Editor’s Note: iAffairs is launching an ‘Arts, Culture, and Entertainment’ section. Led by associate editor Reda Zarrug, contributors will explore the intersections of international affairs and arts and culture, giving readers a fuller, more nuanced view of what’s going on in the world. Our first piece is from Solomon Pace-McCarrick, who examines the ‘soft power’ implications of China’s emerging hip hop industry. We hope you enjoy.

With the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recent announcement of plans to increase China’s domestic consumption, there is a recognized need for the country to transition its economy away from a reliance on exports.

In Why China Will Not Rule the World, Ho-fung Hung argues that China’s “export-dependency” and “addiction” to U.S. Treasury Bonds, as well as its cycle of “real estate investment and debt-financed consumption,” has created a deficit that cannot be met by current internal consumption levels.

According to Hung, this necessitates an “imminent and inevitable readjustment of the Chinese economy” towards domestic consumption to sustain economic growth.

To enable a more creative and innovation-based economy, the CCP has, since 2000, gradually encouraged the development of cultural industries with increasing devolution of responsibility to its Ministry of Culture and autonomous enterprises.

Xiao Li and Yibing Ding caution that this “transformation of China’s economy… may depend on the trade-off between the government’s choice of stability and the economic imperative of efficiency.”

… While the CCP is attempting to both restructure the cultural economy and retain a “tight grip of content, Chinese society… is seizing the opportunity to move towards a more creative and diverse economy.”

Expanding on these structural restrictions, specifically with regards to China’s cultural industries, Shaun Chang describes how the “government’s policies are often in direct contradiction with the interests of state-run institutions and creative entrepreneurs” and that, while the CCP is attempting to both restructure the cultural economy and retain a “tight grip of content, Chinese society… is seizing the opportunity to move towards a more creative and diverse economy.”

The recent (and spectacular) rise of hip hop into the Chinese mainstream provides an attractive case study with which to test these conflicts, both highlighting a maturation in China’s domestic market, but also illustrating the hesitation offered by Chang.

Development of China’s Cultural Industries

China’s growth over the 20th century has been primarily guided by the CCP’s strong industrial directives and supported by state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

In the cultural sector, this has taken the form of Cultural Public Service Units, which were wholly dependent on government funding. However, the year 2000 was a turning point in China’s cultural industries from ‘shiye’ (institution) to ‘chanye’ (industry) as the term “enhancing cultural industry development” appears in government policy for the first time.

This has translated into more responsibility for China’s Ministry of Culture over the last two decades, increasing funding in information and communications technology, and pulling funding away from firms to usher in a shift from “a planned economy to a market economy.”

This shift, broadly speaking, appears to mirror South Korea’s earlier turn towards the cultural industries to support its export-oriented development in the 1990s, which also saw the empowerment of cultural ministries and greater investments in technology. South Korea’s growing middle class in the 2000s incentivized domestic firms to increase their competitiveness on the world stage. South Korea’s progress in this realm can be witnessed today through the slew of world records set by Korean pop group “BTS” or the recent success of the Oscar-winning Parasite.

The Rise of Hip Hop in China

The year 2017 saw TV network and online platform IQiyi air nationwide hip hop competition “The Rap of China” to instant success, accumulating upwards of ten billion views on IQiyi’s online streaming platform alone, and being widely credited with bringing hip hop to the mainstream in China.

Reflecting China’s attempts to follow in the footsteps of Korea, “The Rap of China’s” unique elimination round format, judged by established names within the national hip hop scene, was widely speculated to have been based on the well-established Korean rap competition show “Show Me the Money.”

Nonetheless, “The Rap of China” is notable for the distinct national representations underpinning many of its live performances, replete with traditional instruments and localized imagery in what has come to be known as ‘Chinese style’ hip hop.

The development of the Chinese hip hop scene as a distinct national commodity was illustrated in one episode of “The Rap of China” itself, in which Asian-American MC Jin was eliminated from the competition because of his reliance on English lyrics, and his inability to rap in Mandarin.

The message was clear: the torch had been passed to China’s new generation of MCs who, rapping in regional dialects […], embodied a distinct cultural tradition in “Chinese style” hip hop that had outgrown its American hip hop roots.

Having emerged on America’s hip hop scene in the early 2000s with his record-breaking streak on BET’s battle rap TV show “Freestyle Friday,” and credited as a trailblazer for Asian visibility in hip hop as a whole, MC Jin participated in “The Rap of China” under the pseudonym of HipHopMan. Upon elimination, he removed his mask, which was met with an outpouring of emotion from the other contestants.

The message was clear: the torch had been passed to China’s new generation of MCs who, rapping in regional dialect and containing localized nuances, embodied a distinct cultural tradition in “Chinese style” hip hop that had outgrown its American hip hop roots.

However, the airing of the first season of “The Rap of China” was plagued by a series of controversies, not least of all the globally-publicized hip hop ban by central Chinese authorities in 2018.

Condemning hip hop “culture” and tattoos for expressing “vulgar messages,” both were banned from TV altogether, while the first season’s joint winners, Gai and PG One, found themselves embroiled in career-halting controversies.

Although subsequent seasons of “The Rap of China” were ultimately allowed to air (albeit with tighter content controls, such as complete concealment of tattoos and a vetting process on all contestants’ lyrics), the shadow of this controversy still looms over China’s hip hop scene.

Implications for China’s Transitioning Economy

On many levels, the rise of hip hop into China’s mainstream represents a maturation in its transitioning economy.

The fact that the success of “The Rap of China” was delivered by IQiyi (one of the few large Chinese firms to be entirely market-reliant) bodes well for the CCP’s plans to pull government funding away from SOEs more widely.

The development of a distinct “Chinese style” of hip hop as a cultural commodity also reflects China’s resilient market, both in being able to resist American hip hop and by creating their own export and commodity of hip hop, being primarily broadcast to audiences in East Asia.

Contrary to Hung’s view that “China is set to disappoint” in its domestic consumption problem, it seems that China has already seen some success in transitioning towards a more creative and innovation-based economy.

On the other hand, the CCP’s proclivity towards content control is a significant barrier to the development of the cultural industries and, more widely, its ability to support economic transition.

Dismantling the Chinese hip hop scene just as it was starting to build momentum potently illustrates Chang’s predictions that a conflict is emerging between government policies and cultural entrepreneurs. It seems that the CCP is attempting to have both extremes, in pulling funding away from cultural institutions to transform them into market-reliant industries while still attempting to retain its “tight grip of content.”

Where SOEs entail an “intrinsic moral hazard” but remain the primary means by which the CCP can influence the economy, the kind of artificial intelligence algorithms and smartphone-based viewer participation deployed by IQiyi in the “The Rap of China” that helped make its airing so ground-breaking back in 2017 guide economic decisions based on consumer trends and not central agendas.

As such, both the content and business structure of “The Rap of China” pose a significant challenge to the CCP’s “tight grip,” powerfully capturing the internal conflicts within China’s attempts to shift towards a creative and innovation-based economy as a whole.

Although this discussion has been rather critical of the CCP’s “tight grip of content,” it is rare that issues (and especially matters of culture) can simply be distilled down to the idea that the so-called Western approach is better.

While the more established hip hop scenes in the U.S. and Canada, for example, see less interference in cultural content, shows like “The Rap of China” betray a unity in the hip hop scene and close relationship between cultural entrepreneurs and central authorities that is not present in North America.

The Canadian “hip hop border” is infamous for preventing, or delaying, hip hop artists from entering the country and has been responsible for the cancellation of countless performances over the years.

The focus on disenfranchised members of society, or coming up “from the bottom,” as Canadian hip-hop giant Drake raps, can almost be understood as symptomatic of this “distance” between central authorities and hip hop artists, while the emergence of “Chinese style” hip hop can be seen to reflect the much closer (yet, perhaps, no less conflictual) relationship discussed here. Both can be considered attractive from the perspective of cultural exchange but can still provide very distinct challenges for industry development.

So, what’s next?

Recent years have seen a loosening of these developmental tensions as both the CCP and hip hop artists themselves seem to have found somewhat of a middle ground regarding how much creative autonomy can be tolerated. It is no coincidence that “Rap of China’s” season one winner, Gai, whose lyrics are replete with Chinese-specific references, returned as a judge on the show in 2020, while his more “Westernized” counterpart, PG One, is nowhere to be seen.

While the emergence of “Chinese style” hip hop is a testament to the prism of human creativity, with artists reinventing cultural traditions through their own distinct localities within the hip hop universe, the CCP’s attraction to the trend definitely is not.

Therefore, the question for the future is whether, in a country as large as China and with internal conflicts already recognized, this tentative middle ground can provide a stable foundation for future growth within the cultural industries.

This is only heightened by the fact that no other musical genre prides itself on the platforming individual voices quite as much as hip hop.

It seems there may be one or two more controversies surrounding autonomy within the Chinese cultural industries before a more permanent balance is found.

Solomon is currently completing an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex in England. His work mainly focuses on cultural products and exchanges, aiming to undermine the actors and referents traditionally found in international relations textbooks to paint a picture of the international community that better captures the lived reality of everyday individuals. He is currently working as social media and venue manager for Latest TV, and performs as a hip hop artist under the name ‘S. Pace.

Photo Credit: iQiyi, in line with non-commercial use guidelines.

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