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China's Communist Party

Hip hop with Chinese characteristics: the Communist Party plan to hook millenials

Youth league throws its weight behind popular patriotic acts to win over a generation growing disillusioned with life and career prospects

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 3:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 2:41pm

In his baseball cap and baggy yellow T-shirt, the rap star Li Yijie – better known by his stage name “Pissy” – is an unlikely face of China’s strait-laced ruling Communist Party.

His group, Tianfu Shibian, has won fans and the support of the party’s youth league with songs like Force of Red and This is China that chime with President Xi Jinping’s nationalist vision of China and its place in the world.

Under Xi, set to begin a second five-year term at a key party congress next month, the once-hidebound Communist Party has sought to revitalise its role in society amid challenges to its traditional authority as the country gets richer, more mobile and more digitally connected.

The party’s modernising push also comes as a significant number of educated Chinese millennials, faced with a tough job market and high housing costs in big cities, have grown disillusioned about their career and life prospects.

The party’s effort extends increasingly to co-opting swathes of Chinese popular culture, such as Tianfu Shibian. At the same time, the government is cracking down on online content and entertainment that strays beyond the narrowing definitions of what is acceptable.

If the party “sticks to the old ways, it will only be more and more rejected by young people”, said Li, 23, whose band’s name means “Tianfu Incident”. Tianfu refers to the region around Chengdu, the band’s home city in western Sichuan province.

“We need to stand up and say: Why can’t younger folks be more patriotic?” he said.

“We need to step into this system,” he said. “If the post-1990 generations don’t enter the system, what is our country going to do?”

Beijing has the same idea.

It has latched onto other acts like TFBOYS, a wholesome boy band whose three members each have nearly 30 million followers on the popular microblog Weibo, to help spread the party message. The band often appears at events organised by the Communist Youth League, a training ground for elite cadres within the 90 million-strong Communist Party.

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“This kind of propaganda is a step forward that better suits the demands of its audience,” said Qiao Mu, a media researcher and former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

“Ordinary people are now rejecting the old preaching ways of the People’s Daily newspaper and CCTV News.”

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Tianfu Shibian shot to prominence last year voicing patriotic values in sometimes expletive-filled songs.

Force of Red attacked Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan.

“There’s only one China, HK, Taipei, they are my fellas,” ran the lyrics of the song in English, along with expletives aimed at Tsai and her government: “Far away from us you forget how to act. Even dogs know to come home with a thankful bark.”

The music video went viral, racking up more than 7 million views on the band’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo feed and catching the attention of the youth league,

The group’s next outing – This is China – came with production support from a youth league-backed music studio, though the band says there was no other financial backing.

The party connection deepened in September last year when Beijing sent the band to Woody Island, in a disputed area of the South China Sea, to film a music video rebuking an international tribunal ruling that rejected China’s claims in the area.

Li said the group now had ties across China’s propaganda-related agencies, and frequently dined with officials to exchange ideas. In return they’ve cleaned up their act to fit with Beijing’s drive towards more wholesome content.

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While their songs are unabashedly pro-China, Tianfu Shibian’s lyrics also touch on problems in the country, including tainted food, corruption, and pollution.

“Critique with rationality has its place in our songs, but we despise those who keep complaining blindly,” Li said.

Not everyone is a fan.

A song by the band praising the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was criticised online as glossing over the Cultural Revolution, a period of chaos and violence between 1966-1976 in which some historians estimate as many as 1.5 million people died.

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Others online have dismissed the band as a propaganda machine.

While countercultural or subversive art has long been at the fringes in China, it has all but been extinguished in the Xi era, with censors banning not only politically incorrect material but also clamping down on negativity.

Erstwhile rock 'n' roll rebels have cleaned up their acts to placate censors or been sidelined.

Zuoxiao Zuzhou – a music producer banned by the government from 2011-2014 for his connection to Ai Weiwei, China’s most internationally recognised artist – is one who has chosen to toe the government line.

“With great difficulty [Zuoxiao Zuzhou] has now established an image that is relatively acceptable to society,” his agent, Qin Baogui, said.

Cui Jian, whose 1986 Nothing to My Name became an unofficial anthem for students demonstrating during the deadly 1989 Tiananmen protests, pulled out of a show on Chinese state television in 2014 because he was told he would not be allowed to sing the song, his manager said at the time.

On the flip side, films and music that embrace the party have benefited from state support to tap China’s huge fan bases.

As for Li, he is working on a song in the run-up to next month’s party congress, called A Letter to President Xi Jinping.

However, Li has not joined the party himself – though it’s some distance from youthful rebellion.

“It’s too troublesome and complicated to write an application letter,” he said.