By Eden Townend

On September 9, 2017, Chinese internet giant iQiYi uploaded the Season One finale episode of its wildly successful talent show 'The Rap of China', gaining a total of 2.68 billion views. The incredible success of the 'X-Factor'-style competition and the mass market commodification of artists and music featured therein signified that the small-time fledgling Chinese Rap scene of the 2000s had crossed into the mainstream. Chinese rappers had stood up.


Credit: Reuters/ TPG Images

Chinese rap singer Zhou Yan, better known by his stage name GAI, performs during a New Year concert in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China Dec. 31, 2017. As an underground artist prior to winning 'The Rap of China' GAI was part of a Chongqing native gangsta rap group, 'Brass Knuckle Gang' (B.K.G). One his songs "Gangsta" (超社会), released in 2015, was deemed controversial by the CCP in its description of the Chinese underworld and was banned within days of its release. Following his win on 'Rap of China' his lyrics have shifted away from controversy.

This catapulting of Chinese Rap into popular culture, however, posed several questions around the place and purpose of popular culture products in the Chinese context and how they relate to the Chinese state. Unlike Western markets, in order for Chinese rappers and creators of other popular culture products to be successful, they must align the content of their creations and their public lifestyles with the values of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In return, the CCP provides rappers with the necessary distributive and promotional tools to become successful and well known. This is what Gleiss et al refer to as 'mutually beneficial ties' between civil society actors and the state. It is through leveraging this mutually beneficial relationship that the CCP can use popular culture to propagate state narratives through popular non-state channels — such as mainstream rappers.

There is no shortage of examples of this phenomenon in the Chinese Rap space. Just last year, rapper 'Air', a Uighur Muslim who won Season Two of 'The Rap of China', released a song in which he raps about Han-Uighur relations in Xinjiang, rapping

"You can put an end to the internet rumors. There's no racial discrimination, there's only love stirring"

Against a background of years of racial tensions and the recent reports of Uighur Muslim containment camps in the region, Air rapping that "there's no racial discrimination" is far more believable than the government conveying the message directly, demonstrating that the CCP believe co-opting culture for domestic soft power aims is more effective at propagating its messages than using the regular government channels.

The same can be said for the narrative the CCP wishes to propagate concerning Taiwan and cross-Strait relations. The Chengdu-based rap group CD REV (Tianfushibian / 天府事变) exemplify this mutually beneficial relationship between the state and civil society in their fiery, strongly worded rap song 'The Force of Red' (the video below contains strong language). The song advocates for and justifies mainland China's dominance in the East, calling for Hong Kong and Taiwan to yield to the wishes of the CCP and take steps toward reunification. The song is offensive and charged with a fierce nationalism underpinning the lyrics throughout, including:

"Taiwan ain't a country, bitch, at most a county", "Fuck DDP, Fuck Tsai-Ing Wen" and "There's only one China, HK, Taipei, They are my fellas, We are the force of red… Fuck anyone trying to split up, PRC the Leader."

This is a clear manifestation of this mutually beneficial relationship at work. CD REV align their content with the CCP's values and preferred narratives pertaining to Taiwanese reunification, and the CCP in turn provide the rap group with the necessary tools to be successful. In fact, CD REV were so successful in this that following the release of 'The Force of Red', the band was directly commissioned by the government to create two internationally released rap songs, 'This is China' and 'No THAAD ', which both function as party mouthpieces concerning the Western press anti-China bias and U.S military presence in the Korean peninsula, respectively.

What does this mean for cross-Strait relations? One implication is that seemingly independent rappers are being utilized by the state for their influence both as celebrities and civil society actors to shape attitudes toward Taiwan through popular culture. This is a key tool in the arsenal of the CCP for aligning prevailing mainland Chinese views with those of the state. Putting the anomaly of the CCP later directly commissioning CD REV on to one side, the effectiveness of co-opting popular culture is clearly a winning strategy. Civil society independence from the state, or at least the semblance of it, grants more authenticity to the rap music, and bolsters the state's narrative on cross-Strait relations, as it suggests external and independent support of state policies. As former CCP General-Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) said in his 1985 speech

"Writers and artists should [not be] the mouthpiece of the party and government… but [should] educate the people through their individual literary and artistic creation… thereby[producing] a subtle influence on people's souls."

There is evidence in the Chinese social media space to show that this works. One top comment on the original post of 'The Force of Red' on Weibo reads:

"Listening [to the song] really made me cry! Explosive! I really want to put it on all the big platforms (heart). Some people just can't see the truth, and only listen to simple and rough [views] (heart). #onechina #china #resistJYP #ResistTaiwanIndependence #OpposeTaiwanIndependence #ResistHongKongIndependence"

[Editor's note: the first video is of a TV studio performance of 'This is China' by CD Rev, the second is the version commissioned by the government, with full English subtitles]

Ultimately, it is clear that the CCP utilizes music and culture as a tool to propagate its preferred narratives on national unity and reunification. This serves to achieve two goals: to shape the domestic opinions and narratives concerning Taiwan through the dissemination of nationalist popular culture products, and to state the political position of the CCP to the world. Only time will tell if this increasingly antagonistic weaponization of culture will heighten tensions in cross-Strait relations. What is clear, however, is that the alignment of mainland Chinese civil society and government allows for the powerful and effective exploitation of cultural tools to shape the discussion of Taiwanese independence. The power of politicized rap should not be underestimated.

Eden Townend is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Nottingham reading Contemporary Chinese Studies. His research focuses on Chinese Rap and how it exemplifies the relationship between civil society and the Chinese state.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham's Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: Cat Thomas (@TheNewsLens)

Read next: Inside Taiwan's Indie Music Scene: Is It Truly 'Independent'?

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