A rectification notice from China’s state censor earlier this month included a peculiar admonition to ‘resolutely oppose’ effeminate men on television. The note stood out in the otherwise dry document. Its other targets — people with ‘poor morals’ or ‘lacking solidarity with the party and nation’ — make sense within Beijing’s authoritarian logic. But it’s hard to conceive of pretty boys in eyeliner joining the party’s long lists of revolutionary enemies.
The term used for effeminate men in the notice — niangpao — is vague, but the National Radio and Television Administration is counting on its broadcast partners to know what it means. An example of the sort of effeminate men Beijing feels threatened by is hard to locate in Western pop culture. The problem for regulators is not sexuality. The Chinese state is not always friendly to its gay and transgender communities but the uneasy sexual relaxations of the last decade do not seem in any danger of being undone. The problem for censors is that, like grumpy old people shouting at their TV screens, men just don’t look like men anymore.
One of the first signs of a potential assault on effeminate men came when English-language news reported on a social media post titled, ‘Do you know how hard the CIA is working to get you to love effeminate stars?’. The short essay was published by an account called Torch of Thought, which is linked to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article introduced the figure of Johnny Kitagawa, a Japanese-American impresario who was plugged into the American occupation’s efforts to rebuild pop culture in vanquished Japan. Torch of Thought paints this now-dead talent manager as a paedophile Svengali determined to end warlike masculinity and turn Japanese men into kittens.
When Japan’s economy imploded in the 1990s, South Korea took up where they had left off. South Korea left Japan far behind in the androgyny arms race. When androgynous Korean boyband Super Junior broke into China in the early 2000s, the trend was established. The niangpao were here to stay. But now the National Radio and Television Administration wants them gone.
The decision by a Chinese censor to address the issue may seem uniquely bizarre, but it comes after both Japan and Korea went through their own debates about masculinity in crisis. In those countries, the counterweight to androgynous idols had been the strong, silent salaryman. He put on a tie every morning, as solid and reliable as the firm where he worked. Even if his daughter liked boys with floofy hair, she was going to marry a man like her daddy, get pregnant, quit her job, and pop out the demographically required number of children.
But as both countries did away with the idea of employment for life, cajoled women into the workforce and made dual incomes a necessity, the lone male breadwinner was no longer a workable notion. The result of all this has been cratering birth rates, an epidemic of men reaching middle-age without losing their virginities and a society trapped in an enervating permanent adolescence.
Figures within the Chinese leadership can see what’s on the horizon. At this point, there have been a few levers pulled beyond the liberalisation of family planning rules. It seems there is little stomach for changing the economic game which underlies the demographic crisis. The main fix for fertility, although certainly not an easy one, would be to aggressively cool off the real estate market. Rearing a family is predicated on being able to afford one. As overseas financial markets have been restricted, the flats and duplexes of China's booming cities have transformed into assets. Beijing recognises the problem. Shortly after taking office, Xi Jinping issued an admonition: 'Housing is for living in and not for speculation'. Recognition is one thing, fixing the problem is quite another.
Cultural levers are easier and cheaper to pull. The one-child policy is long gone. But reforming the economic structures that have enriched party allies is far less attractive. Instead, the CCP has put out a tersely worded notice resolutely opposing effeminate men. Without concrete support to boost the fertility rate, they hope that people can be convinced to have children by promoting a more well-groomed, Norman Rockwell-esque vision of masculinity and family. Xi Jinping's 'China dream' looks awfully like the American one he hopes to overthrow.