The Chinese government has a new ally when it comes to pushing its official line on Taiwan: celebrities.
Tension over the status of the island, which is claimed by Beijing as part of its “One China” principle, has been heightened by a series of recent incidents, including a high-profile visit to the island by the President of the United States House, Nancy Pelosi, and comments. by President Joe Biden suggesting that the United States would be ready to defend Taiwan “militarily”.
This prompted an angry response from officials in Beijing, who accused the United States of violating its long-standing commitment to its one-China policy. But he also saw a new propaganda push aimed at getting the message of unity across to Chinese and Taiwanese audiences.
As experts in Chinese cultural politics, we have noted how the highly controversial series of events not only reshaped regional dynamics around Taiwan, but also permeated popular culture in China – with celebrities being used to deliver One China messages to fans and social media followers.
It’s part of a larger trend we’ve been investigating and forms the basis of an upcoming article in China Quarterly on the political signal of Chinese celebrities. According to our analysis, 85% of the top 218 celebrities in China reposted official government messages on their social media account at least once over a six-month period that we observed in the second half of 2021.
The power of Weibo
This phenomenon continued until 2022 and was observed during and after Pelosi’s visit. On August 2, the day the Speaker of the House landed in Taiwan, state media China Central Television, or CCTV, posted a message on Weibo, a Chinese-owned Twitter-like social media platform , with the message “there is only one China in the world.
Within hours, Chinese celebrities began reposting this message to their vast networks of followers. Among these were Xie Na, a 41-year-old popular TV host and actress with 128 million Weibo followers, and Jackson Yee, a 22-year-old singer, dancer and actor ranked No. 1 celebrity in Forbes 2021 List of Chinese celebrities. Similarly, Taiwanese celebrities such as Chen Qiaoen and Wu Qilong also retweeted this post, but about a day later.
The Taiwanese celebrities who reposted the post have been praised by Chinese media and fans for taking a clear political stance. An article by Chinese tabloid Global Times quoted an online fan’s praise for Taiwanese celebrities who reposted the One China message: “Well done! Daring to show support right now has to be sincere.
A celebrity outlet went so far as to publish an article listing more than 20 Taiwanese celebrities who reposted “One China” and praised them for “taking responsibility for expressing political support”.
The article also listed 11 Taiwanese celebrities who did not retweet the One China post, suggesting fans will judge them accordingly.
Indeed, celebrities who did not repost the post have been called out for their silence, with fans demanding they show their support for the government. Hebe Tien, a well-known Taiwanese singer with 13 million Weibo followers, was among those targeted by angry Chinese fans and media for not reposting the One China message.
Messages become political
Chinese celebrities haven’t always been so politically active on social media when it comes to issues like Taiwan.
Actors, singers and TV personalities use Weibo, which started in 2009 and has nearly 600 million monthly active users, to share snippets of their personal lives, promote their work, endorse commercial products and get in touch. contact with fans. But until the mid-2010s, they rarely engaged in politics.
But since the start of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s second term in 2017, more and more celebrities have used their accounts to repost official state messages.
This is especially true on significant political anniversaries, such as the founding of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China. For example, on July 1, 2021, Yang Mi, an actress with 112 million Weibo followers, reposted Xi’s CCTV quote marking the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China: “When a people have ideals, their country will be strong, and their nation will have a bright future.
These celebrity reposts often receive hundreds of thousands of user engagements, including reposts, comments, and likes.
This effectively promotes official posts on an exponentially larger social media network. CCTV’s Weibo account, which posted the One China message to coincide with Pelosi’s visit, has 130 million followers. Xie Na, a prominent pro-Beijing celebrity, alone has 128 million followers – and she is one of many people to repost the post.
As we explain in our next article “Chinese celebrities political posting on Weibo”, Chinese celebrities started reposting official posts when it became important for their career prospects to do so.
As the entertainment industry grew rapidly in the 2000s, the Chinese government began developing explicit policies to regulate and control celebrities, their cultural products, media platforms, fan groups, and professional associations.
Call for “dirty artists”
In 2014, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a notice requiring all broadcast platforms to block “contaminated artists” – celebrities who engage in illegal behavior or actions deemed problematic by the government, such as drugs. use, prostitution, tax evasion, extramarital affairs and political incorrectness. This last category includes support for Hong Kong or Taiwan independence.
Since then, the phrase “contaminated artists” has entered public discourse and is used by netizens to criticize celebrities.
Under increasingly tight political control, Chinese celebrities have fostered what scholars Jian Xu and Ling Yang have described as “a neoliberal subjectivity with Chinese characteristics.” In other words, Chinese celebrities see pleasing the state as an effective way to reach a market.
State-endorsed celebrities are offered rare opportunities to perform on state television, star in state-sponsored films and television series, serve as ambassadors for government agencies, and to attend important national conferences.
As such, celebrities have a strong incentive to meet state requirements in pursuit of their careers, fame and wealth. It is important to also recognize that some celebrities may sincerely support the government and want to promote its policies.
Regardless, the majority of celebrities on Weibo echo government positions such as the One China message. Our analysis found that just 15% of the top 218 celebrities – a list we compiled by looking at both Forbes’ annual list of Chinese celebrities from 2004 to 2020 and online follower size – haven’t reposted any posts. government official over the six months we analyzed. from June to November 2021.
Among those who reposted, the frequency of reposts varied from just 1 to 33 times over the six months.
Our analysis revealed that younger celebrities with more followers tend to repost official posts more. This finding challenges the conventional wisdom that young people tend to be more politically critical and rebellious. It also lines up with a recent survey of Chinese public opinion that found Generation Xi — those who have come of age over the past decade — are more authoritarian-oriented than previous generations.
Legitimize state positions
Celebrity reposts of official state messages could have far-reaching ramifications.
When politically sensitive events occur, Chinese citizens often visit celebrities’ Weibo accounts to discern their position. On the issue of Taiwan, heightened nationalist sentiments have apparently prompted users to watch celebrities and expect them to voice their support for the Chinese government.
Moreover, the reposting of official posts by celebrities serves to turn popular culture into a key instrument through which the Chinese government can legitimize its position on sensitive issues.