China is purging celebrities and tech billionaires. But the problem is bigger than ‘sissy men’

A woman on her electric-powered scooter films a large video screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping.
A woman records a video screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 2021.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)
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Celebrity names are vanishing from the credits of TV shows. Effeminate male idols — “sissy boys” — have been vilified. Tech moguls have been urged to donate billions of dollars to philanthropy. And kids went back to school last week with new rules banning foreign textbooks and requiring more classes on the ideology of leader Xi Jinping.

The changes are part of Xi’s new “common prosperity” campaign to narrow the gap between rich and poor and create “material and spiritual wealth.”

It’s a noble-sounding slogan. But it looks more like a top-down purification than a strategy for economic reform. Xi is fixed on purging society of greed, corruption and moral failings he views as threats to socialism. Freewheeling capitalists and Western influences have become targets, while structural issues such as bloated state-owned companies and a weak social safety net are left unaddressed.

That has raised questions about whether common prosperity is less a design to reduce inequality than a way to concentrate political power and ideological control while blaming the rich and famous for the nation’s ills. Over the last month, Xi has cracked down on tech, education and entertainment. He has called for corporations and wealthy individuals to “give back more to society” at a time when the Communist Party is under pressure as the economy cools.

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Tech titans have scrambled to respond. Tencent and Alibaba have each pledged more than $15.5 billion to “common prosperity” initiatives. The founders of ByteDance, Pinduoduo and Xiaomi have also donated millions to charity.

Entertainers and entrepreneurs have attracted cult followings in China over the last few decades as their wealth burgeoned along with the country’s rapid growth. Bookstores sold stacks of memoirs by tech billionaires who preached a gospel of self-made success. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma opened an elite academy to cultivate entrepreneurs.

Celebrity fan clubs became networks of mass mobilization, rallying millions of members to support their idols online with clicks and money. Such clubs were publicly praised last year when they outperformed the Chinese Red Cross Society in sending aid to Wuhan during its coronavirus lockdown.

But the winds have suddenly shifted.

Many of China’s young generation — the ‘ants’ born since the 1990s — have grown suspicious of capitalism and the inequality it spawns.

In August, actress Zheng Shuang was fined $46 million for tax evasion. Actor Zhang Zhehan was banned after photos circulated of him at a controversial war shrine in Japan. Billionaire actress Zhao Wei also disappeared from the Chinese internet last month with no official explanation. The National Radio and Television Administration has released an eight-point plan to purge the entertainment sector of celebrities of “fake, ugly and evil values.”

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Entertainers should not use their fame for profit or be well paid, the plan said. They should promote traditional culture and “establish a correct beauty standard,” it said, singling out “sissy idols,” or men who wear makeup or act feminine, as a particular offense.

State-affiliated researcher Jiang Yu said in a recent interview with the party’s anti-corruption commission that the “irrational expansion of capital” had corrupted China through the “much-hated” realms of celebrity fan culture, tech monopolies and private tutoring, which gives wealthier and middle-class students an unfair edge. He warned of the influence of big money manipulating culture and the arts.

“If capital is allowed to irrationally expand in the literary and art world, art and literature will lose their function of serving the people and socialism, and the spiritual home of the Chinese nation will collapse,” he said.

Several dozen celebrities signed a public statement for “literary and art workers” in Beijing last month. Movie stars Zhou Dongyu and Du Jiang read the statement aloud, condemning fan culture and the “deformed aesthetics” of “sissy men” as signs that entertainers had become “slaves of the market.”

China, the world’s largest box office, is using its market power to influence Hollywood and project the Communist Party’s voice.

Such grandiose language is common in Communist Party messages, but last week the rhetoric reached ominous heights when eight major party and state media outlets republished a commentary by a little-known blogger named Li Guangman calling the series of crackdowns and new focus on common prosperity a “profound revolution.”

“This change will wash away all the dust,” he said. “The capital market will no longer be a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight. The cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy-man stars. The news and public opinion will no longer worship Western culture. It is the return of red, of heroes, of hot-bloodedness.”

The commentary sparked anxiety about whether a second Cultural Revolution was coming. A few state voices appeared to say no. Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, criticized Li on Weibo for using “exaggerated language.” But Li’s rant was not retracted or censored, implying authorities’ tacit approval.

Xi governs through top-down commands that do not involve civil society, free press or the rule of law. He views such openness and liberties as Western and an ideological threat to the Communist Party’s power. Instead, his party operates on propaganda and punishment, with sweeping purges and micromanaged, grid-level surveillance and control.

That approach was strengthened by China’s claimed successes in containing COVID-19 and eradicating extreme poverty last year, said Bill Bikales, a developmental economist who advised United Nations agencies on China’s anti-poverty campaign.

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“This has reinforced their confidence, their hubris even, that they have a superior system that can do things nobody else has ever done,” Bikales said. “The solution to any problem is to double down on campaign-style approaches.”

Beijing says it has met its goal of wiping out extreme poverty in China by the end of 2020. The top-down effort has disrupted untold individual lives.

A long-term solution to reducing inequality, however, requires fewer slogans and deeper change, Bikales said. Policymakers need to cut spending on infrastructure and inefficient — often state-owned — enterprises, and redirect it to social protections. They should also reform the hukou system that blocks rural migrants from accessing the same benefits as urban residents. But Chinese leaders seem to be “avoiding those hard choices,” Bikales said, and are instead squeezing the private sector for donations.

That could harm the Chinese economy, scaring companies that created millions of jobs at a time when China needs them the most. Urban unemployment among Chinese ages 16 to 24 is at 16.2%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than triple the national urban jobless rate of 5.1%.

Those statistics do not include the hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers who were struggling with a changing economy even before the pandemic hit. Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist who spent three decades working on rural development in China, said a crisis is afflicting “the China we don’t see.”

As wages rise, labor-intensive factory jobs are moving overseas. Those companies that remain are upgrading with more automation. They need fewer, better-educated workers. China needs to invest in rural education so that workers can move into higher-skill jobs, Rozelle said.

“I don’t think any of these policies that they’re doing are addressing the real underlying issues,” Rozelle said.

As China’s outbreak eases, migrants are bearing the brunt of the lockdown’s economic cost.

TV stars and tech billionaires are easy scapegoats for public anger as China’s economy slows. But targeting them may be an attempt to distract from the growing fear among Chinese families that the era of each generation having a better life than the one before is over. This unease is putting increasing pressure on the party.

“There is anxiety about my kids in the future,” said Julia, a therapist in Shanghai who asked that only her first name be used for safety reasons. Even in China’s wealthiest city, middle-class parents fear that sudden changes will send their families back into poverty, she said: “All it takes is if they get married and don’t have the money to afford housing, or if one person in the family has a big surgery, for the family to go from pretty wealthy to nothing overnight.”

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That sense of insecurity and shrinking opportunity is what drives China’s hyper-competitive educational system, and why acts such as eliminating private tutoring — another recent crackdown target — will not relieve pressure on parents and students who see schooling as a way to ensure their futures.

It has conversely increased teacher workloads and raised middle-class parents’ fears that their children will fall behind, said Jiang Xueqin, a Chengdu-based consultant who has worked in Chinese education since 2008.

“As long as you have this social structure where a few people have all the power, you’ll always have a middle class which is very anxious, very fragile and very insecure. They’re always going to look for ways to game the system,” Jiang said. “The pie is getting smaller and you need to fight for the scraps.”

Ziyu Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed research to this report.