Book Review: Making Your Star Shine in the People's Republic

A talent agent's job is to turn an attractive, young nobody into a star. That is also one of the jobs of the Chinese Communist Party.

The first of the party's modern Chinese celebrities – aside from Mao Zedong and fellow leaders – were military heroes, but the PRC is unique in that it creates and maintains its uniformed heroes as zealously during peacetime as in wartime. The People's Liberation Army is a party army, and "there is an explicitly theorized, intimate link between political and military work," according to Louise Edwards, a Hong Kong University professor of modern China studies, who has edited and compiled Celebrity in China, a well-researched and thought-provoking anthology of academic essays about the creation of public figures in the People's Republic of China.

The book's revelation is that, notwithstanding capitalism and the technology-driven fragmentation of media, celebrities in mainland China – even seemingly frivolous reality TV and internet personalities -- still are employed to serve didactic and political ends.

"The PLA is a key site for the production of literary, musical and artistic works in the PRC because of this special propaganda function," Edwards writes.

Consequently, the PLA ranks assumed a place in Chinese cultural life not dissimilar to that of central casting at Warner Bros. In 1963, Comrade Lei Feng was posthumously plucked from obscurity and converted into the ideal citizen-soldier, a template for all Chinese military heroes to follow. "Loyalty to the Party and service to the people, and not military heroism, appear to be the key features of the Lei Fung-style models," she concludes.

The same applies to the PRC's 100 Excellent Mothers, women chosen within the last decade to personify the party's somewhat peculiar standards for motherhood. As described in a chapter written by University of Technology, Sydney, Professor Yingjie Guo, 74 of the women had cared for at least one adopted or foster child. The party, Guo states, sought to praise women who shouldered and partially privatized a social services burden.

All 100 celebrated mothers, it goes without saying, had abided by the national policy of bearing only one natural child; additional children were primarily adoptions or foster placements. But, for all the institutional clout the party used to promote the Excellent Mothers campaign (including the involvement of 16 media companies), the 21st Century public yawned. Too old school.

"Chastity heroines" (lienü) were much more popular – although they ultimately served the same purpose of cajoling Chinese citizens into contributing private funds to finance services which are arguably the responsibility of the party-state. Since 1997, about 30 young women have leapt from windows to escape forced prostitution and thereafter became the subjects of intense publicity. The media campaigns following the jumps, which sometimes resulted in horrific injuries to the women, often involved nationwide appeals for donations.

"Although China has a long history of philanthropy," writes Elaine Jeffreys, also a professor at UTS, "the practice of voluntarily offering time and money to strangers is new and explicitly related to the government-led rationale of encouraging Chinese citizens to take a more active role in the field of charity and donation, chiefly to compensate for gaps in public funding in the increasingly privatized fields of education and health."

Businessmen have enjoyed the most significant image makeover. In one generation, the erstwhile capitalist oppressors were restyled as, literally, model citizens. Television programs like Boss Town and Fortune Time feature the life stories and advice of successful entrepreneurs like China Vanke Company Ltd. chairman Wang Shi and alibaba.com founder Jack Ma.

The programs emphasize how viewers can replicate the behavior, attitudes and success of these famous men. But half of the story is purposefully omitted. As Hamline University professor David J. Davies explains in his dry style, "This particular discourse of success emphasizes qualities within the individual, such as perseverance, determination, endurance and hard-work, rather than focusing outward on the external advantages or limitations of opportunity, education, relationships or social class." In other words, the camera is focused on the celebrities and ignores the business environment created or condoned by the party.

Not even fluff celebrities are free of politics. Pop stars from minority ethnic groups, such as the Hmong singer A You Duo, are promoted by Han-dominated local governments seeking publicity and legitimacy. Wei Hui became an international literary star after the PRC banned the fictionalized sexcapades of Shanghai Baby. Blog star Furong Jiejie also capitalized on alleged government disapproval of her tepidly racy postings.

In one of the book's more intriguing arguments, Australian scholar I.D. Roberts posits that the party's censorship of "serious" ideas, such as democracy and the rule of law, generates an overabundance of frothy, lifestyle celebrities. "If the censorship of the internet, by precluding certain fields of communication, implicitly encourages some forms of expression more than others," Roberts writes, "then the opportunity to become a celebrity in the PRC, already apparently unencumbered by requirements of innate talent or appeal, is clearly restricted and the public is restricted in its choice."

So if you're irritated by the cultural dominance of Super Girls, or "the latest viral hottie," you may want to post a letter of complaint to the authorities in Zhongnanhai. But don't sign your name, or you may become the latest celebrity created by the Chinese Communist Party.

Paul Karl Lukacs, who blogs about foreign affairs and travel at www.knifetricks.blogspot.com, is an entertainment attorney whose clients have included the Backstreet Boys, Courtney Love and KISS.