Hip hop culture comes under scrutiny in China, but some of it gets a pass

Key Points
  • Chinese street dance series "Hot Blood Dance Crew" and "Street Dance of China" premiered in recent months.
  • China's hip hop scene has faced increased scrutiny from authorities after seeing a mainstream boost last year.
Singer Jackson Wang, singer Lu Han, actor William Chan and singer and actress Victoria Song attend the press conference for "Hot Blood Dance Crew" on Jan. 23, 2018, in Shanghai, China.
VCG | Getty Images

Amid restrictions aimed at China's burgeoning hip hop scene, some elements associated with the culture appear to be getting a pass.

Although rules specifically targeting hip hop were not available on official platforms, Chinese news site Sina Entertainment reported in January that regulators had requested that television programs avoided guests associated with the genre.

Still, "Hot Blood Dance Crew," a dance competition which shows the influence of hip hop culture, premiered on online video platform iQIYI in March. That came just weeks after "Street Dance of China" — a similarly themed program — began screening on Youku, another Chinese video site.

At first glance, both programs appear to have much in common with last year's breakout rap competition "Rap of China," which drew nearly 3 billion views during its June to September run, but has since seen its stars come under scrutiny.

For starters, both rap and street dance flourished in underground Chinese communities before gaining greater exposure through their respective video series. There are also aesthetic similarities: Participants on the dance programs are decked out in streetwear brands, from Supreme to Off-White, popularized on the mainland by "Rap of China."

The newer programs, however, were released months after authorities began suppressing some aspects of hip hop culture.

PG One, one of the winners of "Rap of China," made a public apology in January after accusations that lyrics in one of his older tracks encouraged drug use and misogyny. The rapper's other tracks were subsequently yanked from various music-streaming platforms in China, online news site Quartz reported.

Other prominent alumni of the rap competition were dropped from various television programs. GAI, the other winner of "Rap of China," was pulled from "Singer" — a reality show he had been participating in — while Reuters reported that VaVa, another rapper, was edited out of a variety show.

A case of 'strategic ambiguity'

Despite all that, there hasn't been any official pronouncement from Beijing explaining the apparent suppression. Emailed requests for clarification on the government's position to China's media regulator and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not immediately returned.

"Generally, restrictions tend to be unclear. It's quite a deliberate approach," said Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Program at Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute. That allowed regulators, she added, to selectively come down on some hip hop-related programs, but not others.

The use of "strategic ambiguity" by authorities meant that hip hop practitioners would likely self-censor, Varrall said. If regulators had been absolutely clear on where they were drawing the line, that would have given people the confidence to go up to the edge of what's allowed, she added.

That could explain why "Hot Blood Dance Crew" is showing at a time when other hip hop-related acts are reportedly taking some heat. Participants on the show also likely have less of an avenue for commentary that's unaligned with the authorities' values, given the focus on dance instead of lyrics.

Against that backdrop, participants in the industry told Billboard earlier this year that the so-called hip hop ban was not an absolute crackdown, but a targeted move aimed at filtering out specific elements.

For China, that raises questions about the development of hip hop, a genre that's steeped in rebellion.