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.