ITHACA, NEW YORK - Ruling authorities in China are constantly scouring and scrubbing the past in order to control the future. Poor old Confucius has seen his reputation bounce up and down to a dizzying degree, going from emblem of everything that was wrong with the old society to mascot of neo-communist “Confucian Centers” abroad. Moscow has been best friend and bitter enemy. Ditto for Washington. Even Tokyo enjoyed a respite from recrimination in the “Silk Road” days of the 1980s. Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) party has swung from public enemy number one to the best hope for reunification with the mainland. Tycoons and landlords, cast as parasitic leeches deserving to be shot in the revolutionary era, have now been rehabilitated as heroic captains of commerce in newly affluent China.
So it’s no surprise that a megastar such as Justin Bieber should see his reputation soar and crash. The Canadian singer was warmly welcomed when he toured China in 2013, though his skateboarding antics in Beijing and horsing around on the Great Wall offended some. In China as elsewhere, drunken escapades and careless comments contribute to a “bad boy” reputation, but the Rolling Stones played in China (albeit with an edited playlist) so raunchy pop star behavior is rarely the last straw.
In China it is politics, or the perception of such, that is the surest route to getting stamped “banned by Beijing.” Lady Gaga had the door slammed in her face for meeting with the Dalai Lama. Likewise Oasis found itself banned after a forensic “friend of China” search revealed a concert in support of Tibet 12 years earlier. Local artists like Cui Jian get banned for faintly expressed political views, not raucous rock star behavior.
That’s why there is no more cogent explanation for Bieber’s recent case of being rejected by Chinese authorities than his ill-considered photo op at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine in April 2014. To say it was an “ill-considered” visit is not to say he had no right to visit the shrine, for, as noxious and repugnant a symbol as the shrine has become, people in Japan, like America, are accustomed to freedoms still unknown in China. But with Beijing nationalists on the lookout for even the faintest affronts to China’s dignity, real and imagined, there is something very noxious and repugnant about China subjecting individuals, at home and abroad, to a party-line “history test.”
Bieber’s got a lot of history for a young man, and not all of it good, but sometimes bad is good, or at least extremely bankable. Pop singers like Madonna and Lady Gaga set a template for Bieber and others who would discover that there’s no news worse than no news. Better to provoke and tease and reinvent oneself on a monthly basis than to slide into oblivion.
So while Bieber may get the memory hole treatment in China, he is far from oblivion elsewhere. The 23-year-old global star is sweeping the world on tour while racking up billions of downloads of his latest catchy remix “Despacito.”
The suggestive if not illicit lyrics and the highly danceable tune of “Despacito” are catnip for social-networked youth. Teaming up with Puerto Rican songwriter Luis Fonsi, Bieber struck gold with a catchy tune that at once celebrates the Spanish language and transcends it. In fact, Beiber’s bungling use of “burrito” and “Dorito” when he forgets the lyrics transcends the language so much that his fans were slow to realize that “Despacito,” meaning “slow” is about slow sex:
“Let me surpass your danger zones / Until I provoke your screams …”
Skirting danger zones can enhance a reputation because bankable controversy keeps one in the spotlight and gets screaming fans squealing with delight. But it’s not all calculated and some of his lapses, like that at Yasukuni, seem just plain impulsive.
There’s the infamous Instagram photo of the star at Yasukuni standing with hands pressed together. Surely this is more of a touristy gesture than a nod to war criminals, though the “controversial” nature of the shrine may have appealed to his inner rebel. The offending photo rocketed across China and got tweeted around the world, after which he tried to amend for his apparent indiscretion by declaring:
“I love you China and I love you Japan.”
Words are cheap and perhaps this constitutes nothing more than insincere word play, but there’s a profound side to such a statement. Given the divisive history and almost intractable tensions inherent in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the pop star’s simplistic declaration, saying in effect that I refuse to chose sides, is a stubborn but principled stance.
To embrace both Japan and China with the same word hug in today’s world is outright utopian, reminiscent of John Lennon, because nationalists on both sides want to make a zero-sum game of it; if you love China, you can’t possibly love Japan, and vice versa.
Bieber’s lucrative fan base in China is disappointed and in disarray. The singer is learning, as war-haunted politicians in China and Japan have long known, that no apology is good enough when you don’t really mean it, and the “offended” party isn’t interested in forgiving you.
A Beijing government spokesman responding to questions about the ban took a measured tone, acknowledging Bieber’s talent: “We hope … he can improve his words and actions and truly become a singer beloved by the public.”
But given China’s recent descent into shrill nationalism and its concerted repudiation of Western values, to express “hope” that someone will “improve” has eerie and ominous overtones. It means following the party line. It means “we’re watching you” and taking note of where you stand.
Meanwhile, being banned from a place that is finicky about its image and obsessed with its own righteousness is not new for Bieber; fans report he was once banned from Disneyland for socking it to Mickey Mouse. The Asian leg of Bieber’s world tour will take him to Tokyo in September where he may belatedly be allowed to visit Disneyland, but despite his wishful win-win statement to the contrary, he won’t be crooning in China any time soon.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.