When the central government of China announced a sweeping new policy providing new restrictions on the kinds of men the People’s Republic would allow to be depicted in media, the resulting headlines almost read like clickbait: “China Tells Effeminate Male Celebrities to Man Up,” “China Is Targeting Sissy Men” and “China’s Media Cracks Down on ‘Effeminate’ Styles.”
But the policy is real, and it represents another escalation in the Chinese government’s battle with newer, more sexually fluid forms of masculinity — a phenomenon that’s been growing for years.
In 2019, China garnered headlines for its purported censoring of colored hair, earrings and cleavage, all under the guise of reducing “abnormal” Western aesthetics and promoting “core socialist values.” And earlier this year, the government received harsh criticism after announcing a campaign to encourage “masculinity” among boys by hiring more male school teachers and instituting physical education classes, with a top PRC official publicly claiming that the “feminization” of boys was turning them “delicate” and “cowardly.”
Again, the central government wants media to promote “socialist” and “revolutionary” ideals, which on paper have very little to do with sexual expression. But China is also going through a cultural and economic sea change — including an explosion of women in higher education and the workforce — and it’s put pressure on President Xi Jinping to double-down on his agenda for “national rejuvenation” and find ways to affirm something essential about the Chinese spirit.
In another light, though, it’s just the shilling of a Boomer’s version of masculinity and gender roles, with conservative sexual ideals sold as the future of a stable China. Frankly, it’s not so different than what’s unfolded in America and the West in the last century: misogyny, gay anxiety and homophobia woven together and used to create a national worldview of superiority and imperial might.
It’s why the idea of “Muscular Christianity” took off in 19th-century England, as it underwent society-shifting changes in labor, gender roles and industrialization. It’s also why Theodore Roosevelt expounded on ideas of manliness and might, even going so far as to use a sexual metaphor to advocate for the colonization of the Philippines: “We the sons of a nation yet in the pride of its lusty youth … know its future is ours if we have the manhood to grasp it, and we enter the new century girding our loins for the contest before us.”
None of this is a surprise to Tommy Tse, assistant professor in the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. Having studied and worked extensively in Hong Kong and mainland China, Tse has closely observed the intersection of Chinese culture, representation and society, and the complex ways that the national agenda clashes with shifts in sexual norms. “The direct and indirect crackdown on so-called queer culture in the media sector in China isn’t something new, especially in the past decade since President Xi came onto the stage,” Tse tells me. “This time, though, it’s designed as a strong message to the entire society: China has been contaminated by a kind of queer outside culture, and so they have to crack down, and they want the whole world to know it.”
I recently reached out to Tse to discuss why the Chinese government has such an obsession with gender identity, the influence of the internet and reality TV on queerness in China and why it’s impossible to enforce such an “effeminate” ban.
As someone who has looked at the media and pop-cultural landscape of China, what is the history and context of the Chinese Communist Party taking such a stance on “effeminate” expression? What has built up to this moment?
The digital sphere has been rapidly developing over the last decade, with the arrival of things like “microfilms,” micro-TV series and other digital content being very extensively spread across Chinese society. People have become very savvy about digital media, and the popularity of these micro-series created quite a buzz, not just in China but across Asia. It’s content that’s made independently and spread through online platforms, not by traditional TV organizations in China.
Many of these shows had queer themes, and the stars became very popular celebrities. Then, all of a sudden, the government said these celebs couldn’t attend any public events and that brands and media companies shouldn’t work with them — because these shows represent a kind of “toxic” Western culture, including queer culture. But it was going viral, and people were paying attention.
Reality TV, too, has made a big difference. It makes instant celebrities and actual pop stars in China, and some of these stars represent a kind of queer gender identity. For example, there’s a female celebrity who has a very tomboy look. She represents a very androgynous aesthetic, and everyone knows she’s a lesbian. Now, if the government doesn’t allow me to express my political views or openly support queer culture, I guess I, as a fan, just have to invest all my energy in supporting someone who represents it, without explicitly expressing it.
Why do you think this matters so much to the party leadership?
Western media or Western scholars sometimes mistake China’s seeming dislike of popular culture as the government not taking culture very seriously. In fact, China is quite serious about culture, and in many cases, I think the CCP has a renewed interest in making use of culture for a specific ideological purpose.
What does that mean? It means that from TV to film to any form of public culture, it’s all seen by the CCP as a means for propaganda and the means to support, reinforce and nurture “socialist values.” The key is that leaders aren’t happy with what’s going on in Chinese society with influencers and other people who have the power to potentially subvert social norms.
They see it as a threat, especially when [young people] are embracing alternative gender identities that, from the perspective of politicians, could represent very foreign values. They see a cultural invasion, from other societies like Japan, Korea and America — without, of course, understanding that homosexuality and queer culture is not totally foreign to China. China actually has a long history of same-sex sexuality.
Given the central government’s previous efforts to set guidelines on social culture, what are people expecting will actually change?
It’s becoming more and more difficult for foreigners, Hong Kongers and even mainland Chinese scholars to conduct research across subjects like gender studies and queer culture. Even student societies within the universities are being cracked down on. But will they be catching people and cracking down on individuals who post less-masculine images on Weibo? I don’t really know. What my friends in China are telling me is this policy isn’t actually implemented on that level. It’s more like propaganda — a strong signal being sent to society to create a discourse.
It’s hard to understand the core of the Chinese policy-making system, but you can obviously see a mismatch between the CCP, which is maybe of an older generation, and young Chinese people. Not allowing kids to play video games, preventing them from following favorite celebrities or their own gender identities… I mean, the government sees it all as potential for cultural subversion or disobeying socialist ideals. But that might not be the society that the younger generation imagines.
Maybe in the short-term, suppressing that kind of culture can seem like a successful strategy, but in the long run, I don’t think it really works that way because there’s a very intricate relationship between popular culture and political ideology. It’s not so simple.
In other words, it sounds like the counterculture will still thrive.
From my understanding, queer culture [on the ground] is still quite vibrant. It’s not like the government’s crackdown on queer people would work and be sustainable on an everyday basis. On one hand, people are rhetorically, performatively agreeing that they won’t be subversive. But because of that, are they going to stop using gay or queer dating apps? No. It’s not like they’re going to stop going to clubs on the weekend, or stop dating or stop watching TV shows whether they’re independently made in China or from abroad.
I mean, I just saw a Facebook post a little while ago that someone is producing a Chinese version of the TV show Pose. There is an indie culture that’s thriving. The government, of course, would like to control that, and reinforce this top-down ideological strategy to change or get rid of so-called toxic Western culture. But in reality, you can’t. It’s the very nature of popular and mass culture.
How can you control something that manifests in different layers? The more you suppress it, maybe you even trigger more subversive subcultures, and allow it to spread and get nurtured in society.