Image by Azchael available at Flickr.com under CC license.
Over the past three years, as the global pandemic and China’s strict lockdown policies closed the curtain on performances at live venues across the country, the spotlight turned instead to streaming platforms, which offered a new way for performing artists to be seen and heard. By June 2022, the audience in China for live online performances through streaming and short video platforms reached 469 million, more than double the audience at the start of the Covid lockdown just two years earlier.
Those numbers point to a market rapidly on the rise. But last week, a state-backed professional organization for the performing arts sector offered a more mixed assessment as it issued a set of new standards for live performance on streaming platforms.
“The rapid development of live online performances has played a positive role in boosting consumption, especially during the difficult period during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), which doubles as a control and regulatory body for the performing arts sector. “However, it has also led to problems and negative events. The healthy environment for live online performance needs to be strengthened.”
In China, where content controls online have long been sold by the authorities as a matter of public health, this language is code for a tightening of political restrictions on livestreaming. CAPA and state media have argued that new consumer protections are necessary, but regulators are clearly keen to avoid breaches like that committed back in May by comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who offended the People’s Liberation Army by repurposing a propaganda slogan for a joke about his dogs. Read our in-depth analysis of CAPA and the Li Haoshi incident.
As China continues to emerge, sluggishly, from three years of Covid lockdown, the government is keen to ensure that live performances, both online and offline, adhere to political discipline — even as they contribute much-needed consumer activity.
The growth of digital platforms has opened up new space for a digitally empowered cultural creation, driving what official party-state media have called “the transformation, upgrading and high-quality development of the cultural industries.” The result has been a new online landscape of “digital performance products” (数字演艺产品) and “digital literary works” (数字文艺作品), including events like “online theater” (线上剧场) and “online concerts” (线上演唱会).
A Range of Censors Backstage
The new CAPA rules — which follow a set of definitions released back in March — broaden the association’s authority over livestreaming platforms and influencers, a reminder again of how the Chinese Communist Party leadership utilizes ostensible professional organizations (CAPA calls itself a “non-profit social organization”) to enforce its political line.
The rules make clear, first and foremost, that the content of live online performances on streaming platforms will be closely examined and regulated. This includes, according to a summary by the government’s official China Daily, the language online influencers use, how they present themselves (a broad standard), and the comments left by audience members. Comment moderation and deletion will also extend to the so-called danmu (弹幕), or “bullet comments,” scrolling on top of livestream performances.
Beyond platforms and influencers, the agencies that manage online performers will also be regulated and held responsible for managing the online influencers they represent. The net result of these measures will be greater caution on the part of platforms, agents, and influencers, which will be anxious to avoid running afoul of the authorities as they capitalize on a market that continues to grow as consumers emerge from the lockdown slump.
The fear that prompts such caution is the primary mechanism of political controls on media and content in China, and a strong case could be made that Li Haoshi’s punishment in May was a classic case of killing a chicken to frighten the monkeys (杀鸡吓猴) — a warning to a performance industry emerging from lockdown that the way forward to profit was the path of political discipline.
Offline Performances Make a Comeback
The new rules for live online performances come as livestreaming influencers face growing competition from offline concerts and events. In late March, China announced an end to a three-year suspension of concerts and performances from outside the country, signaling that the market was now open to (well-behaved) acts of all kinds.
During the first half of this year, there were a total of 193,000 live cultural performances in China — a number that does not include performances at so-called “entertainment venues” (娱乐场所) such as dance halls, karaoke establishments, and other locations offering popular entertainment. The number of cultural performances was up more than 400 percent from the same period in 2022, with total box office revenue reaching 16.8 billion RMB, or about 2.3 billion dollars (a nearly 700 percent increase), according to Henan’s Dahe Daily (大河报).
In a series of reports this month, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily reviewed what it called the “concert economy” (演唱会经济). It noted that tickets for a concert performance by Jacky Cheung (张学友), the Hong Kong singer and actor, had been snatched up within minutes.
The Tianjin Dailyreported on July 18 that as “the impact of the epidemic fades away,” there has been an eagerness on the part of the authorities and local governments across the country to reinvigorate the live performance scene, including with “policy guidance and incentives.” As Liu Kezhi (刘克智), head of CAPA and a focus of our in-depth look at the organization in May, told the Dahe Daily, large-scale concerts and music festivals have led the way in promoting local culture and tourism. When Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jay Chou (周杰伦) made a stop in Haikou on his 2023 World Tour, said Liu, this attracted more than 150,000 tourists to the city, at least 60 percent from outside Hainan province.
The Tianjin Daily raised the question of whether digital performances might face a dilemma as live performance venues roared back to life, or whether conversely, they might prove a competitive alternative, “ushering in a new chapter.”
Livestreamed performances are certainly here to stay, particularly for the small to mid-scale livehouse scene that filled a crucial gap online during the pandemic lockdown, and which has struggled to ride the post-pandemic wave in the midst of rising costs.
But once again, China’s leadership is setting the tone and turning up the volume on political and ideological controls. There is plenty of money to be made, and plenty of fun to be had — so long as everyone remembers who ultimately manages the stage.