Chinese Government’s Push for Masculinity Targets Boy Bands, Online Influencers

Members of Uniq attend a fan sign event in Shanghai, 2015, source: Wikimedia Commons

In early September, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) issued a new regulatory notice on “Further Strengthening Management of Cultural Programs and their Staff.” The regulation directs media outlets to “resolutely reject persons who violate laws and morality” including those who exhibit “abnormal aesthetics” (畸形审美, jixing shenmei) (NRTA, September 2; China Law Translate, September 2). The notice offers only one example of “abnormal aesthetics”-“niangpao” (娘炮) literally “girlie gun”,  derogatory cyberslang for men who do not display a traditional masculine aesthetic (sometimes translated as “sissy” or “girlie man”, see UPenn Language Log). Chinese broadcasters, online media outlets and individual performers quickly conformed to the NRTA’s guidance. For example, singer songwriter Cai Xukun (蔡徐坤) commonly known as “KUN” did a photoshoot where he swapped his trademark eyeliner and dyed hair for a manbun and a muscle shirt. The style change earned KUN praise in online media for looking “more masculine” and working to change his “negative image” as someone with a “girly” (娘, niang) style (Netease, September 16).

The crackdown on “abnormal aesthetics” is part of a push by the state to reshape the values of Chinese youth. In re-emphasizing traditional gender roles, China’s leaders are seeking to increase young people’s desire to marry and increase the birth rate to address domestic economic and demographic challenges; they also seek to instill a “heroic spirit” to defend the nation against geopolitical threats from abroad (University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (UCASS), March 11). The promotion of masculinity and physical culture has also informed efforts to lighten students’ academic burdens and increase time allocated to physical fitness in schools. For example, on October 19 the National People’s Congress issued a draft version of a forthcoming Sports Law, which will require schools to incorporate physical education into their curriculum, and strongly stipulates that these classes not to be used simply for additional study or tutoring time (Global Times, October 21).

There is also an element of political control in the crackdown on media figures deemed insufficiently masculine. Many of the performers who have been targeted for criticism or banned from social or broadcast media are popular and have huge online “fandoms” (饭圈,fanquan). At a time when the party is increasingly uncomfortable with alternative centers of cultural and social influence, the state has sought both to exercise greater control over media stars’ personal behavior and to root out the “chaotic influence” of online fandom culture. For example, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has sought to promote a clean internet by eliminating online fan rankings on Weibo and other sites (People’s Daily, August 28).

Cleaning Up Cyberspace

The tightening of China’s online media environment accelerated in May, when CAC launched Operation Qinglang (“clear and bright”) (“清朗”系列专项行动, qinglang xilie zhuanxiang xingdong)- a series of regulatory actions to “clean up” (大扫除, dasaochu) the internet (CAC, May 8). CAC Vice Minister Sheng Ronghua (盛荣华) said “Operation Qinglang” strives to align internet governance with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s vision of cyberspace as “the common spiritual home of hundreds of millions of people.” Sheng stressed the need to follow Xi’s directive that if  “Cyberspace has a clear sky and a good ecology it is in the interests of the people, but if cyberspace is smoggy and ecologically deteriorating, this is not in the interests of the people.” Measures undertaken through Operation Qinglang include “controlling abuse of algorithms, purifying the online media environment for youth, and rectifying the “chaos of online entertainment and “ hotspot [i.e. popularity] rankings” and “eliminating unhealthy Fandoms” (CAC, May 8).  Authorities’ determination to shield minors from ostensibly impure online influences foreshadowed steps such as CAC’s July decision to ban users under the age of sixteen from appearing on streaming services, and the National Press and Publication Administration’s determination to limit minors’ access to electronic games to 8:00-9:00 PM on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and on legal holidays (CAC, July 21; NPAA, August 30).

Boy Band Battles

A wide variety of personal styles exist in China’s popular music scene. Some established stars like Jay Chou have a more traditionally masculine appearance, but boy bands like R1SE and TFBOYS with more gender neutral styles have also attracted devoted followings (Tencent Youtube, September 23, 2019; TFBOYS Youtube Channel). Chinese boy bands have been doubly struck by the recent blacklisting of feminine-looking men in media, and the crackdown on celebrity fan clubs. State media is full of stories of young people who get caught up in online fan groups and are led astray by misplaced attraction to stars. For example, a China Youth Daily report details how young fans of Wang Yibo (王一博), frontman for the Chinese-Korean boy band, Uniq, became caught up in predatory fan culture and were swindled out of their money by a con artist posing as the singer (China Youth Daily, October 13).

The current media crackdown not only targets fan clubs of Chinese stars, but has also shut down groups dedicated to hugely popular K-pop groups like BTS (SCMP, September 6). This has generated so much concern in South Korea that the Chinese Embassy in Seoul issued a clarification that Operation Qinglang does not target Korea’s “Hallyu” culture industry.  Per the Embassy, the crackdown addresses the domestic problem of “fandoms” using “abusive language, slander and malicious marketing” and is “in no way meant to influence China”s relations with other countries.”  (Korea JoongAng Daily, September 9).

A New Scapegoat?

Last month a caustic blog post entitled “Can you still be a Niangpao Vlogger?” attracted 31.2 million hits. The post cheers Douyin’s (Tik Tok)  ban of an influencer named Kang Yaya (康雅雅)who often dressed as a woman on the popular video-sharing platform (Sohu, October 11). The post notes Kang has apologized for his “negative social impact” in promoting “men pretending to be women” (男扮女, nan ban nu). It also lauds the removal of another performer Feng Xiaoyi (风小逸) for providing “no content value” and even “more disgustingly, guiding underage users to give him rewards.”

In addition to banning “niang pao” from media platforms, state public morality propaganda has also charged “effeminate men” with weakening the nation. In a March 2021 interview with Beijing Youth Daily, Zhang Shuhua, an expert of at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference lamented that popular entertainment is filled with men wearing makeup or “小鲜肉”(xiao yangrou)-internet slang for handsome but effeminate men, which damages the “national spirit” (UCASS, March 11) Zhang asserts that as the international environment is increasingly dominated by competition between civilizations and nations, China must produce young people who are “sober, firm-willed, physically strong, and full of masculine vigor.”  Zhang expressed support for the Ministry of Education’s proposal to “Prevent the Feminization of Male Adolescents,” stating “boys must be masculine” (男孩子 就 要 阳刚, nanhaizi jiu yao yanggang). Zhang raises three concerns over the “feminizing” influence of contemporary culture: 1) it conveys the wrong aesthetics and values; 2) it leads to “degeneration of the socialist spirit”  and saps  willingness of Chinese youth to defend the motherland; and 3) it could foster a “deformed view of marriage and love, which will lower the birthrate, alter the population structure, and cast a shadow over the country’s future.”

Chinese state media also promotes the conspiracy theory that feminine styles catching on among Chinese males is actually a product of influence operations undertaken by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (The Times, October 23, 2019). Nationalist outlets like Global Times have extrapolated this conspiracy theory, claiming that the US introduced “feminine style” (阴柔风, yinrou feng) to transform Japan and South Korea’s societies in to pliant dependencies (Global Times, September 22).

The official turn to chauvinistic rhetoric and actions is seemingly a throwback to campaigns orchestrated by conservative hardliners such as Chen Yun, Deng Liqun and Hu Qiaomu against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeoisie liberalization” in the 1980s.  However, unlike at that time, under Xi Jinping, the current actions have the full support of party and state machinery. This may signal a longer-term embrace of a more retrograde approach to both gender relations and presentation, particularly as the party grapples with demographic challenges at home, and geopolitical challenges abroad.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on November 12, 2021 to clarify that the October 13 China Youth Daily was criticizing the fan culture surrounding Wang Yibo, and not the artist himself.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].