Until last week, the Dalai Lama had fairly little in common with Justin Bieber. Then the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture issued an injunction against the twenty-three-year-old pop star, who was in the middle of a global tour, prohibiting him from performing in China. (On Monday, Bieber announced that he was cutting his tour short.) “Justin Bieber is a gifted singer,” the bureau acknowledged, in a statement released on July 21st. “But in order to maintain order in the Chinese market and purify the Chinese performance environment, it is not suitable to bring in badly behaved entertainers.”
The Chinese government, which is not in the habit of divulging the logic of its edicts, didn’t elaborate on the “bad behavior” that got Bieber blacklisted, but one can imagine that his past visits to Asia may have had something to do with it. It’s unlikely, for instance, that being carried up the Great Wall by bodyguards, as the pop star did on a tour in 2013, won him plaudits from Beijing officials. Even worse was Bieber’s infamous 2014 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the war dead, including those who inflicted atrocities upon Chinese and Korean civilians before and during the Second World War. Bieber, who seemed to have stumbled upon the shrine by chance, posted photos of his visit to Instagram with the same thoughtless self-assurance that led him to muse, on a visit to the Ann Frank House, the following year, that he hoped the teen-age Holocaust victim “would have been a belieber.” Apparently, the Biebs is slow to learn a lesson.
Of course, Bieber is far from the first celebrity that the Chinese government has attempted to ban from the country. In 2008, at a concert in Shanghai, the Icelandic singer Björk infuriated officials by shouting “Tibet, Tibet” at the end of her song “Declare Independence.” In response, China’s culture ministry issued a statement proclaiming that “any artistic group or individual who has ever engaged in activities which threaten our national sovereignty will not be allowed in.” The ban also included entertainers who “threaten national unity” and “violate religious policy or cultural norms.” Since then, the ministry, which vets all foreign acts, has denied entry to everyone from Oasis and Lady Gaga to Brad Pitt and Richard Gere for their embrace of the Free Tibet movement. In 2012, when Elton John dedicated a performance in Beijing “to the spirit and talent” of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist and activist, he was interviewed by the police immediately after the performance.
What sets Bieber apart from previous celebrities non gratae, though, is the relatively apolitical nature of his violations, which presumably stem more from childish stupidity or swaggering bravado than from a calculated campaign of dissent. Yet the Chinese government’s refusal to let Bieber’s antics slide signals the shifting nature of censorship in a country that is trying to reconcile its system of stringent political control with the porousness of modern culture. In the age of globalization and social media, cultural hegemony knows no borders: a global pop icon—even a merely feckless, insolent one—can threaten to infiltrate an autocratic state, forcing its leaders to reappraise the meaning and methodology of maintaining “order” and “purity.”
Bieber’s behavior might seem innocuous enough to a Western audience (he has, after all, devoted considerable energy to saying sorry), but consider it in contrast to that of TFBoys, a prodigiously popular boy band that has been called “China’s answer to Justin Bieber: young, fresh and cute.” Instead of singing about crushes and bubble-gum romance, the Fighting Boys, as they are known, croon about homework, the joy of domestic chores, and their hopes of winning the Nobel Prize. In 2014, the year after the band was founded—the same year Bieber was caught peeing in a mop bucket in public—its lead singer, Junkai Wang, posted a video of himself singing wistfully about the responsibilities that come with getting older; it was shared more than a hundred and fifty million times. Chinese observers have called the band’s three members “the teen-age sons every mother dreams about.” They are also the kind of performers that China’s state-controlled media dream about. In 2015, the band released a song and music video titled “We are the Heirs of Communism,” which opens on a schoolyard of solemn children sporting their Communist red scarves and goes on to praise the glories of the Party. Last year, the group was invited to perform in CCTV’s New Year’s Gala, an annual state-sponsored televised variety show, which melds entertainment with nationalistic propaganda—and happens to be the most watched show in the world.
To the Chinese government, Justin Bieber is a “controversial young foreigner” because even his apolitical antics represent a reckless individualism that’s perilous to the Party’s mission of insuring loyalty. The scope and spread of Western pop culture, with its potent, if indirect, messages of rebellious aspiration and individual desire, are inherently disturbing to an authoritarian state that likes to think of its citizens as dependent and governable children. Ground rules must be set, and corrupting influences extricated early, even in a family of 1.4 billion. In its statement last week, the culture bureau’s spokesperson wrote, in the tone of an irritated teacher penning her midterm report, that, “as Justin Bieber matures,” she hopes that “he may continue to improve his own words and actions and truly become a singer beloved by the public.” Whether Bieber will mature beyond his juvenile escapades is an open question, but one thing is clear: to be a performer admitted within China’s borders, it is the love of the Party—not the public—that counts.
By Jiayang Fan
The New Yorker