Luhan, who appeared the movie “The Great Wall” with Matt Damon and has been dubbed China’s Justin Bieber, was one of the many Chinese actors and directors who recently attended a seminar on socialist thought. (Universal Pictures)

BEIJING — Culture is the soul of the nation, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in a key speech last month. And like Chairman Mao Zedong before him, Xi believes that Chinese culture must serve socialism and the Communist Party.

This week, more than 100 of the nation’s top filmmakers, actors and pop stars were gathered for a day in the city of Hangzhou to be told exactly what that meant in practice, and to study the spirit of the 19th Party Congress, where Xi gave that speech and set out his “Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

A socialist culture with Chinese characteristics, China’s president said last month, should promote socialist material well being, raise socialist cultural-ethical standards, and be guided by Marxism. Writers and artists should simultaneously reflect real life and “extol our Party, our country, our people and our heroes.”

China's Communist Party Congress saw the elevation of President Xi Jinping to a level of authority not seen since Mao Zedong. Post Beijing bureau chief Simon Denyer offers his analysis. (The Washington Post)

This is not a new theme for Xi — he made a similar call at a speech back in October 2014 — nor is it a new idea for China. Indeed, Xi was consciously evoking the words of Communist China’s first leader Mao, who told a forum of artists in 1942 that art should reflect the lives of the working class and serve the advancement of socialism.

But the fact that the nation’s top entertainers were gathered specifically to study Xi’s words and praise his guidance represents another turn of the screw in Communist Party control of all walks of life under this president. It also comes at a time when Chinese money is making significant inroads into Hollywood, sparking concerns that Chinese propaganda might gradually seep into the United States.

The audience included singer and actor Luhan, who has 42 million followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Dubbed China’s Justin Bieber, he holds a world record for social media likes, and for having 200,000 people buy out a 20,000 limited edition magazine run bearing his face in just a second.

Luhan is the official Chinese ambassador for “Star Wars” and recorded the Chinese promotional theme song for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” At the forum, he reportedly expressed his pride at the “extensive and profound” Chinese culture and vowed to promote it around the world.

The forum, Chinese media reported, was full of praise for Xi’s ideas and enthusiasm for the task of spreading Chinese socialist culture around the world.

Indeed, that is one difference between Xi and Mao; not only does the current president want art to serve socialism, but he wants socialist art to enhance China’s soft power around the world, experts say.

“To march into the ‘new era’ proudly, first we should cherish it,” Wu Jing, a martial arts director, actor and star of the nationalist Wolf Warrior action movies was reported as saying. “Foreigners tend to attach great attention to the Chinese movie market rather than Chinese movies … so it is important for us in the business to use our Chinese wisdom to tell great Chinese stories.”

But outside the forum, many Chinese artists and writers say socialist controls are stifling rather than sustaining the creative soul of the nation.

Hu Jie, an independent documentary director in Nanjing whose work focuses on the turbulent times under Mao’s rule, said requiring artists to follow the party line is not compatible with the spirit of independent creation.

“The ruling party always sees everything as a way of propaganda,” he said. “This is not new: It is something from our past creeping back into the present. Control has been looser in the past, but now it is tightening again.”

The new rules have already led to some bizarre compromises.

Several top-selling shoot-’em-up video games reportedly faced being blocked by Chinese censors because their violence deviated from “socialist core values.” But the makers or rights owners managed to win approval after inserting slogans from the 19th Party Congress directly into the game-playing experience, with players being warned to “safeguard national security and maintain world peace,” or “strengthen the sense of mission, strive for peacekeeping vanguard!”

The buying power of China’s massive consumer market has been employed to influence what foreign stars can and cannot say: Katy Perry was reportedly barred from attending a Victoria’s Secret lingerie show in Shanghai last month because she had once worn a Taiwanese flag and a sunflower costume at a gig in Taipei: the “Sunflower movement” was a 2014 protest against Chinese influence in Taiwan. Model Gigi Hadid also failed to get a visa for the show, after her sister reportedly offended many people here by uploading an Instagram video in which she narrowed her eyes, apparently to mimic a cookie in the shape of Buddha’s face.

To make it big in China these days, however many fans you have, there is no choice but to pay obeisance to Xi.

Also in attendance in Hangzhou:

  • Kris Wu, another boy band singer turned actor, who has starred in some of China’s highest-grossing films and made his Hollywood debut in “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” Wu represented China at the Grammys this year and played in the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.
  • Yang Mi, who has 77 million followers on Weibo and won the Best Actress award at the Houston International Festival for her performance in “Reset” this year.
  • Zhou Dongyu, who rose to fame after appearing in director Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree.”
  • Jia Zhangke, a film director and screenwriter, seen as a leading figure of the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema;
  • Model, actress and singer Angelababy, who played a major supporting role in Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

In true Communist style, Angelababy was reported to have indulged in a little self-criticism.

“I myself have done quite fickle things,” she told the forum. “Later I realized everything in life comes with a price. You think you can get something now but you might have to give back later. Don't be fickle and finish the work on hand with great care.”


Angelababy attends the opening ceremony and premiere of “La Tete Haute” (“Standing Tall”) during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2015, in Cannes, France. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

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