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Economic decoupling between China and the West has been much talked about as well as put into action over the last few years; cultural decoupling has been the subject of much less attention – although there have been noisy arguments about the Confucius Institutes.

As the Beijing Winter Olympics approaches (opening is 4th February) and the city comes into focus internationally, it is not a bad moment to look at cultural decoupling in Beijing and more generally how its cultural life is shaped by government attitudes.

It may be that Covid itself has prompted some decoupling. In 2020, global auction sales of Chinese art and antiques decreased by a third compared with the previous year. Down 43% in North America; – 16% in Europe. Are these figures a sign that Western collectors’ interests have been shaped by a Western narrative about China and Covid?
On the other hand, in China itself, sales of Chinese art rose by 15%. Have Chinese collectors increased their investment in Chinese art because they could not  access foreign art? Or was buying domestic art a patriotic act as the country was attacked over the origins of the pandemic? Or has art become a haven for investment now the real estate sector is under a cloud?

If Covid and the political fall-out may be one of the sources of some decoupling, it is not the main one. Foreign culture, especially from the US, is in the political  crosshairs. Revenue from Hollywood blockbusters is 70% down on pre-Covid times and as we write, there is only one Hollywood film screening in Beijing (The Matrix Resurrections). No Marvel Comics film has been released in China, including in Beijing, since 2019.
In the immediate post-war period France felt that American cinema was polluting its native values and insisted on a quota for American films. This appears to be the case too with China but it’s part of a much larger push against foreign culture by the Chinese government.

Traditionally museums in China have had to ‘clear’ an exhibition by a foreign artist with the Cultural Bureau (文化部) – with full details of the artist’s CV, the works etc. But over the last two or three years this has been extended even to the smallest private gallery. One Beijing museum professional told us that while foreign artists may be sought after by museums, attractive to audiences and eagerly supported by foreign embassies, they are not favoured by the Chinese government. On the other hand, foreign architects such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster (whose Datong Art Museum, near the new Beijing airport, has just opened – see image below) are still shaping the Chinese landscape; and a recent Art Newspaper piece claimed that Western galleries were ‘buying’ space for their Western artists in too many Chinese museums, squeezing out Chinese artists. Rhetoric and action are not always the same thing.

Independent contemporary popular music venues in Beijing which often used to showcase foreign musicians have certainly not fared well. Many of them, which would host up to 500 people, were closed before Covid with some bureaucratic explanation –  even though they often withdrew from contemporary pop and rock and hosted international folk music supplied by embassies, to provide themselves with a modicum of  protection.
Now there are now only ten independent Live Music venues (named after their Japanese equivalents) and five music clubs left in Beijing. Independent cultural enterprises are under serious pressure.

One litmus test of how much control the government wants to exercise is what happens to private museums and not-for-profit spaces, which have been such an important part of Beijing’s cultural life, not least as a conduit for international art and as a platform for young Chinese artists.

The Macalline Art Center (see image above right) has just opened, Fen Sonic HQ opens in May and X Museum opened in 2020.

Such private museums have enjoyed a degree of latitude in the past – they have been more flexible, innovative and calculatedly risk taking. Word has it that the Beijing art sector might be encouraged to focus on ink art – the great traditional medium in China and favoured by the government. If private museums move in that direction it will be a further sign of the government times. (Recently, sexuality and ‘queer art’ have been seen as a problem by the authorities.)

High culture may be in the sights of the government, but nothing compared to the entertainment industry. A Beijing independent film director / actor told us that she wants to exit the sector. There is no latitude to do anything interesting, she said.
Long before Xi Jinping came to power, a Beijinger decided to acquire the license for the Wedding TV channel – not a bad commercial decision since there are around 10 million Chinese weddings each year. The deal was never completed  because the request for a license was rejected on the basis that the channel could be an alternative focus for loyalty in the country.

The present Chinese government is simply acting on the same understanding when it dissolves online fan groups that coalesce around an ‘idol’ and can mobilise quickly on social media. In the early days of the Wuhan lockdown, one group supplied masks to the city much quicker than the Chinese Red Cross Society. There is no doubt that the fan groups can also be money-making machines for the organisers and at times can prompt anti-social behaviour – and that is the reason given for the regulation. But there is also a purification agenda –  a desire to purge the entertainment sector of ‘fake, ugly and evil values’ and to establish a ‘correct beauty standard’. ‘Sissy’ idols or men who wear make-up or act feminine are a particular target (National Radio and Television Administration, 2021). With youth unemployment (16-24) running at more than 13%, this too may help to explain the government’s desire to ’guide’ this part of the population. Below, an image of the 2018 Idol Producer (偶像练习生).

The strategy with idols is not always to control but also to coopt. It is fascinating to watch how the government has latched on to certain figures within the idol community and given them a platform to promote the Olympics. Wang Yibo, pop-idol and television star, is such a figure, one of the ambassadors of the Beijing Winter Games. Twenty four years old, he was named 2nd in Forbes China Celebrity List in 2021, has more than 37 million Weibo followers, is global brand ambassador for Anta (a huge Chinese sportsware company) and cut his ties this year with Nike over its stance over Xinjiang cotton.
A few years he was so different. He began his career in UNIQ, a mixed South-Korean/Chinese band, and with his long blond hair, jewellery and make-up would have been castigated as a ‘sissy’ man. It’s worth saying that many governments across the last hundred years or so have  worried about a crisis in masculinity – not least the British government in the early twentieth century.
Wang Yibo has remade himself into the very icon of a modern acceptable Chinese star. He has now undyed his hair, cut it short and released in October a song ‘Flying winter’, 100 days before the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps, crucially, he has also discovered a sporting side to himself – he is now a motorcycle racer and snowboarder – giving his masculine credentials an extra boost. (Wang Yibo, above left, seven years ago; above right, now.)
This make-over seems to have done his popularity no harm. In February 2021, without notice, he released a song titled ‘Youth Comes in Time’ which referenced topics from 5G to poverty alleviation – hardly the stuff of romance but on-government-message. Weibo was awash with praise for his ‘positive energy’ – shorthand for the government’s own predilection for culture with a positive message.

The government is clearly trying to reengineer what counts as culture. Wang Yibo is one example; a slew of patriotic films are another. The Battle at Lake Changjin opened in November – a Korean War film with the US as the enemy.
It became the highest ever grossing film in the history of Chinese cinema. The next film of the filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the Opening Ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and will reprise his role at the Opening of the forthcoming Games, is Sharpshooters, another film set in the Korean War. It is scheduled to open on the first day of the Chinese New Year. Clearly patriotic culture has popular traction in Chinese culture, with the US as the enemy. But post-war US cinema had a habit of staging Korean War films such as The Manchurian Candidate with the Chinese as the bad guys.
Of course this is not to downplay the argument that when the powerful Chinese State puts its weight behind culture, the odds may be on whatever culture it supports becoming a success (although the calamitous box office failure of the film Confucius in competition with Avatar, shows this is not always the case). It is worth adding that embassy cultural programmes in Beijing are under pressure. The weekly French cinema screenings have not been happening.The larger implications of the Chinese government’s involvement in what in the West we might call ‘culture wars’ are legion. Here are just three.
If the variety of cultural expression continues to be constrained, only certain forms of creativity tolerated, and intercourse with foreign cultures diminished, how will this impact the creativity that China needs to move up the economic value chain?Second, decoupling will make it difficult for China to remind the West just how much of Western modern culture is influenced by Asian and particularly Chinese culture – from Puccini to John Cage, from ceramics to American Abstract painting, from Schopenhauer to Pound.Third, China cares deeply about its soft power reach. But will government sanctioned culture attract and compel  foreign audiences? In the 50s, the American government may have spent huge sums of money supporting ‘official’ American culture during the Cold War. But it was Hollywood, rock n roll and American youth style that captured and held the world’s attention.
A note on Covid and employment in the Beijing cultural sector. Independent surveys are hardly encouraged so it is difficult to secure reliable information. Nevertheless, if we just take the cinema sector – cinemas in Beijing have been closed eight times since the beginning of the pandemic (the longest period Jan-August 2020) and one cinema complex has had to lay off eighty per cent of its staff. The financial support for the cinema sector has been extremely modest.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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