In 2019, some Chinese viewers relaxing at home may have been surprised upon turning on their televisions. The ears of some of the men on their screens were blurry. No, this wasn’t a smudge or a result of bad vision, but a deliberate political choice. Three years ago, the Chinese government began systematically blurring the ears of male celebrities with piercings on television programs. Deemed unsuitable as public role models, the government characterizes these celebrities as “niang pao” — often translated to sissy.
However, the roots of this policy lie far deeper—into a government intent on permanently changing China’s social landscape. In China, President Xi Jinping and the government are now actively intertwining social values and nationalism through deliberate policies to further their political means. According to their narrative, to be truly patriotic, one must adhere to the traditional definitions of a man, a woman, and a family member.
Xi and his government’s efforts are motivated by recent Chinese socio-economic developments. China is reaching a point in its economic rise where it can and must start to focus on the nation’s cultural future. Economic growth alone can no longer placate the population, and Xi has begun seriously looking for other sources of stability for his government. Afterall, Xi intends for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to remain the ruling party of China for years to come, and in order to do so the government needs a stable and long-lasting ideological base. China is also in an increasingly polarized position internationally, and it is a government priority to both assuage the population and exploit these issues for public loyalty.
Addressing these political concerns, Xi has incorporated neo-traditionalism into the CCP’s primary political strategy. Politically speaking, neo-traditionalism revives old cultural ideals and traditions for use in contemporary political strategy—exactly what Xi has done while crafting his party’s ideological framework. Xi has stated that “outstanding traditional culture is a country and nation’s basis for continuation and development. Losing it is the same as severing a country and nation’s lifeline.”
There is also a very important cultural variable to consider—family. In a country where the familial unit is paramount, the government has decided that it is crucial to incorporate the concept of family dynamics with nationalism. The individual is tied to the family which is tied to the state—patriotism and familism are permanently intertwined. Thus, the concept of a traditional heterosexual family is vital to the Chinese state.
The concept of family is especially important within the context of Chinese demographic challenges. Marriage and birth rates are drastically falling, and China’s infamous one child policy has created a dangerously high imbalance of men in the country. These social issues—at least through the eyes of the government—are compounded by changing social attitudes of Chinese youth and greater influence from Western and foreign cultures.
This mix of political strategy and social pressure represent government efforts to push the country to prioritize traditional gender roles. Media censorship—as expected—is one of the government’s foremost soft-power strategies. In 2016, in a broader crackdown on “vulgar, immoral, and unhealthy content,” the CCP banned all depictions of gay people on screen—along with extramarital affairs, one-night stands, and underage relationships. In 2019, in an effort to “resolutely put an end to niang pao men and other abnormal aesthetics,” Chinese authorities began to ban television depictions of male piercings. Piercings have joined male pony tails, gore, and tattoos on an ever growing list of blurred aesthetics—or “heavily applied mosaics” as coined by the Chinese internet. Finally in 2021, “effeminate” men in general were banned from television.
This principle of censorship runs much deeper than surface-level aesthetics. The government has increasingly put pressure on the media to “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.” Chinese youth will grow up with a media that puts the state above the individual—where stories of ideal Chinese households are prioritized over ones of individualism and alternative families.
In parallel efforts beyond television, the government has shut down over 6,000 “inappropriate” websites and over two million social media accounts and online groups. In 2021, WeChat—China’s most popular social media platform—sparked international controversy after shutting down dozens of student-led university LGBT+ accounts at China’s most prestigious universities.
However, the media remains just one tool for the government’s pursuit of cultural homogenization. For example, Shanghai Pride, China’s oldest and only major LGBT+ event, was shut down in 2020 amid pressure from local authorities. Chinese administrators have also promoted “de-feminization” initiatives in the education system—prioritizing creating more “masculine” future generations. These initiatives are accompanied by the introduction of traditional Chinese classes across the country and pre-existing patriotic education—molding “ideal” young students.
While many in the West denounce these initiatives, the Chinese government points to the criticism as vindication. For years, the government has been warning the population about “subversive” and “dangerous” foreign values that would ultimately cause widespread chaos and instability. In 2019, one of China’s leading research institutions, The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, baselessly concluded that the CIA—in an attempt to destabilize Asia—was deliberately brainwashing and emasculating Asian men by creating “sissy pants” celebrities. Here, the government explicitly denounces non-traditional behaviors as un-Chinese and foreign.
Surprisingly, even in the face of outlandish conclusions from the government, the Chinese public remains unperturbed. Historically, Chinese citizens have not objected to government censorship, fervent nationalism is at an all time high, and every year more Chinese children willingly grow up in a white-washed climate. There is little widespread resistance.
The true victims of these policies are those Chinese who live outside of the government’s cookie-cutter image of an ideal citizen. Millions of Chinese people who don’t conform to traditionalist views of individuals or families are viewed as unpatriotic and Westernized—subject to public marginalization. Millions of LGBT+ Chinese people remain closeted, subject to sham marriages, conversion therapy, and unaddressed legal challenges. In fact, according to the UN, less than 5% of LGBT+ Chinese come out to family or friends. As Zhihan Ren—a famous Chinese lesbian blogger—put it, “what [the government] did is just like a denial of our existence… how can we try to persuade our parents, persuade others?” When the Chinese government blurs the piercings of men on television screens, it is doing much more than erasing a piece of fashion. It is blurring the voices and faces of entire communities—rendering them silent.
I happened upon your site and read the articles China’s Population Crisis and Decolonizing America. I found them to be very informative and enlightening, definitely opening myself to a broader understanding within the issues facing other cultures.