Communication Currents

Communication Current

How a Chinese Hip Hop Group Fuses Nationalism and Propaganda

December 10, 2019
Critical and Cultural Studies, Political Communication, Theater & Performance

In 2016, CD Rev, a Chinese hip hop group, released This is China, a song with English verses. The music video, which was produced by the Communist Youth League of China, was intended in part to correct what the group viewed as “misconceptions of contemporary China.” In a new article published in the NCA journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Sheng Zou argues that while CD Rev’s hip hop may not look like conventional propaganda, it functions as ideotainment, which fuses state interests with citizens’ nationalism. In the article, Zou conducts a textual analysis of This is China and Come to Chengdu, Tour Around Chengdu (Lai Chengdu, Kan Chengdu) and the music videos for the songs.

Zou showcases how nationalism in China both originates from the Party-state (top down) and the people (bottom up). Top-down and bottom-up nationalism also have different goals; according to Zou, the state uses top-down nationalism to assert its authority, while bottom-up nationalism is concerned with the desire for citizens’ “national identity” to be respected. Bottom-up nationalism has been on the rise in China since the 1990s. Through hip hop, CD Rev attempts to express a bottom-up nationalist sentiment that has been endorsed by the Party through collaborations with the Communist Youth League of China.

Some scholars argue that the Internet and commercial forces have challenged the authority of traditional Party-state propaganda, while others claim that the Party-state’s propaganda has adapted. Ideotainment can be understood as one way in which the Party-state has adapted to the Internet and globalization.

Ideotainment has its roots in the Party’s long-standing tradition of using popular culture and music for propaganda during the 20th century. For example, the Party-state has used folk songs and opera, as well as other art forms, for propaganda. However, ideotainment differs from previous uses of popular culture because it is also a response to the new media environment. Chinese citizens have more music choices because of marketization, which has led some Western genres, including hip hop, to become more well-known in China. By promoting ideotainment, the Party-state attempts to co-opt bottom-up nationalist sentiment to reach a broader audience. Zou argues that in this way, ideotainment can be “more unobtrusive and appealing to the populace, especially the younger generations.” CD Rev’s hip hop aims to appeal to the youth in China, while also supporting the Party line. CD Rev has been both endorsed by the Party and popularly received within China.

In This is China, CD Rev balances careful criticism of current political problems, such as air pollution, with praise for the Party-state. Zou argues that this critique seems “spontaneous,” distinguishing the content from traditional propaganda. After raising some political problems, This is China directs criticism toward “unethical businessmen, spies, traitors, and corrupt politicians, to which many of China’s social ills are attributed.” The song then shifts to praise the Party-state for its progress toward solving social and political problems. In the same song, CD Rev compares China to Western countries—observing that other countries also experience air pollution and smog—and compares gun restrictions in China to other countries with looser regulations.

CD Rev also strategically uses Chinese imagery and traditions. In the This is China video, CD Rev uses images of the Forbidden City, tea ceremonies, the Great Wall, and other symbols that evoke China. In addition, the song utilizes traditional Chinese opera instruments. Zou notes that “throughout the video, symbols of tradition—the Sichuanese face-changing opera, lion dance, Chinese calligraphy and tea culture, traditional architectures, and terraced farmlands—are juxtaposed with symbols of modernity and contemporary urban life—bustling city streets, high-rise buildings, and modern urban lifestyles.” In addition to geography and landmarks, in This is China, CD Rev also uses imagery of people living different lifestyles within China, including an ethnic minority couple, a wedding ceremony, and farmers. Zou writes that the lyrics, “People are too busy with business/everybody wanna have a better life, make money, get married,” reinforce this imagery and epitomize the Party-state’s emphasis on people pursuing their material desires.

Similarly, in the Come to Chengdu, Tour Around Chengdu video, Chengdu is depicted as a fusion of modern and traditional China. Come to Chengdu also portrays a thriving local culture that exists within the nation. Furthermore, Zou argues that the video implies that “the success of this city would not be possible without the policy support of the Party-state.” As in the This is China video, Come to Chengdu features people engaged in leisure activities. According to Zou, these videos seek to link these lifestyle choices to political programs that have created opportunities for business and personal success.

A key challenge for CD Rev is striking a balance between authenticity and state propaganda. For example, in This is China, CD Rev attempts to use a measured critique of political problems to enhance the group’s authenticity; likewise, in Come to Chengdu, the artists use hip hop’s “pretty girls” trope, but also praise their city’s development. Authenticity is particularly important within the context of hip hop culture, which prioritizes an “aesthetic of ‘keeping it real.’” However, CD Rev’s fellow hip hop artists have critiqued the group for promoting state messages. Thus, despite their efforts at authenticity, CD Rev’s bottom-up nationalism may not always be persuasive.

Zou’s analysis reveals that CD Rev’s songs function as a kind of ideotainment that fuses youthful nationalism and state goals. CD Rev uses careful critique to balance an authentic hip hop voice with the Party line lyrically; at the same time, the music videos fuse local imagery with traditional imagery to suggest a national identity. However, Zou argues that these songs may not always function as effective propaganda because the artists may be viewed as inauthentic.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Sheng Zou (2019) When nationalism meets hip-hop: aestheticized politics of ideotainment in China, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 16:3, 178-195, DOI: 10.1080/14791420.2019.1637008

About the author (s)

Sheng Zou

Stanford University

Ph.D. Candidate—Department of Communication

Dissertation Prize Fellow—Stanford Humanities Center

Sheng Zou