Why hip-hop scares the Chinese Communist Party The Economist, Jan 25th 2018
IN his bawdy rap song, “Christmas Eve”, Wang Hao switches from Chinese to English when praising his friends as “motherfucking dope”. Mr Wang’s fans clearly think he is dope, too. In September the musician (who uses the stage name PG One) was named as the joint winner of “Rap of China”, a hip-hop-themed talent show on iQiyi, a popular video-streaming site. During its 12-episode run the contest racked up a whopping 2.7bn views, turning its contestants into household names. This year, however, those revelling in their newfound fame are under fire. In December Mr Wang was accused of having an affair with a married actress; in an ensuing online furore, the Communist Youth League tweeted an attack on “Christmas Eve”, a three-year-old track that web users had dug out of Mr Wang’s back catalogue and that contained far coarser lyrics than anything he had aired on the show, including a reference to drug-taking. All his records have since disappeared from music-streaming services—while they are reviewed and revised, he says. Mr Wang apologised for the saltiness of his early work. He blamed it on the influence of “black music”. Meanwhile fortunes are also shifting for Mr Wang’s fellow winner, Zhou Yan, who goes by the name of GAI. On January 19th he failed to appear in the second episode of “Singer”, a star-studded variety show onto which he had been booked. Shortly beforehand China’s media regulator was reported to have circulated guidelines informing broadcasters that they should not feature hip-hop music or give airtime to people with questionable morals, undesirable ideologies or (gasp) visible tattoos. Rap music is not new to China. Its popularity has grown in fits and starts since the 1990s. In 2014 the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, said there was a place in China for imported art forms such as rap as long as they conveyed “healthy and upbeat” messages. In recent years rap-style delivery has even been adopted by the party in its propaganda videos. “Extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits” was a catchy line in a partially rapped ditty released last year in praise of China’s plans for state-led investment abroad, the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese rappers tend to avoid broaching sensitive political topics. Yet the authorities are clearly wary of the genre. Officials in Beijing are keen to promote Mandarin; they are not big fans of the local dialects that many rappers use. They also worry about the lewdness of some rap lyrics—a pretext that was used for blacklisting 120 rap songs in 2015 (when members of one well-known group were slung into jail for several days, apparently for being too risqué). Despite his approval of sanitised cultural imports, Mr Xi is far keener on traditional Chinese arts. Foreign pop idols are finding it harder to get permission to perform in China. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are among the most famous to have been barred in recent months. But the party’s puritanism is at odds with the tastes of young Chinese. It is also a headache for television producers. The creators of “Rap of China” had promised a second series. If officials persist in keeping colourful characters off-camera, making a triumphant return will be hard.