Artists are being forced into picking a side when it comes to the Hong Kong demonstrations and sadly, whichever way they go, they can only lose, writes Tom Pattinson
For centuries, performers, musicians and artists have used their voices to showcase injustice, high-light inequality and to rebel against the system. Entire genres of music have been created through it, from the American slaves who created blues, the anti-establishment Brits who created punk, to the disenfranchised youth of LA and New York who created rap.
Youth culture has traditionally been about fighting the system, sticking it ‘to the man’ and expressing youthful angst at perceived social injustices. However, the demonstrations in Hong Kong has caused a clash between the usually left-leaning, establishment-bashing genre of creative culture, and the defensive, nationalist tone of the mainland youth.
Most mainland Chinese have been critical of the demonstrations and expressed their support of the Hong Kong police. This has manifested in social media posts including the widely re-posted, pro-police meme created by the People’s Daily that reads: “I support Hong Kong police, you can hit me” in Chinese characters, with “What a shame for Hong Kong” written beneath in English.
This reaction isn’t entirely surprising due to the mainland’s media coverage and the narrative that is being told. But it has left many mainland stars in a bit of a quandary as to how to react to it. Celebrities in many ways are not much different from companies and their public reactions to incidents such as these can make or break a career as much as it can make or break a company. Companies are quick to feel the wrath of mainland justice-by-social-media, even if the faux pas they make is accidental. But when it comes to China’s national sovereignty, finding the balance between individual integrity and political correctness is a very fine line to walk and something of a zero-sum game.
Hong Kong Cantopop star Denise Ho’s mainland career ended quickly after she was involved in the 2014 umbrella movement in Hong Kong. She was rapidly dropped as a brand ambassador by Lancome and has firmly become persona non-grata in mainland China since she has become a voice of the current demonstrations.
Offending China could be the nail in the coffin of a rising star’s career in the mainland
And just as offending China could be the nail in the coffin of a rising star’s career in the mainland, Chinese celebrities supporting the Hong Kong police can also seriously dent an international career overseas. The Higher Brothers – arguably China’s best-known rap act – have seen their international fan base grow in no small part thanks to headlining Hong Kong’s largest music festival in 2017. However, their comments in support of the police have offended many of their supporters in Hong Kong and abroad.
Film star Liu Yifei who plays the lead in the soon-to-be-released remake of the film Mulan also publically spoke up against the protests and showed her support for the Hong Kong Police leading to the #boycottmulan on twitter. For many Mainland Chinese performers, audiences in the country they live and work in, are more highly valued than international audiences who they may only visit on occasion. Not to mention the earning potential in China alone is very healthy but it’s a hard position to be in for many of China’s emerging pop talent. It seems remaining silent isn’t an option – as even American sweetheart Taylor Swift discovered by not backing either candidate publically in the 2016 American elections. No comment will likely lead to criticism from both sides.
For stars who want to go international, coming across as nationalistic won’t win fans abroad but by not standing up for your country is career suicide at home.