Four decades after The Sugarhill Gang broke out of the Bronx house party music scene to go global with Rapper’s Delight, the Chinese Communist Party is busting rhymes with “red raps.”
Eager to make inroads with youth at home and abroad, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has embraced rap, a sometimes-X-rated hallmark of America’s Black culture, as a way to advance its positions on controversial issues such as Tibet and COVID-19 origin theories.
“Promoting rap not only helps build the image that the party is modern, but also encourages young people to express their nationalism in a way that is accessible to them,” said Sarah Cook, an expert on media freedom in China and a researcher at Freedom House, a nongovernmental think tank in Washington.
After The Rap of Tibet went viral on China’s tightly controlled social media this summer, Chinese state media on Aug. 19 posted the paean to Beijing taking control of the Himalayan nation in 1951 on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in an effort to influence young people outside China. Beijing blocks its domestic audience from those platforms with the Great Firewall.
The refrain – “Himalayas has a peak, Yarlung Tsangpo has a source, the bitterness for Tibetans has an end, that’s when CCP comes in” – skirts a continuing controversy.
China refers to the People’s Liberation Army move on Tibet as “the peaceful liberation of Tibet,” while the Central Tibetan Administration exiled to India calls it “the invasion of Tibet.”
On Aug. 9, state-controlled media released a rap taking aim at the American military lab at Fort Detrick that China claims is the source of the COVID-19 virus. The release came as the U.S. intelligence community was winding up an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Open the Door to Fort Detrick is the latest rap by Tianfu Shibian, a group that rocketed to stardom for attacking Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. It refers to an Imperial Japanese Army unit notorious for its biological and chemical experiments on human subjects in a Chinese lab before and during World War II.
“Fort Detrick, more like a witch's cauldron.
How many plots came from your labs?
How many dead bodies hanging a tag?
Nazi doctors were hired,
War criminals from Unit 731 …
What kind of devil’s deal had been signed?”
Two days later, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, tweeted some of the rap, performed in English, on his official account, which is blocked in China.
"Open the door to Fort Detrick,— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 11, 2021
Shed light on tightly held secret..."
This RAP song speaks our minds. pic.twitter.com/YWRL0s4EE0
Jonathan Sullivan, director of China Programs at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, told VOA Mandarin that the move into rap indicates the CCP has realized that it needs to vary its methods to maximize its reach.
“There is an attitude that any vehicle that is popular should be harnessed for its ability to reach people,” he told VOA Mandarin in an email interview. “Since the mainstreaming of rap music over the last few years, it has become a vehicle for some state/Party messaging.”
Cook said the CCP is skilled at identifying existing rap producers and using their popularity to promote its ideas.
“Groups like Tianfu Shibian make it easy for the party because they already repeat party propaganda in their products. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle,” she told VOA Mandarin via email. “By piggybacking on existing media, the party can say its narrative comes from ‘the people.’”
Underground to mainstream
The first generation of Chinese rap groups emerged as an underground phenomenon around 2000. By 2017, rap was mainstream with rappers competing on the reality show The Rap of China, where the judges were also producers.
And as big brands began using rap as the soundtrack to increase sales, the CCP paid attention.
Sullivan said that China’s information and propaganda apparatus has quickly adapted to the demands of the online communications environment and changing audience tastes.
“There was a recognition that old-style propaganda messaging wasn’t reaching young people and ‘digital natives’,” he said.
Sullivan added that the CCP made “substantial investment in new vehicles for disseminating and engaging with people in the spaces they inhabit, in the forms they are more used to consuming.”
Freedom House’s Cook told VOA, “The co-optation of rap songs is part of a broader strategy to use new and creative forms of media – songs, videos, cartoons – and also to diversify dissemination platforms to ones more accessible to young people, like Douyin and Bilibili.” Douyin and Bilibili are Chinese video sharing platforms that are popular among youth in China.
Cook said rap is a very effective form of propaganda “because it’s catchy and repetitive. If something is repeated frequently enough, people may begin to believe that it’s true on a subconscious level even if they find it silly or suspicious,” she said.
Ms. Wang, an office worker in finance, told VOA Mandarin that songs such The Rap of Tibet are acceptable on special occasions but that they’re odd to hear otherwise. She asked that VOA use only her surname to avoid attracting official attention.
Tony Chang, a 25-year-old Chinese rapper living in France, said his music is more about his daily life. “But songs that promote patriotism and the love of motherland will help you get shows and commercial opportunities,” he said via phone, asking VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym for fear of attracting attention.
AKA Panda, a rapper from China’s central Henan province, reflects the stance of Cook from Freedom House. He told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview, “I love rap, I also love my country, so I can use my music to express my love.”