Celebrities Take The Political Stage, From Beyonce To Beijing

How the intersection of show biz and state power looks from China.

Beyoncé singing at the Lincoln Memorial during the 2009 presidential inauguration
Beyoncé singing at the Lincoln Memorial during the 2009 presidential inauguration
Chen Jibing

BEIJING - When it comes to entertainment, the upbeat and always cheerful Americans are king. They can turn a solemn moment into entertainment, a ceremony into a festivity. Last month's inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama’s second term in office is the latest proof of that uniquely American way of embodying their belief in freedom through amusement.

Though not as impressive as his first inauguration four years back, there were still as many as 800,000 people from all over the United States who'd come to Washington D. C. to watch the ceremony and attend the parade. In order to experience this Democracy Festival the public had to line up in the bitter cold for hours, and suffer through huge crowds and tight security. In fact President Obama had already been officially sworn in as President in a non-public ceremony in the White House the day before. But with millions tuning in on TV, the show must go on, and folk singer James Taylor and pop star Beyonce were a bigger hit than Yo-Yo Ma’s cello performance four years ago. No one seems to notice that all of this happens amidst a particularly bleak political and economic atmosphere currently shrouding the United States.

This dynamic is much different in other part of the world, where the participation of entertainment celebrities in political events often causes controversy, and come with a heavy price for the stars.

Last year's case involving the Russian feminist punk-rock band, Pussy Riot, is one clear example. On the grounds that their “performance” last February at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior contained “religious hatred and hooliganism” three members of the band were convicted and sentenced to two years of imprisonment.

This immediately sparked worldwide protests in solidarity with the trio. From the European Union to the White House to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French press, Madonna and Yoko Ono, the Western world rallied unanimously in criticizing the unfairness of Russia’s judicial system and the harshness of the punishment. According to reports quite a number of Russian Orthodox believers were indeed angered by Pussy Riot’s “performance” and have little or no sympathy for them. Still, only 44% of the Russian public were convinced that their trial had been a fair one.

Superficial and unqualified

Meanwhile in China last month, there was a very different, though no less hot debate involving stars and politics. First, Annie Yi, a well-known Taiwanese singer, as well as a guest judge for China’s Got Talent, a particularly popular Chinese television show, ran into trouble with the Chinese authorities. She has been invited by Chinese public security officials to have tea (a well-known form of intimidation) and banned from appearing on Chinese TV after publicly supporting the protests of Southern Weekly, a periodical that had just been censored by the Guangdong local government.

At the same time, there was much debate about whether or not Stephen Chow Sing-Chi and Diana Pang, a Hong Kong comedian and an adult film star respectively, were qualified to be elected as political advisors of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

It is all much different than when the U.S. entertainment industry and its stars step into the political limelight. The American public is generally more relaxed when controversy is sparked by an individual star’s involvement in politics. President Ronald Reagan and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger come straight to mind.

Entertainment celebrities are general criticized for being superficial and unqualified to pronounce on political issues, which require some degree of professionalism. This is exactly how it is viewed by many in China. I was astonished to find out that so many people argued plausibly that Annie Yi, this pretty Taiwanese star, should focus on her career instead of blindly wandering about in the complexity of Chinese politics. Others even went as far as accusing her of causing “hype and speculation” so as to raise her profile.

I’m no fan of Annie Yi, nor do I think she is in a position to properly investigate press freedom and other such issues in China. But this is beside the point. A simple right and wrong must be pointed out. Whether one has the right to express one’s personal opinion concerning politics is not to be mixed up with whether or not a viewpoint is valuable. These are two totally different matters.

If a citizen can automatically forfeit his qualification to participate in politics just because he is not experienced in the field, it excludes most of us.

There’s no doubt that stars can use their charisma to influence their fans with their political position and political choices. Their position and viewpoint can be superficial and misleading. However, this does not justify keeping them silent.

Experiences tell us that in a free society the people with vision and insight may be those in the expected professions, but not always. Politics is complex, and very often implies interests from all directions. It is unlike the pure science of mathematics or physics, which are based on objective knowledge. In today’s China, this is more true than ever.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books about Xi-Jinping on a shelf at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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