China mobilizes celeb culture to push Taiwan policy

Leading Chinese stars have rushed online to repost Beijing’s official line on the state of the democratic island

China’s government has a new ally when it comes to pushing its official line on Taiwan – celebrities.

Tension over the status of the island, which is claimed by Beijing as part of its “One China” principle, has been exacerbated by a series of recent incidents.

They include a high-profile visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and comments by President Joe Biden suggesting the United States would be prepared to defend the island “militarily.”

It has led to an angry response from officials in Beijing, who have accused the US of violating its commitment to abide by its “One China” policy. But it has also seen a renewed propaganda push aimed at getting the message of unification to the Chinese and Taiwanese public.

As experts in Chinese cultural politics, we have noted how the highly contentious series of events not only reshaped the regional dynamics around Taiwan but also permeated into popular culture in China. This has involved celebrities circulating “One China” messaging to fans and social media followers.

It forms part of a wider trend that we have researched and forms the basis of a forthcoming article published in China Quarterly on Chinese celebrities’ political signaling.

According to our analysis, 85% of the top 218 celebrities in China reposted official government messages on their social media account at least once over a six-month period in the second half of 2021.

State media

This phenomenon has continued into 2022 and was seen during and after the Pelosi visit.

On August 2, the day that Pelosi landed in Taiwan, the state media outlet China Central Television, or CCTV, sent out a post on Weibo, a Chinese-owned Twitter-like social media platform, with the message “there is only one China in the World.”

Within hours, Chinese celebrities started to repost this message to their extensive networks of followers. Those doing so included Xie Na, a 41-year-old popular TV host and actress with 128 million followers on Weibo. Jackson Yee, a 22-year-old singer, dancer and actor ranked the No.1 celebrity in Forbes’ 2021 Chinese Celebrity List, was another.

Likewise, Taiwan celebrities such as Chen Qiaoen and Wu Qilong also retweeted this message, though about a day later. Taiwan celebrities who reposted the message were lauded by Chinese media and fans for taking a clear political stance.

An article in the Chinese tabloid Global Times quoted an online fan’s praise for them for reposting the One China message: “Well done! Daring to show support at this moment must be sincere.”

One celebrity news outlet went as far as to post an article that listed more than 20 Taiwan celebrities who reposted “One China” and praised them for “fulfilling the responsibility to voice political support.”

The article also listed 11 Taiwanese celebrities who did not retweet the “One China” message, suggesting that fans will judge them accordingly.

President Xi Jinping is set for a third term in office. Photo: Courtesy Xinhua

Indeed, celebrities who did not repost the state-media message were called out for their silence, with fans demanding that they show support for the government.

Hebe Tien, a well-known Taiwanese singer with 13 million followers on Weibo, was among those targeted by angry Chinese fans and media.

Still, Chinese celebrities haven’t always been so politically active on social media when it comes to issues like Taiwan.

Actors, singers and TV personalities use Weibo, which has close to 600 million active monthly users, to share snippets about their personal lives, promote work, endorse commercial products and connect with fans. But until the mid-2010s, they rarely engaged in politics.

But since the start of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s second term in 2017, more and more celebrities have used their accounts to repost official state messages.

This is especially true on important political anniversaries, such as the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China.

For instance, on July 1, 2021, Yang Mi, an actress with 112 million followers on Weibo, reposted CCTV’s quotation from Xi marking the centennial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party:

“When a people have ideals, their country will have strength, and their nation will have a bright future.”

These celebrity reposts often receive hundreds of thousands of user engagements, including reposts, comments, and likes. This effectively promotes official messages to an exponentially larger social media network.

Entertainment industry

CCTV’s Weibo account, which sent out the “One China” message to coincide with Pelosi’s visit, has 130 million followers. Xie Na, a leading pro-Beijing celebrity, alone has 128 million followers – and she is one of many who reposted the message.

As we argue in our forthcoming article Chinese Celebrities’ Political Signaling on Weibo, Chinese celebrities started to repost official messages when it became important for their career prospects to do so.

As the entertainment industry rapidly grew in the 2000s, the Chinese government began to develop explicit policies to regulate and control celebrities, their cultural products, media platforms, fan groups, and professional associations.

In 2014, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a notice to require all broadcasting platforms to block “tainted artists” – celebrities who engage in illegal behavior or actions deemed by the government to be problematic.

These included drug use, prostitution, tax evasion, extramarital affairs and political incorrectness. The last category includes supporting Hong Kong or Taiwan independence.

Since then, the phrase “tainted artists” has entered public discourse and is used by people online to criticize celebrities.

The Forbes annual Chinese Celebrity List. Image: Forbes

Under tightening political control, Chinese celebrities have fostered what scholars Jian Xu and Ling Yang have described as “a neoliberal subjectivity with Chinese characteristics.” In other words, Chinese celebrities see pleasing the state as an effective way to reach a market.

Celebrities endorsed by the ruling Communist Party are offered rare opportunities to perform on state television, star in state-sponsored films and TV dramas, serve ambassadorial roles for government agencies and attend important national conferences.

As such, celebrities have strong incentives to satisfy state demands in pursuit of career, fame and wealth. It is important to acknowledge also that some celebrities may sincerely support the government and want to promote its policies.

Either way, the majority of celebrities on Weibo are echoing government positions such as the “One China” message.

Our analysis found that just 15% of the top 218 celebrities – a list we compiled by reviewing both the Forbes “China Celebrities Annual List” from 2004 to 2020 and the size of online following – failed to repost any official government message in the six months we analyzed from June to November 2021.

Among those who reposted, the frequency of reposts varied from just one to 33 times during the six months.

Politically critical

Our analysis found that younger celebrities with more followers tend to repost official messages more. This finding challenges the conventional wisdom that young people tend to be more politically critical and rebellious.

It also chimes with a study of Chinese public opinion that found that the Xi generation – those who came of age in the past decade – are more oriented toward authoritarianism than preceding generations.

The reposting of official state messages by celebrities could have far-reaching ramifications.

When politically sensitive events occur, Chinese citizens often go to celebrities’ Weibo accounts to discern their stance. On the issue of Taiwan, the heightened nationalist sentiments seemingly prompted users to monitor celebrities and expect them to express support for the Chinese government.

Moreover, the reposting of official messages by celebrities serves to transform popular culture into a key instrument by which the Chinese government can legitimize its position on sensitive issues.

Dan Chen is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond. Gengsong Gao is an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Richmond.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.