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No star-worshipping: Xi's cultural clampdown has echoes of past

Dominant Communist Party of Maoist era risks stifling growth and innovation

A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at the National Stadium in Beijing.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- A stunt by Chinese fans to mark the birthday of a young celebrity elicited a harsh rebuke from Beijing that for some evoked uncomfortable echoes of the Cultural Revolution.

A Chinese fan club for the pop star raised funds in late August to have an airplane plastered with his photographs and a birthday banner. But on Saturday, microblogging service Weibo, where pictures of the customized plane circulated, suspended the group's account for 60 days.

Their offense was "irrational star-worshipping behavior," according to Weibo, which pledged to "deal with such behavior seriously" in a statement. 

The speedy response is seen as part of the government clampdown on fan culture that the Chinese Communist Party fears could spiral out of its control.

President Xi Jinping's efforts to shape the minds of youth, control Chinese culture and bring the private sector to heel has begun to resemble Mao Zedong's, and could prove similarly disastrous for the economy if not kept in check.

A customized Jeju Air plane marking the birthday of a popular boyband member. (Photo taken from Twitter)

Last month saw multiple celebrities fired, fined or otherwise punished for offenses such as tax evasion. The Chinese Communist Party's Publicity Department declared Thursday that the party would tighten oversight of artists and business figures and step up ideological education of children, indicating that the entertainment industry will join the media as a mouthpiece for the party.

The use of cultural avenues to tighten the party's grip on society is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, when young people egged on by Mao attacked intellectuals and leaders of the old guard.

China's economy was devastated, shrinking in three of the 10 years of that period, before eventually being put back on track toward growth under Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up" policy.

If Beijing targets the wealthy and pushes the country back toward that dark chapter of history, economic growth would likely come to a halt, to the detriment of Xi's political fortunes. But this risk does not seem to have deterred the crackdown.

A piece by blogger Li Guangman last month praising Xi' efforts seems to reflect the zeitgeist. The article, which argued that Beijing's intervention in entertainment, tech and other fields is driving a "profound transformation" or even a "revolution," was picked up by numerous state media, including Xinhua, the People's Daily, China Central Television and website China Military -- unusual for an essay by an individual.

The episode harked back to how a criticism of a Chinese opera called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office printed in the Shanghai-based daily Wenhui Bao ended up triggering the Cultural Revolution.

The party is also tightening grip on education. With the new school year starting this month, elementary, middle and high school students will be required to study Xi Jinping Thought, memorizing aphorisms from the president in moral education textbooks.

Ideological education tightly connected to a specific person is seen by critics as bordering on a cult of personality. The prospect of "a return of the Cultural Revolution -- which was brought about because Mao concentrated too much power in his own hands -- is terrifying," a Communist Party source said.

The ongoing crackdown on business figures adds fuel to the fire.

Alibaba Group Holding was thrust into the spotlight on Weibo late last month over a user post questioning whether to pull money out of the group's Alipay app, given founder Jack Ma's ties to multiple celebrities caught up in the recent purge.

The post showed how Ma -- who has been in Beijing's crosshairs before -- remains in a precarious position, raising concerns about whether Alipay would continue in operation.

With the recent emphasis on Xi's "common prosperity" campaign to address economic inequality, Chinese tech giants have been practically competing to give away money. But motivating entrepreneurs through fear and distrust risks shutting down innovation.

Beijing's clampdowns could be likened to Mao's use of the Cultural Revolution to target political enemies. Many big names in China's tech sector have ties to former President Jiang Zemin, a political heavyweight at odds with Xi. And the family of Zeng Qinghong, Jiang's former vice president and close aid, is highly influential in the entertainment industry.

A "Cultural Revolution 2.0" could be cataclysmic for China, and for the world as a whole as well, if the economic powerhouse turns inward.

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