China’s state newspaper Global Times published a feature Tuesday celebrating the sudden enthusiasm in the online fantasy writer community for “red stories,” or propaganda that promotes the government’s “core socialist values.”
While the writers interviewed insist that their participation in telling stories that glorify the deadly reign of Mao Zedong and promote the policies of Xi Jinping is voluntary, the sudden political turn in this creative community recalls how Beijing pressured its filmmakers and, more recently, up-and-coming rappers to drop individual expression in exchange for protection from the state. Those who refused, or indulged in artistic expression that the Communist Party disapproved of, have largely been censored and forced to apologize.
The Global Times notes that many young Chinese are flocking to the entertainment created by writers who specialize in writing fantasy stories online, available to anyone with a computer. The government appears eager to exploit these writers’ audiences, and the Times claims that the “talented young internet writers are shifting to stories about national development and red culture” on their own.
Yet halfway through its expose on this allegedly natural shift from fiction to political propaganda, the Global Times notes that the Chinese government launched a program in Shanghai in July pressuring writers in the area to “explore red stories,” a euphemism the government uses for communist propaganda. The program to compel writers to focus on promoting the regime is called “Red Footprints.”
“In the process of writing other novels, I found that when it comes to the historical changes and achievement of reform and opening up, there is no work that deeply reflects the times,” one of the writers, He Changzai, told the newspaper. He has shifted from writing fantasy stories heavy with adventure and mythological references to a novel “set against 40 years of reform and opening-up in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, a mainstream subject usually chosen by traditional writers.”
The Times notes that He “feels obligated” to write about political issues, yet describes the shift in tone in these popular writers as some sort of organic phenomenon. “Internet writers in China are known as a group for making up stories detached from reality with sheer imagination,” the Global Times claims. “But more and more of them, who mostly have built their reputations on major literature websites in China, are dropping mythological figures and stereotyped historical plots and throwing themselves into the creation of works that demonstrate the country’s political and economic achievements.”
The writers will focus on “different periods of the Party’s construction, including the site where the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held, the former residence of Mao Zedong, the site of the Party’s first secret radio, and so on.”
The individuals participating in the “Red Footprints” program are being forced to crank out 400 short stories by 2020, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2021.
Chinese officials have long promoted the dissemination of Communist propaganda and pressured independent artists to bend to its will. Among the most high-profile cases of such pressure resulting in significant content changes is the career of Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s most successful director. In 1994, Zhang directed a historical movie titled To Live that remains one of the most blistering condemnations of communism in film, telling the story of a family’s crushing demise during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. The film ends with the protagonist losing all hope in communism. To Live remains banned in China and Zhang faced severe legal repercussions for producing it. Zhang emerged from the episode a director of imperial Chinese epics, among the most notable the 2002 film Hero, telling the story of the unification of China under one ruler, the first emperor Qin Shi Huang. The film reinforced the notion of tianxia, or the globalization of the Chinese empire, and Zhang refused in interviews to claim that he had any political inclinations.
“The objective of any form of art is not political. I had no political intentions. I am not interested in politics,” Zhang told the Guardian two years later. He lamented, “the Chinese censorship system has been in practice for many years. I don’t think there will be much change in society in the short run. This situation has been present for a long time and it is a reality in China. I work and live in this system. There has not been a significant change.”
The Xi Jinping era has seen a more widespread campaign to bring any independent artist that amasses enough popularity under the control of the Politburo. In April, Xi announced that all filmmaking in the country would come under the control of the Communist Party of China’s “Publicity Department,” ensuring that all films would fall under the control of the nation’s propaganda machine.
The move to shift the interests of online writers towards Communist Party propaganda appears to be part of a broader campaign to control youth culture that began with the censorship and control of rap music last year. Seeing the potential youth appeal of the American music genre, Xi’s regime has for years produced rap songs that promote the interests of the Party, from the failed anthem “The Reform Group is Two Years Old” to the youth-oriented song “Marx Is a Millennial.”
Xi’s push to promote hip-hop largely failed, creating an even bigger problem for the government when an apolitical reality show called The Rap of China became the country’s biggest smash television hit in 2017. Beijing swiftly began to target the series’ breakout stars, including winners PG One and Gai, who both suffered censorship. The two rappers, and runners-up like the female rapper Vava, found themselves edited out of television programs and the target of a national campaign to “say ‘no’ to whoever provides a platform for low-taste content.”
Like Zhang before them, the young rappers were forced the apologize and change their tone. PG One issued an effusive apology following the revelation that one of his early demos mentioned cocaine use.
“I was deeply influenced by Black music in the early days when I was exposed to hip-hop culture, and I didn’t have a correct understanding of core values of hip-hop culture,” PG One said, adding that he would strive to promote the “core values” of the Communist Party in the future.
In a May interview, Vava admitted that what attracted her to rap music was that it “feels very free to me,” but admitted that, since becoming the target of censorship, she was “more attentive to what I write” and less “critical.”
“Well, you know the old Chinese saying: wise men suit their actions to the times they are living in,” Vava told Esquire. “To make rap and hip-hop [flourish] in China, we have to toe the Chinese party line.”