Discover more from ChinaTalk
The CCP's Masculinity Crisis
Why people are getting upset about handsome young men in make-up with alluring Taiwanese accents.
By Tianyi Xu, Shenzhen native and senior at Bowdoin.
In September 2018, an unassuming official commentary published on Xinhua Net kicked off a lasting moral panic in Chinese society backed by the mouthpieces of the party’s sprawling propaganda machinery.
That panic is a perceived urgency that the “effeminization” of men in popular culture and beyond needs to be rooted out. The malaise was palpable: netizens flooded forums, Weibo posts and WeChat comment sections to air their grievances against the onslaught of “effeminate men” plaguing television screens with their womanly makeup and Taiwanese accents.
Perceived culprits varied, but a few refrains point to capitalism’s tunnel-vision on ratings at the expense of “broader cultural concerns,” or insidious Western influence around the moral bankruptcy of transgender and gay rights seeping into China.
What’s going on?
Quoting American educator Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Xin Shiping, the propagandist group of writers responsible for the piece, combined a bombastic polemic with the implicit approval of the homophobic sentiments prevalent online.
“In an open and pluralistic society, aesthetic tastes can take many forms and vary by person. But there is a limit to everything, and the dangers of appeasing negativity start with crossing the line: aesthetics becomes less about appreciating beauty and more about indulging in grotesqueness. Popular reception and media trends in favor of “Xiao Xian Rou (“little fresh meat,” referring to young, clean-cut men with defined features), and the spirit of sissies betray a worrying tendency. In the noise of “you can’t compete with beauty,” the innate self-cultivation of actors and entertainers is eschewed. Certain actors with awful acting skills are paid so handsomely that their willfulness should come as no surprise. Within the mistaken ideology of “entertainment is supreme” and “ratings trump all,” certain works in television and film, along with certain internet streaming platforms and reality shows, intentionally play into vulgar tastes, traffic in the strange and the grotesque, challenge normal social orders and good morality and fall victim to novelty-seeking, money-worshipping decadence.”
Unsurprisingly, the comment was wrapped up with a chauvinistic appeal to patriotic duty to call out these “illicit influences.”
“Men are civilized by culture and teaching influences are just as paramount. The culture of sissy-men is revolting to the public in no small part because of the adverse implications it carries for our teenagers. The youth are the future of our country, and while online criticism of “sissy youth beget sissy nation” [a play on “strong youth beget strong nation,” a patriotic slogan referring to the rejuvenation of China as a strong power] is somewhat playful, it is indeed true that what is embraced, what is rejected and what is disseminated by a society, a nation, and a popular culture is a big topic crucially linked to the future of our nation. Cultivating a new generation of youth prepared for the task of national rejuvenation requires the active rejection of the encroachment of illicit cultures and the active nourishment of good cultures.”
They use a particularly troubling term to stigmatize male gender nonconformity. “娘炮” (niangpao) refers to men who are more in tune with femininity and behave in manners socially-coded as feminine (including using an umbrella as a sunshade).
A popular slur uttered often by school bullies, the term’s cavalier proliferation and official use speak to a deeply ingrained moral panic over masculine ideals, fusing the chauvinist conviction of feminine inferiority with the nationalistic intervention of gender to ensure the purity of masculinity.
A cursory glance at recent internet events shows that this masculine anxiety is hardly foreign to the Chinese internet. The eruptive online protests in March of 2020 against proposed legislation to expand permanent residency access to foreigners show the pervasiveness of this anxiety.
The legislative proposal surfaced just as China began to successfully keep Covid at bay, and early concerns of special privileges being granted to foreigners quickly gave way to a more powerfully focused, gendered narrative.
Swathes of male netizens forcefully pronounced with an iron will that “Chinese girls belong only to Chinese guys,” expressing anxiety over future inability to “protect” and “own” Chinese women.
It culminated in some of the most grotesquely racist and misogynistic online discourses, hinging on tirades with overtly racist fear-mongering about Black immigration, interracial coupling and the putative “tainting” of Chinese women — all set off by a simple immigration bill.
At the crescendo of such mass hysteria was an online free-for-all, dislodging an even more wide-ranging, sometimes incoherent set of grievances against the foreign threats of the U.S. and Japan, often carrying eugenicist and pejorative jeers boasting of Chinese masculinity.
That the bill was a Western plot intent on destroying China is a familiar refrain to this day. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, women who insist on autonomy are labeled as unpatriotic traitors jeopardizing national security, harassed by the very men who swear to be stalwart defenders of Chinese women.
As the racial ownership controversy is relatively new, it is difficult to find quantitative research into this phenomenon. However, I’ve been doing some research into the existing literature on gender-based violence and did come across a 2013 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report on China that had some interesting statistics.
Namely, around 25% (a quarter) consider women to be the property of the husband once the bridal gift has been paid in full; another 25% said that women should assume a subservient status in relation to men. Forty-one percent said wives should not be able to deny marital sex to their husbands.
In the same analysis, 56% of male respondents would consider it “shameful” to have a gay son. That said, it must be remembered that this report is almost a decade old and it’s difficult to say how general opinion has shifted during the intervening years.
Family in crisis
I spoke with Dr. Kailing Xie, lecturer in international development at the University of Birmingham and a scholar on women in contemporary China, about these developments in trends of masculinity and the cooptation of the party machinery. Her prior research on families in China focuses on how performances of gender identities are negotiated within heterosexual marriages.
Nationalism is a crucial component in her understanding of contemporary family dynamics in China. She sees it as a tool to instrumentalize gendered dynamics, set the agenda and mediate the public’s emotions, responses and patriotic sentiments.
Family, and by extension gender and heterosexuality, is a foundational aspect of state cohesion in China, and its privacy and omnipresence go well with the state’s peacekeeping policies (维稳政策).
Of course, family is also an important structure for social cohesion in the industrialized West, particularly in the form of nuclear families, but Dr. Xie points out that China’s sprawling family dynamics are inextricably tied to its economic development and governance structure.
“If you think about how China’s welfare is structured, families remain the main welfare provider for the large population because of the lack of public provisions [to] help the uneven distribution of medical care,” Dr. Xie said. “So the family is still the main welfare provider… In official discourse [it] has been presented both as this driver of China’s rise as well as the beneficiary of it.”
The troubles run deep. The merry symbiosis between the family and the state saw the first signs of trouble in the 1980s, with the Chinese people experiencing “profound changes in individual's perception of family and intimate relationships,” according to Dr. Xie.
It’s a tale (almost) as old as modern times: irrespective of its basis, the mere perception of crisis has fueled cascades of moral panic that extend to the upper echelons of China’s government. For their part, they see the collapse of the traditional family as potentially catastrophic to stability under the regime.
The onset of marketization brought about a new era of individualization: the younger generations of the 1980s and 1990s were exposed to more options, desires and possibilities to live one’s life on one’s own terms; a trend that contradicted the government’s longstanding vision on how the Chinese nation state functions.
Silenced but vibrant
Noting the particularly visible shutdown of Douban’s feminist groups, Dr. Xie acknowledges the swift rebuke of social discussions that entail sensitive topics around childbirth and marriage that deviates from the party’s official line. Still, she notes that her research points her to the potential that activism, despite widespread censorship, remains alive and present in younger circles.
“A lot of stuff has been censored, but we still see quite vibrant independent LGBTQ rights and activist voices coming out,” she said. “Queer activist artists and the young people… are very active online despite the censorship.”
Dr. Xie points out that the government’s traditionalist policies still have purchase because these ideas largely hold up for older generations whose children are reaching early adulthood, catalyzing a desire to crack down on desires, philosophies and values perceived to be novel and (perhaps as a result) dangerous.
In the meantime, younger, more affluent women, who are the subjects of her study, talk about how their desire to marry and live their lives are sanctioned not by the government’s rhetoric, but by their parents’ assent.
“The people who are intimate and close to [queer people] emotionally actually carry more weight, and would be able to transmit more pressure… for them to follow this kind of conventional life path,” she said. “My participant actually said, ‘I don't care about what other people say. I only care about what my mom thinks of my behavior. So if my parents accept me being single, or me being gay or lesbian, then I’m fine.’”
The coming landscape of China’s queer activism is hard to predict. Li Yinhe, the prominent Chinese sexologist and sociologist, is the first (and somewhat only) name that comes to mind as far as well-known public figures who support liberal sexual politics. She’s been a consistent, leading and somewhat authoritative voice in public discourse advocating for freedom from gender stereotypes as well as liberation for queer people.
It is certainly interesting to see whether policy on a national level will shift in the coming decades as younger elites assume more integral leadership roles. The main message for the moment is obvious: the demographic crisis unfolding in China, buoyed by declining fertility rates and rising costs of living, has set in motion an era in which policy “purifies” spaces perceived to be under threat of evils foreign in origin and corrupt in nature.
Not unlike the promise of “Make America Great Again,” this time the conceit is making China’s men masculine again. Its message and implications are bound to be chilling to any liberal-minded observers.
ChinaTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.