Over the summer, China’s multibillion-dollar private education industry was decimated overnight by a ban on for-profit tutoring, while new regulations wiped more than $1 trillion from Chinese tech stocks since a peak in February. As China’s tech moguls compete to donate more to President Xi Jinping’s campaign against inequality, “Xi Jinping Thought” is taught in elementary schools, and foreign games and apps like Animal Crossing and Duolingo have been pulled from stores.
A dizzying regulatory crackdown unleashed by China’s government has spared almost no sector over the past few months. This sprawling “rectification” campaign — with such disparate targets as ride-hailing services, insurance, education and even the amount of time children can spend playing video games — is redrawing the boundaries of business and society in China as Xi prepares to take on a controversial third term in 2022.
“It’s striking and significant. This is clearly not a sector-by-sector rectification; this is an entire economic, industry and structural rectification,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
At China’s national congress next fall, Xi is expected to retain his title as general secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a move that would upset a decades-old system of term limits and leadership succession. To build momentum, he is pushing an agenda of tackling income inequality under the banner of “common prosperity,” a campaign that gives officials and companies rallying around the cause opportunity to show their loyalty before the reshuffle of party personnel.
According to authorities, restricting the private tutoring industry is meant to level the playing field in China’s highly competitive schools and lessen the financial burden on families. China’s biggest tech companies have been brought to heel in the name of protecting competition and consumer data.
Yet other recent regulations targeting the country’s youth appear aimed at asserting control over popular culture, measures that critics say limit the public’s few outlets for debate and expression.
Officials are cracking down on China’s fervent fan clubs whose members discuss and rank celebrities, going to extreme lengths to support their favored stars. (When Chinese Canadian pop star Kris Wu was detained on allegations of rape in August, his fans flooded social media in his defense and called for breaking him out of prison.)
Male Chinese celebrities known for their androgynous style have also become a threat in Beijing’s eyes. Last week, regulators ordered broadcasters to encourage “masculinity” and put a stop to “abnormal beauty standards” such as “niangpao,” a slur that translates to “sissy men.”
“The party does not feel comfortable with expressions of individualism that are in some ways transgressive to norms that it puts forward,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford. “The party-state makes it clear that it has the first and last word on what is permitted in mass culture.”
Within China, the campaign has been met with a mix of approval and skepticism. Liang Min, 35, a linguist from Jilin province, said China’s pop idol culture, in which young fans donate money to celebrities, is out of control. “The teenagers are being misled. Personally, I’m proud of this action,” Liang said.
Internet users criticized the order against “sissy” culture as state-sponsored homophobia. “Sissy men will not harm the country, but prejudice and narrow thinking will,” said one comment that was censored on WeChat after getting more than 100,000 views.
Jo Tan, 33, an administrator at a test prep school in Changsha in Hunan province, said the limits on tutoring have done more harm than good. Her company has halved its head count and teachers must work longer hours.
“Students still have to compete to get into good schools and colleges, and many of us are now on the verge of being unemployed,” she said.
“Whoever came up with this policy probably never had to worry about their children’s education,” Tan said, adding that making high school and universities free would do more to promote equality in education.
Michael Shou, general manager of an on-demand English tutoring platform, said he expects more regulatory action in more sectors.
“I do believe we are seeing a profound transformation of society, especially given that the government has implemented definitive and strict regulatory measures in such a short amount of time and in so many different industries,” he said.
Xi’s crusade has left the country’s previously all-powerful tech titans, such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma, in no doubt about who controls China’s future. But it has also alarmed investors.
Regulators on Wednesday summoned Tencent and Netease over their online gaming platforms, ordering the companies to eliminate content promoting “incorrect values” such as “money worship” and “sissy” culture. Both firms promised to “carefully study” and implement the orders.
Officials have been working to restore investor confidence, with Vice Premier Liu He promising during a forum on Monday in Hebei province that China’s support for the private economy “has not changed and will not change in the future.” On Tuesday, the People’s Daily ran a front-page article pledging the government’s “unswerving commitment” to the private sector and protecting foreign capital and competition.
A 'profound revolution'
The scope and velocity of the society-wide rectification has some worried China may be at the beginning of the kind of cultural and ideological upheaval that has brought the country to a standstill before.
Last week, an essay by a retired newspaper editor and blogger described the changes as a response to threats from the United States. “What these events tell us is that a monumental change is taking place in China, and that the economic, financial, cultural, and political spheres are undergoing a profound transformation — or, one could say, a profound revolution,” wrote Li Guangman.
The essay, picked up by China’s state media outlets, prompted comparisons with a 1965 article that launched China’s chaotic decade-long Cultural Revolution, and left even some in the party establishment worried.
Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the state-run Global Times, criticized the article as misleading and an “extreme interpretation” of the recent rush of regulatory orders that could trigger “confusion and panic.”
Differences over the article may be a sign of deeper dispute within the party, according to Yawei Liu, a senior adviser focusing on China at the Carter Center in Atlanta, who wrote that such disagreement indicates “raging debate inside the CCP on the merits of reform and opening up, on where China is today . . . and about what kind of nation China wants to become.”
Residents expect more measures to come, targeting regular life as well as other sectors. While the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is preparing a ban on karaoke songs deemed out of line with “the core values of socialism,” city officials are regulating dancing in China’s parks, a popular pastime for retirees. In an editorial in the People’s Daily last week, the vice chairman of the Chinese Film Association called on filmmakers to make more patriotic films and “further promote” Xi Jinping Thought.
Ouyang Haotian, a student from Guangzhou studying event management at Macau University of Science and Technology, said the government’s crackdowns are well-meaning but sometimes implemented too abruptly.
“Everything the government does — they do it to maintain the stability of its governance, sometimes without considering the impacts on individuals,” said the 22-year-old. “It is a trial and error process, so people have to accept those errors and move on.”
Still, he said, the measures can go too far. “There is a point where government regulations stop working. You can ban artists and certain movies or songs, but you cannot teach people what to think,” he said.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.