China taps youth culture to hook millennial cadres

BEIJING (Reuters) – In his baseball cap and baggy yellow t-shirt, the rap star Li Yijie – better known by his stage name “Pissy” – is an unlikely face of China’s strait-laced ruling Communist Party.

His group, Tianfu Shibian, has won fans and the support of the party’s youth league with songs like “Force of Red” and “This is China” that chime with President Xi Jinping’s nationalist vision of China and its place in the world.

Under Xi, set to begin a second five-year term at a key party congress next month, the once-hidebound Communist Party has sought to revitalize its role in society amid challenges to its traditional authority as the country gets richer, more mobile and more digitally connected.

The party’s modernizing push also comes as a significant number of educated Chinese millennials, faced with a tough job market and high housing costs in big cities, have grown disillusioned about their career and life prospects.

The party’s effort extends increasingly to co-opting swathes of Chinese popular culture, such as Tianfu Shibian. At the same time, the government is cracking down on online content and entertainment that strays beyond the narrowing definitions of what is acceptable.

If the Party “sticks to the old ways, it will only be more and more rejected by young people,” said Li, 23, whose band’s name means “Tianfu Incident”. Tianfu refers to the region around Chengdu, the band’s home city in western Sichuan province.

“We need to stand up and say: Why can’t younger folks be more patriotic?” he said during an interview in Beijing.

“We need to step into this system,” he said. “If the post-1990 generations don’t enter the system, what is our country going to do?” said Li.

Beijing has the same idea.

It has latched onto other acts like TFBOYS, a wholesome boy band whose three members each have nearly 30 million followers on the popular microblog Weibo, to help spread the Party message. The band often appears at Youth League events.

“This kind of propaganda is a step forward that better suits the demands of its audience,” said Qiao Mu, a media researcher and former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

“Ordinary people are now rejecting the old preaching ways of the People’s Daily newspaper and CCTV News,” he said, referring to the Party’s official newspaper and China’s state broadcaster.

On its Bilibili account – a video site popular with China’s post 1990s generation – the Communist Youth League has posted hundreds of videos this year interspersing patriotic raps with more traditional fare such as defense ministry briefings.

One such “guichu” – a fast-paced clip of repeated images, sounds and catchy music – calls on citizens to be on the lookout and report people they suspect are spies to the authorities.


Tianfu Shibian shot to prominence in 2016 voicing patriotic values in sometimes expletive-filled songs.

“Force of Red” attacked Tsai Ing-Wen, the president of Taiwan, an independently governed island that Beijing considers a renegade province.

“There’s only one China, HK, Taipei, they are my fellas,” ran the lyrics of the song in English, along with expletives aimed at Tsai and her government: “Far away from us you forget how to act. Even dogs know to come home with a thankful bark.”

The music video went viral, racking up more than 7 million views on the band’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo feed and catching the attention of the Communist Youth League, a training ground for elite cadres within the 90-million-strong Communist Party.

The group’s next outing – “This is China” – came with production support from a Youth League-backed music studio, though the band says there was no other financial backing.

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