China declared all cryptocurrency transactions illegal on Friday, trying to shut down its citizens’ use of digital currencies that operate free of government control. It was just the latest in a spate of restrictions President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party is imposing.
That the isolationist measures are becoming more drastic has a silver lining: They’re a sign of how increasingly difficult and elusive such government control is in a globalized economy and social media age.
Last week, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, a short-form video app called Douyin with 490 million users, announced a 40 minutes-a-day restriction for its users under the age of 14. The gaming industry was similarly impacted by a sweeping crackdown on youth video game playing, which became restricted to one hour a day on weekends and public holidays. “Sissy idols” and “effeminate men” are now banned from the media. And more traditional censorship is still going strong, with China refusing to allow Marvel’s blockbuster film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to open in its theaters.
Though bans on effeminate men and cryptocurrency might appear to have little in common, they are both emblematic of the way Xi and his party want to keep China free of foreign and individualistic influences, with these crackdowns furthering his goal of greater control over all aspects of Chinese economy, culture and education. While the displays of power are deeply damaging for the individuals harmed by these moves, the fact that the isolationist measures are becoming more drastic has a silver lining: They’re a sign of how increasingly difficult and elusive such government control is in a globalized economy and social media age.
Many of the new restrictions on social media, video games and other adolescent pastimes have been deemed “proactive measures” in response to China’s tightened minor protection law, which purportedly seeks to “protect the physical and mental health of minors” through strict mandates on the amount of time minors spend online. The same is true for the ban on “sissy idols” and “effeminate men,” being enforced by China’s National Radio and Television Administration, and the push to curb fan groups to reduce their “chaotic” influence on youth and culture. As a result, multiple fan accounts for BTS, BLACKPINK and other K-pop, or South Korean pop music, bands have been suspended on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform with half a billion monthly users.
The tightened controls originate with Xi, now president for life, and are part of a plan for a “national rejuvenation” to rid the country of the influence of “low moral values” and to stop “irrational behavior.” As such, the repression has a two-fold effect. Most directly, it allows the government itself to mold young minds to its specifications and curtail exposure to foreign points of view. More subtly, it undermines the authority of parents, who are usually the ones contending with how much time their children spend on social media and video games or what music they can listen to and which celebrities they can pin up on their walls. In other countries, private negotiations take place within families on screen-time restrictions. Parents may have conversations about values that celebrities stand for and whether they agree with them. In China’s framework of civil rights and ideology, it’s the government that enforces a strict and uniform mandate.
Foreign-originated art is the most threatening to the Chinese government. No matter how deferential a production like “Shang-Chi” is to Chinese culture, with much of the film performed in perfect Mandarin and plot points inspired by Chinese myths, it is an Asian American film at its core. Co-written and directed by Asian American filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton and starring leads from the Asian diaspora, such as Simu Liu and Awkwafina, the movie’s primary themes reflect American ideals of moving on after the loss of a loved one and following independent, unconventional paths.
The government of China and its state-run media have many means of exerting strict control over its own national celebrities. In one chilling recent example, megastar Fan Bingbing faced accusations of tax evasion before disappearing and reappearing four months later with a public apology and promise to pay a $70 million fine. After initially denying the accusation, she told The New York Times after the ordeal that her absence helped her “calm down” and “think seriously” about what she wants from her future. Since then, Fan’s social media accounts have included rebroadcasts of key political messages aligned with the Chinese government. Other big-name celebrities have also faced heavy fines in seemingly selective enforcement of tax evasion charges as well as censorship without explanation, arguably for becoming too influential and therefore potentially a source of power independent from the government.
But banning access is China’s strongest muscle to flex over foreign influences — so it flexes it often. Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who moved away from China at age 15, became a persona non grata after her negative remarks about her birth country in a 2013 interview surfaced. Her film “Nomadland” and its history-making accolades were censored by Chinese media. Zhao’s upcoming November film — “Eternals,” the next Marvel installment after “Shang-Chi” — is expected to be banned as well.
While it might be obvious that Friday’s cryptocurrency ban has an economic dimension, these new social and cultural restrictions also have a troubling economic aim. For the first time in motion picture history, the most recent worldwide top-grossing films have been Chinese productions, 2020’s “The Eight Hundred” and, so far in 2021, “Hi, Mom,” instead of the typical Hollywood blockbusters. Though this is largely due to delayed releases and other consequences of the pandemic, it might have inspired China to implement isolationist economic policies in favor of its own entertainment industry, with the ban on “Shang-Chi” just the latest example.
Furthermore, China’s ban on “effeminate men” from entertainment seems to target wildly popular K-pop acts that enjoy fervently dedicated fan bases. The government’s restrictions decrease consumer spending that benefits neighboring nations rather than the Chinese music industry. South Korea’s global music sensation BTS, which reports an astounding annual revenue of $4.65 billion, was met with anger and censorship in China last year when the band leader made comments about the Korean War.
But everyday people are fighting these battles for cultural control in what could soon be the world's largest economy. Quiet acts of rebellion occur in China every day. Citizens take on great risk to find work-arounds on restrictions, such as using another person’s login or watching movies illegally. Where the fandom and appetite is strong enough, the art and the messages of banned media like “Shang-Chi” are still likely to reach their audiences, even if pirated copies are the only way to make it happen (though video game restrictions are trickier to thwart, with at least one Chinese company using facial recognition software to implement controls).
Whatever content and transactions Beijing is effective in limiting, the sheer volume and scope of the restrictions underscore what a colossal task China has in imposing this order. Ultimately, these social and economic measures may well drive more Chinese citizens to leave the country, producing the next generation of trailblazers like Chloé Zhao and Simu Liu.