China’s new celebrity politicians

China’s new celebrity politicians

China’s politicians are beginning to shed their staid image for the limelight of social media, notes ELAINE JEFFREYS

The emergence of commercial entertainment and sports stars as an elite stratum in China is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, celebrity has entered the terrain of governance along with the growth of commercial popular culture, the loosening of political controls over the broadcast media and the development of the Chinese internet and social media.

Some Chinese politicians have become celebrities, either intentionally or by accident, along with the branding of their leadership styles. Celebrities from the entertainment, arts and sports world have also participated in the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which acts, in theory, as a governance watchdog and adviser to the NPC on central and local government policy.

The NPC and the CPPCC are widely viewed as rubberstamp organisations for decisions by the ruling Communist Party (CPP). However, the NPC, with nearly3000 elected delegates, offers the only large-scale elite political institution in mainland China with a process remotely approaching democratic representation and participation—the only other outlet being village elections.

Likewise, although its membership of over 2000 delegates is nominated by the state, the CPPCC is the only institutionalised forum in mainland China that provides a voice for groups and individuals outside of the CCP.

Examples abound in Western liberal democratic societies of the growing links between celebrity and politics. In China, however, there are no straightforward examples of such links because major political leaders receive ample media coverage in state-controlled media outlets and, because China has only one ruling party, politicians are not obliged to compete for media coverage and votes.

Politicians as celebrities

In recent years some senior CCP officials, such as Premier Wen Jiabao (2002–12), former CCP Secretary in Chongqing municipality Bo Xilai, and President Xi Jinping, have become politician celebrities.

Wen’s use of state-run broadcast and social media to communicate a personalised leadership style makes him a new type of reform-era politician celebrity. He received widespread publicity for meeting disaster-affected people, eating meals with people living in poor rural communities, encouraging public criticisms of government malfeasance and using online forums to communicate with ordinary citizens before NPC meetings.

His populist style garnered him support as a political reformist and criticism as the lead actor in a party-led public relations campaign designed to distract people from the need for systemic change.

Bo Xilai is a politician celebrity whose public behaviour, private life and alleged association with celebrities have altered his public persona beyond the traditional political sphere. The son of a renowned political and military leader, Bo occupied senior political posts until October 2012, when he was expelled from the CCP and removed from all state positions pending trial for corruption and disciplinary violations.

Prior to his arrest, Bo cultivated a casual and charismatic image in the media that contrasted sharply with the usually staid media personas of senior Chinese officials. In late 2013, he was sentenced to life imprisonment following a highly publicised trial for embezzlement and graft. His trial was conducted amid scandal that he had tried to cover up his wife’s murder of a British entrepreneur and had used public funds to pay hundreds of women for sexual favours.

The extraordinary nature of the Bo case, and its entanglement with elite politics, corruption, sex and murder led many commentators to declare that it was just like a Hollywood movie.

President Xi Jinping: China’s first social media president. (Flickr, Global Panorama. Published under a Creative Commons licence).

President Xi Jinping has been dubbed by the English-language press as China’s first social media president for his use of social media to publicise visits to rural villages and the nationwide anticorruption drive. It is thought that his use of social media in this way may be defusing popular discontent and giving the CPP and its leader the public support to remain in power.

While there are no celebrity politicians in contemporary China of the ilk of actors-turned-politicians Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the United States, there are numerous examples of Chinese celebrity politicians—if membership of the NPC counts as holding political office.

As nominally the supreme organ of state power, the NPC’s main functions and powers include formulating laws and policy, delegating authority and supervising other governing organs. However, the major contents of those laws and policies are usually determined in advance by government departments and party committees.

The primary benefit of NPC (and CPPCC) membership is generally seen to be confirmation of high social standing, a reputation boost fostering one’s professional and business development and a rare opportunity to participate to some extent in public policy development.

Delegates to the 11th NPC (2008–12) consisted of at least 30 celebrities (1 per cent)—significantly lower than the number of delegates who were corporate CEOs (around 500, or 17 per cent). Most of the celebrity delegates attracted media publicity for presenting or supporting motions to the NPC about policy development, usually relating to their general area of professional expertise—though none of these motions resulted in policy change.

The case of NPC delegate Ding Liguo, an entrepreneur, however, demonstrates that elite advocacy can contribute to policy change. Ding submitted a motion in March 2012 to ban shark-fin soup at state-funded banquets. International conservation groups contend that the demand for shark fin, an established component of Chinese haute cuisine, is endangering open-ocean shark populations.

On 8 December 2013, the Central Committee and the State Council issued the Regulations on Domestic Official Hospitality for Party and Government Organs. Article 9 states: ‘Official dinners should not involve: high-end cuisine or dishes that contain shark fin, bird’s nest, or any protected animal …’

The involvement of celebrities and corporate figures in the NPC could be a positive force for social change in China, given the limited spaces available for broader political participation.

Ding’s motion flowed from his involvement in shark protection activities coordinated by a non-profit elite club, of which Ding is a member, to promote entrepreneurial exchange and sustainable development, and WildAid, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to wildlife conservation. WildAid has distributed celebrity-endorsed public service announcements in China about the need for shark protection.

The ban on shark-fin soup at official banquets, however, was not accepted when first proposed at the CPPCC’s 2012 meeting by a representative who was vice-president of a non-profit environmental protection organisation, some of whose members are also representatives at the CPPCC. Nevertheless, the links between shark protection activities at the NPC and CPPCC provide an example of new elite networks operating to shape sociopolitical participation as members of formal government institutions and non-profit organisations.

The example also highlights the potential for environmental NGOs and elite activists to influence domestic governance in China. Even though the ban on shark fin at official banquets ban cannot be directly attributed to their activities, the fact that domestic non-profit organisations working with international NGOs were able to roll out shark protection activities across multiple media and sociopolitical spaces suggests that the involvement of celebrities and corporate figures in the NPC could be a positive force for social change in China, given the limited spaces available for broader political participation.

Celebrity advocacy

The case of Li Yinhe provides another notable example of how celebrity advocacy targeting the annual meetings of the NPC and CPPCC can sometimes open the space for discussion on alternative policies and politics.

An academic, Li Yinhe is a high visibility figure from a traditionally non-political sphere who has used the political space provided by the annual meetings to advocate for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in China.

Li has been lobbying delegates for more than a decade to present her proposals to national CPPCC meetings. Her proposal obtained support from enough delegates to be discussed at the 2005 meeting, but was then rejected as lacking sufficient detail for sustained discussion.

In 2012, Li attempted but failed to have her proposal presented to the NPC by a delegate with an equally controversial history of advocating for the legalisation of sex work.

Although they have failed so far to obtain formal political support, Li’s efforts to bring the issue of same-sex marriage to the attention of the CPPCC and NPC have attracted widespread publicity.

The examples of celebrity delegates operating within the political spaces of the NPC and CPPCC shed light on the links between celebrity and elite politics, revealing a broadening of elite networks that usually support but occasionally also challenge government policies. Notwithstanding these limitations, the examples of Ding Liguo and Li Yinhe demonstrate that these political spaces can in some instances be used to generate new policies and promote public discussion of alternative politics.

At the same time, the failure of celebrities to gain traction for policy changes unless they align with prevailing CCP priorities indicates that media coverage of their political involvement has not accorded them the social authority that makes celebrity politics such a controversial feature of Western liberal democracies.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in China Information.

Main photo:
Li Yinhe has a high profile in China and has spent a decade lobbying politicians for the legislation of same-sex marriage. Flickr. Brookings Institute. Published under a Creative Commons licence.

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