“The Story of Yanxi Palace” is a Chinese TV drama set in the Qing dynasty that follows a group of concubines as they compete for power in the imperial court. It premiered in the summer of 2018 and was viewed more than 15 billion times on iQiyi, China’s premier movie streaming service. Despite its massive popularity, the show was abruptly canceled by the Chinese state media for being too “lavish” and “nasty”. The paternal approach that the Chinese government takes to managing its citizens often leads it to become personally involved in even the most casual of affairs, and its oversight has expanded under its current leader, Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2016, though he was thought by many to be its most influential member long before that. Shortly after taking power, Xi implemented a series of changes within the party itself. He pushed for an amendment that would remove term limits for General Secretaries, essentially keeping himself in power for the remainder of his life. The amendment was approved by nearly all of Xi’s constituents. Xi Jinping’s changes also included the creation of a “social credit” system which assigns Chinese citizens a score based on their day-to-day conduct in society. Teams of specially trained officials have been sent to monitor neighborhoods throughout the country and report thier findings to the goverment. The Party has also installed cameras at traffic intersections and subway stations equipped with facial recognition technology. This, in addition to a long-established internet firewall that renders sites like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter inaccessible to those on the mainland, have critics calling the current state of the country “Orwellian”.
The government’s tolerance for public scrutiny also appears to have tightened under Xi’s leadership (it was never “loose” to begin with). In March, reporter Liang Xiangyi became an internet sensation when she was seen cringing and rolling her eyes while a colleague asked China’s Foreign Minister a lengthy question about Xi Jinping's future plans for the country. The incident took place at an annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, a highly televised event in which questions from the media are often vetted. Shortly after the incident Liang disappeared amid rumors that she had been fired and her press privileges had been revoked. Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims living in China have also found themselves under increased scrutiny. While the Chinese constitution technically allows for freedom of religion, the Communist Party itself is officially atheist, and under Xi Jinping, the Party began promoting the idea of “sinicization” which calls for non-Chinese groups living in China to acclimate themselves to the overarching culture of the country. The government is now using this ideology to push for religious practitioners to merge their beliefs with Communist ideology. Those who resist are detained and forced to renounce their religions while temples, churches, and mosques are shut down, if not destroyed entirely.
It is often said that while the West favors freedom, China favors stability. However, “freedom” and “stability” are fairly broad ideas, and their benefits don’t always trickle down to those at the lower rungs of society. It remains to be seen who actually benefits from China’s proclaimed stability, and how these changes will be received by the country’s massive population.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.