China is banning music that ‘insults or defames others’ in its 50,000 karaoke venues

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China's President, Xi Jinping, pictured in December 2020

China has never had a more powerful presence in the global music industry.

In 2020, according to IFPI data, China was the seventh biggest recorded music market in the world, with its annual trade revenues leaping up by over a third to top $790 million.

Just last week, Universal Music Group (UMG) – the world’s biggest music rightsholder – expanded its label operations in China, launching a division of Republic Records in the territory.

Meanwhile, China’s Tencent (and Tencent Music) owns a near-10% stake in Spotify and a near-2% stake in Warner Music Group, while leading a consortium that recently completed the acquisition of 20% of UMG.

Then, of course, there’s TikTok: The platform that is fuelling much of the new-release music industry in the West remains (much to Donald Trump’s chagrin) owned by China’s ByteDance.

Yet a big question hovers over how some of the world’s most popular music is viewed by the Chinese state – especially since Beijing itself quietly acquired a (small) minority stake in ByteDance the other month.

The following news surely hints at the answer: China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has just announced that, from October 1, any music that breaches a fresh set of government rules will be banned from being played within the country’s near-50,000 karaoke venues.

According to a direct translation of the new government rules (via Reddit), music that is in contravention of any of the following will be outlawed and deemed “illegal content”:

  • That which violates the basic principles determined by China’s Constitution;
  • That which harms national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity;
  • That which endangers national security or harms national honor or interests;
  • That which incites ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, hurts ethic feelings, encroaches on ethnic customs and habits, or undermines ethnic unity;
  • That which violates the state’s religious policies or promotes cults and superstitions;
  • That which advocates illegal or criminal activity such as obscenity, gambling, and drugs, or that instigates crimes;
  • That which is contrary to public morality or the ethnicity’s exceptional cultural traditions;
  • That which insults or defames others, infringing on the lawful rights and interests of others;
  • Other content prohibited by laws and administrative regulations.

China’s karaoke (KTV) venues typically host a music library of over 100,000 tracks each, according to local media.

From October, these venues will shoulder responsibility for censoring music that breaks any of the above rules.

Chinese government agents will be holding “inspections and spot checks” to ensure compliance, with violations “handled in accordance with [the] law”.

China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has also warned karaoke music distribution platforms to take responsibility for filtering out “illegal content”, noting that as part of the crackdown: “Businesses providing song request system content must not provide music products that are entered onto the list of songs violating rules for karaoke.”

There’s enough in the above list of rules to potentially give large global music companies pause for thought – especially when it comes to tracks deemed “contrary to public morality”, and/or content “that which insults or defames others”.

There’s also a couple of vague phrases that could feasibly give the CCP enough wiggle room to pretty much ban what they please: tracks which it deems “contrary to public morality” being a prime example.

In truth, though, the new set of rules are most likely to target domestic Chinese music and, in particular, Chinese hip-hop.

“Song and dance venues must not use music products that are entered onto the list of songs violating rules for karaoke.”

China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s new provisions (translated)

This wouldn’t be the first time the CCP has cracked down on Chinese hip-hop artists for supposedly harboring a threat to national unity.

In 2015, the Ministry issued a blacklist of 120 tracks that “trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality”. Many of them were by hip-hop artists.

The 120 outlawed tracks carried (translated) titles such as Beijing Hooligans, Suicide Diary, and Don’t Want To Go To School – all highlighted by the Chinese state as having “severely problematic content”.

The ban also led to the blacklisting of a track called Fart, with lyrics that read: “There are some people in the world who like farting while doing nothing.”

(One wonders what the individuals who were rocked by such words would make of current US teen favorites like Olivia Rodrigo’s drivers license… not to mention Cardi B’s WAP.)

In 2018, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), issued a statement that reportedly outlawed elements of hip-hop culture from appearing on Chinese television.

This statement banned TV networks from offering a platform to those “whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble”, nor to “actors who are tasteless, vulgar and obscene.”

These strong diktats partly appeared to be a warning shot in the direction of TV show The Rap Of China – a hugely popular televised rap competition that first aired in 2017.

The Rap Of China attracted over 1.3 billion views in its first month on Chinese television. Having closed out its fourth series in 2020, The Rap Of China is widely credited with bringing hip-hop into the mainstream in the country.

In October 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech to his country’s artists, authors and actors.

According to the BBC, he told them that their work should present socialist values and not carry the “stench of money”.

He added that artists should not be “slaves” to the market or “lose themselves in the tide of market economy”.

One international artist who has done roaring business in China is Taylor Swift: In 2019, she broke international records with her album Lover, which topped a million sales-equivalents in China in its first week of release.

Swift has today (August 23) announced her arrival on TikTok with her first video on the platform.Music Business Worldwide