BEIJING – 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 swaths 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.
The party connection deepened in September last year when Beijing sent the band to Woody Island, in a disputed area of the South China Sea, to film a music video rebuking an international tribunal ruling that rejected China’s claims in the area.
Li said the group now has ties across China’s propaganda related agencies, and frequently dines with officials to exchange ideas. In return they’ve cleaned up their act to fit with Beijing’s drive toward more wholesome content.
While their songs are unabashedly pro-China, Tianfu Shibian’s lyrics also touch on problems in contemporary China, including tainted food, corruption, and pollution.
“Critique with rationality has its place in our songs, but we despise those who keep complaining blindly,” Li said.
Not everyone is a fan.
A song by the band praising the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong was criticized online as glossing over China’s Cultural Revolution, a period of chaos and violence between 1966-1976 in which some historians estimate as many as 1.5 million people died.
Others online have dismissed the band as a propaganda machine, calling it “wumao” — roughly “50 cents” — a reference to those paid by the government to post patriotic comments online.
While counterculture or subversive art has long been at the fringes in China, it has all-but been extinguished in the Xi era, with censors banning not only politically incorrect material but also clamping down on negativity.
China’s most internationally recognized artist, Ai Weiwei, a fierce critic of Beijing, spent time under house arrest and finally left China in 2015. He had helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics.
Erstwhile rock and roll rebels have cleaned up their acts to placate censors or been sidelined.
Zuoxiao Zuzhou — a music producer who was banned by the government from 2011-2014 for his connection to Ai Weiwei — is one who has chosen to toe the government line.
“With great difficulty,” Zuoxiao Zuzhou “has now established an image that is relatively acceptable to society,” his agent, Qin Baogui, said, declining an interview with the artist because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Cui Jian, whose 1986 “Nothing to My Name” became an unofficial anthem for students demonstrating during the deadly 1989 Tiananmen protests, pulled out of a show on Chinese state television in 2014 because he was told he would not be allowed to sing the song, his manager said at the time.
On the flip side, films and music that embrace the party have benefited from state support to tap China’s huge fan bases.
The overtly patriotic “Wolf Warrior 2” became China’s top grossing film after its July release, helped in part by strong state media support.
Last month, U.S. organizers aiming to bring Grammy Award artists to China said they would only “promote artists with a positive and healthy image.”
As for Li, he is currently working on a song in the run-up to next month’s Communist Party Congress, called “A Letter to President Xi Jinping.”
However, Li has not joined the party himself — though it’s some distance from youthful rebellion.
“It’s too troublesome and complicated to write an application letter,” he said.