Listen to Mummy

Despite the “anaconda in the chandelier” and the heavy consequences of angering it, there are still people willing to do so – otherwise there wouldn’t have been over sixty Internet users in detention in 2005.[1] There is little doubt that only a very small fraction of the Chinese population identifies with the conscious struggle for freedom of information, but the limits on freedom of the press are occasionally publicly questioned. Thus, when in July 2006 the National People’s Congress discussed a draft law that threatened to fine the news media for reporting on outbreaks of disease, natural disasters, social disturbances or other so-called sudden incidents without permission from the local government, several articles appeared in both the printed and electronic press arguing against it – though on the basis of the danger of collusion between local officials and those responsible for the disasters, rather than of abstract rights or freedoms. Three months later, the law had not been formally introduced. The decision by the Film, Radio and Television Administration to submit video on the Internet to the usual approval procedure elicited widespread ridicule online, again for its obvious impracticality rather than its infringement on the freedom of information.[2] GAPP’s ban of eight books in 2007 drew widespread condemnation from bloggers, and some of their posts that argued against “thought censorship” – including one that compared GAPP’s deputy director, Wu Shulin, to Goebbels[3] – were not immediately deleted despite the GAPP circular ordering webmasters to do so. In unprecedented fashion, Zhang Yihe, the author of one of the banned books, sued GAPP. When GAPP’s director was replaced a few months later, some linked the decision to the protests.[4]

But the state directs cultural production as much by holding up positive models as by proscription. Back in the 1990s, the Propaganda Department instructed publishers to develop cartoons that “express Chinese traditions and values” (Guo 2004:32). The revival of costume dramas in the 2000s, with the express aim to rekindle pride in the heroes and emperors of the past, combined private investment with strong state support and a prominent position in the programming of cinemas and the Central Television. When The House of Flying Daggers opened in cinemas, no other major release was allowed during the first few weeks of its screening (Braester 2005). Central Television chose the drama series Wu of Han, Great Emperor (Han Wu Da Di), written by an author known for his writings on the military and described by its director as a “eulogy to patriotism and heroism,” as the New Year Day’s feature in 2005, and was rebroadcast twice in the same year despite low viewership rates. As Kong Shuyu writes, the venture was still profitable for the station because of advertising revenue, but the political nature of the decision to feature the series so prominently was highlighted in the praise heaped in official media, which labeled it an “orthodox (or correct, or positive) historical drama” (历史正剧).

In 2006, the Ministry of Culture announced a plan to prevent the spread of “unhealthy or obscene” music or songs with inappropriate sexual or political content in karaoke bars.[5] Complaining that too many songs that had not been submitted for the required approval and import permission procedure were being played around the country, the Ministry introduced a pilot scheme that is expected to expand nationwide, in three cities – Qingdao, Wuhan and Zhengzhou – karaoke bars are allowed to offer only songs from a government-approved central database.[6] The system will allow every legal music producer or importer and every karaoke parlour register with it, but it will “prioritize” the selection of “nationally produced” music. Registration is free, and karaoke operators will pay producers online for the right to use the songs.

The explanation of the system, while acknowledging that its primary objective is ensuring “healthy” content, astutely operates with a range of rationales that will resonate with different domestic and international constituencies: it refers to protecting China’s “cultural security” and “cultural sovereignty” (in the French spirit of the “cultural exemption” from the free trade of goods), to copyright protection (in line with American concerns) and to “better service for all consumers,” and, just in case anyone from the World Bank reads the document, adds that the new system will ensure the “sustainable development … of the karaoke industry.”[7] The system may benefit singers and labels, as until 2006, karaoke parlours paid no royalties for the use of songs. (In theory, the price of the software that contains the music they use includes this component, but most parlours use at least some pirated music. Simultaneously with the introduction of the online system but separately from it, the Bureau of Publication Rights.announced that they would have to pay a standard users’ fee to the Collective Management Association of the Chinese Audiovisual Business) But the Ministry of Culture stands to profit most from the system if it decides to introduce a registration fee in the future. According to newspaper reports, karaoke fans, parlour managers and even songwriters in Zhengzhou registered their discontent with the pilot project; some asked what criteria would be used for judging the “health status” of a song – whether, for example, “The Geisha from Osaka” would be banned – while others were concerned that the added costs will be passed down to customers.[8] An article on sohu.com – surrounded, as usual, with lurid photos and links to articles on sex captured on mobile phones and the secrets of women’s underwear – ironically asked whether the new system “will make us purer” and suggested that administrative intervention in this lucrative market may not be a good thing, especially without a transparent mechanism to distribute the profits.[9]

This initiative exploits the possibilities of the latest technology, but it is not in itself new: the Propaganda Department and GAPP had overseen the compilation of a thousand “healthy and optimistic” songs into a series of one hundred audio- and videotapes, VCDs and text booklets, called the All of China Sings Along Karaoke Song Pool (中华大家唱卡拉OK曲库), as early as 1991.[10] Indeed, at the very dawn of contemporary Chinese entertainment business, dance halls in Shenzhen adapted to the party line on cultural policy by including “folk” songs in their shows – in pop versions, but nonetheless satisfying the call to promote “national culture.” In the early 1990s, both GAPP and tourism authorities touted dance halls and karaoke halls as “an important element of the masses’ everyday cultural life” that had “improved socialist structure (sic: 社会主义结构), broadened the channels of knowledge transmission, enhanced the masses self-entertaining capacity (自娱能力), enriched society’s cultural activities.”[11] As Wang Gan writes,

dance halls have been appropriated by the state; they have become a frontline of constructing spiritual civilization. State ideology often established itself via self-censorship of dance hall managers. For example, after a leader of the provincial party committee called for using Mandarin in dance halls, the programme of a song contest in one of the dance halls was immediately changed to include more mainland songs…. The appearance of ‘Chinese folk songs and dances’ in dance halls was sufficient for the state to proclaim its occupation of that space. While dance hall managers playfully used state ideology and slogans to gain a living, the state also used the market operations of entrepreneurs to ensure the conformity of new social spaces.[12]

In 1997, Wang writes, the show at one particular dance hall in Shenzhen included the performances of Chinese “folk” music in pop form plus the Western oldie “Sailing” and a “Spanish dance”.

For the artists, being praised by the government is lucrative: with increasing attention to copyright and royalties, those who get performed most can make real money, as do the publishers of songs included in the government-approved database. For popular Taiwanese singers such as teenage heartthrob Jay Chou, whose song “The Snail” (蜗牛) has been included in a collection of songs approved for the patriotic education curriculum in Shanghai’s secondary schools, official approval may not matter so much financially – or in terms of access to facilities, as it does for filmmakers – but it does provide a measure of insurance against the Damocles sword of boycotts.[13] Chou has not escaped accusations of offending mainland fans and being pro-Japan, but they have failed to escalate into campaigns.[14] Most importantly, Chou’s inclusion in the Shanghai curriculum and, especially, his invitation to CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, signals to businesses that – unlike the unfortunate Yang Chenglin – he is “safe” to be used in commercials. Long-term contracts to represent the “face” of a brand are probably the largest source of revenue for stars, and Chou has half a dozen such contracts in mainland China, including with China Mobile, one of the world’s largest mobile telecommunications providers.[15]

Chou’s inclusion in a canon that traditionally consists of “revolutionary” and pseudo-folk tunes can be seen as a way of making patriotic education more “cool” for teenagers. It is also in perfect accord with China’s other gestures towards Taiwan’s business and media elite: as long as you do not oppose us – as an earlier Taiwanese star, Sherry Chang, had done by appearing at pro-independence rallies – you have a lot to gain. Indeed, Chou – the bestselling Chinese-language singer at the time of this writing – has made efforts to cultivate the image of a “good Chinese boy” and to learn the officious language of the mainland: on CCTV, he has professed his pride in being Chinese, love for ancient Chinese culture, respect for elders, and disapproval of idolizing everything Western, and called on Chinese-language singers to “unite.”[16] In November 2006, another of his songs, “Listen to Mummy” (听妈妈的话), was included in a patriotic education collection. Perhaps to show that China can say no to Madonna?

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[1] Sharon Hom and Amy Tai, “Human Rights and Spam: A China Case Study,” in Spam 2005: Technology, Law and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Center for Democracy and Technology, 2005, pp. 63-69. See report here.[2] For example here

[3] Wu Zailai 吴祚来 “章诒和与邬书林在卡拉OK唱歌” (Zhang Yihe and Wu Shulin sing karaoke), 29 January 2007. See post here.

[4] Jonathan Ansfield, “Was the Censor Dumped Over Censorship?” China Digital Times, 3 May 2007. See post here.

[5] Maureen Fan, “A Muted Rebel Yell Emerges in Nation Where Dissent Is Suppressed, Fads Rule,” The Washington Post, 9 August 2006, p. A01.

[6] David Eimer, “The Sound of Musical Policing,” South China Morning Post, 6 September 2006, A15.

[7] “’全国卡拉OK内容管理服务系统’项目简介” (Brief introduction to the national karaoke content management service system), posted 3 August 2006. See text on Ministry of Culture website.

[8] Henan Shangbao 河南商报“卡拉不再永远OK 全国统一KTV曲库引发争议” (Kara is no longer forever okay: unified national KTV song database sparks controversy), reproduced on sina.com, 20 July 2006.

[9] “文化部制作统一曲库 谁来判定歌曲是否健康” (Ministry of Culture creates unified song pool: who decides if a song is healthy?), news.sohu.com, 29 July 2006. See article here.

[10] Xu Weicheng, speech at the National Audiovisual Publishing Work Conference, 21 December 1995, in “Notice on the printing and distribution of the speeches of Comrades Xu Weicheng and Yu Youxian at the National Audiovisual Publishing Work Conference” (关于印发徐惟诚, 于友先同志在全国音像出版工作会议上讲话的通知), GAPP document [1996]121.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wang Gan, “A Field of Cultural Contestation: Nightclubs in Shenzhen / 深圳歌舞厅:文化的领地,” Tsinghua Sociological Review 1/2001:1-16.

[13] “周杰伦歌曲被收入上海中学生爱国主义曲目” (Jay Chou song included in list of patriotic songs for Shanghai students), news.163.com, 15 March 2005. See article here. The official commendation pointed to the song’s “positive and progressive” lyrics, particularly the lines “step by step, I inch upwards” and “the tears and sweat I have shed, / one day I will have my own heaven.”

[14] One such accusation was made on Phoenix TV on 6 February 2006. 

[15] See his fan site.

[16] For example, in an interview on CCTV’s Channel 3 in August 2006. The clip is available from the website set up for Chou’s mainland fans, www.jaycn.com.

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