing is for sure. Zhao is not the only one. It’s been hard to describe what’s been happening in China…but there’s been a palpable shift. Some of China’s most glamorous celebrities and feted tech billionaires have found themselves on the outs. It was not so long ago that China was their playground. But now they are facing the pointy end of the pitchfork.
I’ve been often accused of not reading enough original material on China as opposed to analysis.
Not going to lie. I find it really hard. The style of writing for Chinese news just makes it really hard to absorb for me. And because there’s no freedom of the press you gotta take a discount to everything, which just makes wading through the turgid prose seem less worth-it. But hey, better read it anyhow than to be caught napping when there’s information already out there in the open, right? Rahul on twitter makes a great point:
To be sure, a lot of Kremlinology turned out to be bullpuckey. But at least they were trying. So to try and figure out what is going on with the Great Cancellation, I decided to do a partial translation and close reading of a editorial titled Everybody can feel that a profound revolution is now in progress. Dated 8/29, It was spackled all over by state media outlets including CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily, Xinhua, PLA Daily, CCTV, China Youth Daily and China News Service. The author, Li Guangman, starts with criticizing the entertainment world in China, which he described as “rotten to the core.” He names and shames various celebrities for crimes as disparate as going to Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine to sexual assault to tax evasion. But the general condemnation was for what he calls “the Fan circuit” (飯圈). But it goes deeper.
The Fan Circuit
The storm has started, going straight for the grotesque absurdities of the entertainment world. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has punched down hard on the “fan circuit” What does this attack signify? This is maintaining the political and ideological safety of the internet, to create an uncluttered space to deal with the “Fan circuit.” Obviously, this is political action, and those of every domain must reckon with this this crackdown on a political level.
To my understanding what Li means by the “fan circuit” is the network of the rich and famous who cozied up to each other and lined each others’ pockets while making stardom dizzying bankable. Modern technologies and stardom went together fabulously well in China until very recently, with algorithms pushing up those with the right connections, and other algorithms that then extracted money from their fans.
There’s a sense of a ‘gilded age’ excess that Li describes with great color. Some of the actions frankly seem fair enough: tax evasion bad. And I have mixed feelings (don’t we all) about tech’s power to shape our behavior. But then, of course, it didn’t stop there.
Vicki Zhao should have disappeared from view more than 20 years ago, but her star only rose. 20 year ago, she wore a dress featuring the Rising Sun flag under which the Japanese invaded China, but instead of being blacklisted, she became a rainmaker on China’s capital markets. They called her the Chinese female Buffett, she was tight with Jack Ma and other titans. She could shape public opinion, and make negative news about her disappear. Her film No Other Love featured Leon Dai, a hardcore Taiwan separatist. The female lead, Kiki Mizuhara, is an anti-Chinese Japanese who supports visiting the Yasukuni temple. This sparked righteous anger, and yet that too dissipated quickly. How many of Vicki Zhao’s actors went to Yasukuni, made the Nazi sign, made friends with the Japanese right-wing and inspired the righteous anger of the Chinese people. How did she remain standing for fo long? And now we see, her time has come.
So I am not going to go to bat for Vicki Zhao. She and her husband were caught up with insider trading and who knows what else went down. But look at what she’s being dragged for? Wearing a dress 20 years ago with the Rising Sun flag and for using “hardcore Taiwanese separatist Leon Dai” as an actor. The same Leon Dai who wrote a groveling 1,000 word apologia in 2016 on how he is NOT in fact a Taiwanese separatist.
Those who idolize and kneel before the USA
American Gao Xiaosong was canceled at the same time as Zhao. Through his programs, he sprouts bullshit history, worships the US and kneels before the US and some how confused a bunch of Chinese into becoming his fans.
Side note: Gao Xiaosong is in fact Chinese, although he’s a green-card holder and some say he secretly holds US citizenship. But anyhow, this is the part of the editorial where Li turns from the crackdown on the “fan circuit” to “discovering the historical path and developmental trend of a whole country.”
The halt of the Ant IPO, the restructuring of the economic order, action against monopolies, the fining of Ali, and Didi coming under scrutiny all lead up to the solemn commemoration of the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party and the proposal of the path of common prosperity. This series of crackdowns are telling us a major change is happening inside China — economically, financially, culturally and politically. It is a profound revolution, a return of the country from the conglomerates to the people. Capital is no longer at the heart of China, but the people. And all who stands in the way of this revolution will be cast aside. This profound revolution is also a return, towards the original intent of the Chinese Communist party. Towards putting people first, towards socialism.
I gotta ask the China watchers telling the west to chill, that there’s nothing to see in this latest round of crackdowns beside doing a few corrupt celebrities in and normalizing tech practices to protect the consumer, hey guys: You told me to stop freaking out and read what’s actually coming out of China. So I’m doing that, and no, I’m not freaked out since my exposure in Chinese tech stocks is zero, but are we gonna pretend this isn’t a big deal?
Against the sissified society and the Return to Red
This will be a revolution that cleanses all. The capital markets will no longer be a haven for overnight riches. The cultural markets will no longer be a paradise for sissified stars. News commentary will no longer give quarter to worship of the west. We are seeing a return to the Red, the return to heroism, a return to a full-blooded spirit. Clear away the future of chaos and build a clear, healthy, masculine, aggressive culture for the people.
The more I translate, the less I feel a need to comment. Different people will have different interpretations of what an editorial with this kind of language signifies. Does it simply mean the end to China’s gilded age, or a more aggressive and martial posture? People keep saying “stop calling it the cultural revolution 2.0.” Well I never did. All I’m doing is translate, with some condensation but keeping to the spirit of the original. If I have done wrong in my translation inserted to too much of my own thoughts, please refer to the original and kindly correct me.
We’ll strike Big Capital, monopolistic platforms and stop letting bad money drive out good. We will guide the flow of capital towards real industry, towards high tech, towards manufacturing. We will also crush the chaos in the education sector that started in the after-school tutoring business and allow education to truly return to being fair and egalitarian. Ordinary folks must be given the opportunity to climb.
This part is actually kind of…based? And I say that as a self-identified neoliberal. Inequality IS a problem that we are struggling with all over the world, and while China’s using some strong medicine that is against our values in the west, I don’t disagree with the goal of letting more people take their share of the prosperity of China that, in the end, comes from their labor.
However, as Paul Krugman found out to his eternal embarrassment, you don’t bet against the economic power of the internet. What will be the long-term consequences of crushing 21st century tech and returning to the embrace of 20th century tech?
In the future we will furthermore deal with the high cost of housing and medical care and thoroughly flatten education, medical care and housing. We’re not going to do the “kill of the rich to aide the poor” thing. But we will take care of the increase in income inequality. Common prosperity is to let the ordinary labor or partake in a bigger share of society’s riches.
Oh good. The no-killing part is definitely an improvement from the past.
This revolution will bring a whole new atmosphere. What has happened so far is by far not enough. We will use every means at our disposal to crush the phenomenon of the previous society, like star-chasing, fan circuits, the “little fresh meat” stars and the sissies. Our cultural and entertainment spheres will be upright. Our cultural workers and artists and filmmakers must go down to the grass roots, and let the ordinary laborer and people become the main characters of art and literature.
This is where I start feeling a bit 😬 again. Again, I’m sympathetic to part of this narrative: You can’t let society become a playground for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer despite grinding labor. Better have less growth that is stable and shared. But it’s coming in with some nasty undertones. All this “desissfication” talk, combined with crackdown on LGBT communities and feminism and gamers is giving me the heebs and the jeebs. What business is it of mine? Not my country! (Well I’m Taiwanese so I guess they WOULD say it is my country but let’s not Go There).
Yes, not my country. But illiberalism rising anywhere in the world, be it Saudi Arabia to the United States to China IS my business. Because before I am a Taiwanese or an American (which I am both) I am a human being concerned for other human beings.
What it does mean for the rest of the world
OK. So it looks like it’s the end of the Gilded Age for China, at least for one set of actors. Color me cynical if I don’t think it means foie gras, champagne and fancy handbag sales are ACTUALLY going to fall in Beijing and Shanghai. Culturally it looks like we can brace for a new round of political correctness, but let’s face it, Chinese movies haven’t been good for decades, so what’s really the loss to the world?
Who knows! Chinese movies might actually get better! At least we won’t see any more of the like of Gong Shou Dao (2017): The film where Chinese billionaire Jack Ma (now suuuuuuper canceled) defeats multiple famed action stars paid by Ma to be in his movie.
As Accented Cinema’s priceless dry commentary puts it, “as China’s GDP skyrocketed and so many more people got rich and could make movies. But not everybody had a story to tell.”
China under siege
As we in the west become increasingly nervous at what looks like a massive escalation in aggression in their diplomatic posture, it’s worth putting ourselves in their shoes for a minute and try and perceive recent world events from their perspective.
China faces an increasingly complicated and harsh international environment. America is implementing increasingly severe military threats and economic, technological and financial attacks. We are being politically and diplomatically encircled. They are initiating biological warfare, internet warfare, warfare in the sphere of opinion, and in space. More and more through the fifth column within China, they are attempting to initiate a color revolution.
Hysterical language that drifts into fantasy (“biological warfare”😒)? Yes. But also reflecting a truth not enough acknowledged: Wars are usually started with both belligerents convinced that “they started it first.” And lets face it, if you were China and one of your most precious companies were destroyed by the stroke of a pen with an US executive order, would you not interpret that as a shot across the bow?
If at this juncture, we are still relying on our grand capitalist to stand up against imperialism and hegemony, if we are still indulging in US-centric tittytainment, our youths will lose their strength and masculine vigor. We would not need our enemy to strike before we fall. Just like the Soviet Union of old, we would let our country fall, our riches to be raided and our people to fall into dismal disaster.
(Where have I heard this before. Oh! WE MUST PRESERVE OUR PRECIOUS BODILY FLUIDS, amirite?)
This is why we have to have this profound revolution in China. It’s exactly to counter the savage and ferocious attack America already initiated against China.
Every one can feel, a profound social revolution has begun. Not just in the financial markets, and not just in entertainment. We will sweep away all that is dried up and rotten, and scrape our infected wounds to the bone. We will clean house and let in fresh air, for the health of society and for the main body of society feel glad in body and spirit. (Fin)
A great nation closes ranks
I have done my work of translating the “Profound Revolution” editorial. I struggle to come up with a conclusion beyond “China is turning in on itself” big time. Anybody who SAY they can tell you exactly what it mean for now is probably partisan or lying. In fact, those who know the most seem to be the most unsure.
There are respected commentators even within the Chinese Tech world that are not SUPER bothered.
“Having spent August actually talking to some senior people in tech industry. There is a lot of misinformation published by reputable western papers. The public companies have refuted these news on their own website,” said Li, who thinks we should talk about Chinese tech as ‘China with tech characteristics rather than tech with Chinese Characteristics.”
Another very considered commentator with deep knowledge on Chinese tech is encouraging us to think of the crackdowns as policy in an objective way.
The thing about reporting in China is it comes in fits and starts. Trends have to have swelled for a LOOOOONG time in China before coverage breaks in the west, which tends to create mass hysteria. At the same time, the opposite is true: by the time a trend truly makes it on the western radar, it’s probably been going on for a long, long time.
What’s coming next after the Great Cancellation? I guess we better stay tuned.
Another big news out of China today is the banning of all idol-style competition TV shows (e.g. 偶像練習生 or 青春有你), and the focus on idols but not singer competitions suggests the main objection is to the genderless aesthetics popular among today's teens. Along with the crackdown on video games or feminism, I think we can identify an overall theme of a misogynistic view over gender expression (athletes for example are highlighted in state media).
Zhao's case is particular since usually people know why an artist is cancelled before she was removed from platforms, but chances are we will know more in the coming months. I find the speculations around the Alibaba crackdown most likely. But as you said the Chinese system is a black box; often you can only test with different input and observe the output without knowing how it works within. It actually reminds one of Chinese Medicine or Deep Learning AI.
If I may make one final suggestion, reading Blue media in Taiwan is often a better way to keep up with authentic news coming out of China. Like you said it's hard to stomach pure propaganda, and we on the outside often have trouble identifying the coding or double speak anyways.
I got a lot out of this article, thank you! The points you discussed worked in unison to help organize my thoughts which were until then anything but. I explained all of it, but was rejected for too long of a comment. Rather than editing it into incomprehensibility, I though why not introduce your readers to the magic of decentralized storage, anyone can download my longwinded PDF here: https://link.us1.storjshare.io/jvf45nv4srbkkllqctmraaiwhxxa/taipology%2FTaipology%20comment%20too%20long___.pdf