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China's Censorship War Against Sex, Drugs, and 'Vulgar Content' Is Now Hitting Online Music Streams

Beijing's Ministry of Culture has demanded that music services implement self-censorship to check their catalogs for deviant messages from 2016. Ironically, such moves often spectacularly backfire.

by Jamie Fullerton
Nov 10 2015, 1:09pm

Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

This year has been something of a washout for popular music in China. Subversive, politically-charged arena acts such as Bon Jovi and Maroon 5 have had gigs on the mainland canceled at short notice, with authorities presumably fearful that the latter could deviate from lyric-approved versions of Moves Like Jagger and incite a pro-democracy rally at Beijing's Mastercard Center. Or, even worse, tweet a hello message to the Dalai Lama.

The rock festival scene in the capital was effectively destroyed by local officials refusing to give out event permits earlier in 2015, plus many small Beijing gig venues shuttered. It seemed like the censors' scissors were rigidly pointed towards live rather than recorded music. Not anymore, though: the Ministry of Culture has announced that from January 1 next year every song released by a Chinese download or stream service is to be reviewed and censored if deemed inappropriate.

On Monday, the ministry issued a "notification on strengthening and improving the management of online music" policy, demanding that music services set up self-censorship departments to check their catalogs for deviant messages. State-owned news agency Xinhua, announced this, saying: "Online music should go through a strict reviewing process according to the requirement of the ministry before being made available online. The reviewing information should be filed in the provincial relevant departments or above."

Related: Music Festivals Are Being Stamped out in Beijing

Xinhua added: "Operators should attach great importance to this rule and carry it out conscientiously." These operators will include China's three biggest internet firms — Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Tencent Holdings Ltd., and Baidu Inc. — which all have music streaming platforms.

The culture ministry did not publicly give details about what kind of content censors should be looking out for, but did warn them that punishment such as blacklisting awaits those who don't comply. The kinds of songs that have been banned in recent years in an effort to keep what authorities called "poor taste and vulgar content" out of the nation's ears give a clue as to what will get snipped in 2016.

In 2011 Katy Perry's Last Friday Night (TGIF), which alludes to threesomes, was on a list of 100 songs blacklisted by authorities. Six songs from Lady Gaga's album Born This Way album, plus Simple Plan's You Suck At Love (which features the phrase "awesome fuck") were also on the list, suggesting that chopping out mentions of sex was the priority.

A bit more clarity was offered last August when the ministry released another list of banned songs, this time 120 tracks long, all "containing content that promotes sex, violence or crime, or harms public morality." In that gloriously self-defeating way that censoring so often does, the move ended up shining a light on those authorities were attempting to suppress, namely two little-known Chinese hip-hop bands who used to write lyrics about anger towards society: In 3 and Xinjiekou.

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"It actually serves as a reminder for composers like us and helps guide our music creation," Xinjiekou's MC Han told the Wall Street Journal, speaking with understandable temperance about eight of his band's songs being on the list. "Those songs were written to express our true feelings when we were less mature."

The new move is part of China's massive recent effort to "cleanse" the internet of what the government deems as inappropriate material, with authorities also cracking down on sites that offer porn and gambling. It also fits snugly with President Xi Jinping's increasingly hardline censorship measures restricting other forms of media.

Earlier this month media outlets across the country were reminded that they essentially exist to promote the Communist Party and will be reprimanded for failing to adhere to this vision. Chinese social media companies have been forced to make users sign up under their real names, making dissenters using platforms such as Weibo easier to track down.

The music censorship news did not go down well with many of China's netizens. "In the future will every Weibo get reviewed before being posted online?" one wrote, tempting fate a little. "Why doesn't the Ministry of Culture go and regulate food and drugs?" asked another. One commenter saw the potential creation of cushy jobs, writing: "Is the ministry feeding a bunch of people who sit there doing nothing but listen to music?"

Related: Beijing Tries to Stub Out Smoking With Hand Signals and Snitches

Next year netizens will still be able to access the subversive sounds of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga by using virtual proxy networks (VPNs) that trick computers into acting as if they are based outside of China, leaping the Great Firewall. And considering the ministry's laughably inconsistent implementation of music censorship recently, it'll be equally as interesting and depressing to see how they monitor the internet companies' efforts at self-censorship.

Will Alt-J find themselves binned for promising to "lick you like a crisp packet?" Will Prince become a figure more hated by Chinese authorities than the Dalai Lama? Will the self-censoring teams have the nous to realize that Anita Ward's 1979 classic Ring My Bell is possibly about the clitoris? We can't wait to find out.

Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1