TV Song Contest Inspires Nationalist Angst

China’s hottest television show, HunanTV’s “Singer 2024,” has inspired nationalist angst after two foreign contestants took first and second place—easily besting a field that included legendary Chinese pop star Na Ying. The show is wildly popular in part because it requires live singing without autotune or post-production touch-ups, common features of most Chinese variety television. The victory of relative unknowns Chanté Moore, an American, and Faouzia, a Moroccan-Canadian, has been called a “wakeup call for China’s music industry” by state-media tabloid Global Times. After the foreigners’ victory, a small subset of nationalist singers asked to be added to the show in order to defend China’s honor. The Tibetan-Han singer Han Hong took to Weibo to declare: “I am Chinese singer Han Hong and I ask permission to go to war!” Others followed suit.

To many, however, the nationalist outbursts were indications of deep national insecurity, as reflected in this partial translation of an essay posted by the WeChat public account 亮见 (liàngjiàn), run by a Nanjing University master’s student:

The writer Xiang Dongliang said, “Behind this wave of sentiment that ‘music is our national salvation’ lies a deep-seated inferiority complex.” Thinking that Chinese singers winning a competition is proof of China’s cultural superiority is a notion that only deeply insecure people would hold. 

There may be some people who have never been personally “insulted” by foreigners, or who don’t feel much connection to grandiose terms such as “the Chinese nation” or “the Chinese people.”. Some sensitive souls need an intermediary to help connect them to these grand and lofty concepts.

That intermediary can be a head of state one day, a singer the next, and after that a company—the identity of the intermediary is beside the point. All that matters is that they, or their country, have somehow been “insulted” by a foreigner, thus inspiring people to support their cause or boycott the offender. It’s like celebrating a major holiday or joining a holy war: everyone gets to share in the glory and feel spiritually elevated. [Chinese]

Others drew a connection between a recent incident in which a woman berated customers at a new Apple store in Shanghai as “worshipers of all things foreign.” An essay published by the WeChat public account 辚辚 (línlín) lamented that cultural nationalism will only increase if current trends hold:

Nationalist “cred” comes at the price of a nation’s ability to embrace the world. 

When Apple opened a flagship store in Shanghai, with Tim Cook in attendance, it was a positive instance of China embracing the world. Alas, an irate middle-aged woman stood at the storefront shouting at Apple customers, “China has its own brand, Huawei! People who buy Apple products are traitors who worship all things foreign!” 

A few customers responded, “What’s wrong with buying a product we like? Apple pays Chinese taxes and provides jobs in China, doesn’t it? The woman angrily waved off those objections with, “We don’t need that, any of that!” 

If the current trend holds, there will be ever more such “patriotic aunties.” 

In an era when mobile phones and TV variety shows become indicative of “patriotism,” it is worth remembering that they’re just phones, just shows. Nothing more, nothing less. [Chinese]

Many responded to the nationalist outbursts with textbook black humor. One Weibo user joked: “The marketing for “Singer 2024” has opened a new revenue stream for China-made entertainment: nationalism variety shows.” One popular meme featured an image of the singer Na Ying photoshopped to resemble Empress Dowager Cixi as depicted in the television show “Towards the Republic,” along with one of Cixi’s famous lines from the show: “I want the foreigners dead.” 

“I want the foreigners dead.” A still of Na Ying watching other performers on Singer 2024, photoshopped to resemble Empress Dowager Cixi in “Towards the Republic.”


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