While doing a story a couple of years ago about China’s soaring real estate prices, a satirical ditty making the rounds on the Internet caught my attention. It was called “Xingfu Li,” or Happiness Lane. The singer lamented all the shiny, new luxury apartments rising up on Happiness Lane – apartments he wouldn’t be able to afford if he worked a hundred years.
The song’s satirical lyrics resonated with many young urban Chinese, who find to their dismay that a nothing-special apartment costs about 30 times their average annual income. “Happiness Lane” gave voice to growing frustration and resentment about an economic system that increasingly favors elites – especially those with Communist Party connections — and leaves others behind.
The singer, Chuanzi – real name Jiang Yachuan — started playing songs and writing music when he was a young man serving a stint in prison for starting a fight. He got out on good behavior, and kept singing. Now middle-aged, married, and raising a young daughter, he still sports the look of a rebel – long hair, long beard, a schlumpy style of dress.
I thought of Chuanzi when I started putting together a story on political humor in China. He readily agreed to be interviewed. He mentioned he was about to record a new song, and also agreed when I asked if I could come to the studio to watch.
He laid down the tracks – about how hard it was for young Chinese to afford to get married, buy a house and raise a child. He listened, chain-smoking, as the song was mixed. His wife sat quietly in the corner. His agent, a young woman named Wu Ting, also looked on.
At one point, she leaned over to a Chinese friend who’d come with me, and who’d helped arrange the interview. She asked what I’d be writing about. Political satire in China, my friend replied. Wu Ting was not pleased.
“It’s best not to air China’s dirty laundry to foreigners.” Minutes later, though, Wu Ting and Chuanzi were asking me eagerly about the possibility of touring in the United States.At the end of the recording session, I asked for a quiet place to do the interview. Wu Ting said she knew a place. We walked a long stretch, down a street with new upscale apartments that seemed the embodiment of “Happiness Lane.” We walked past a migrant worker, his face chapped and ruddy in the cold, pedaling a recycling cart. We walked past a parking area filled with luxury cars, past a shop where, on each of four spot-lit display tables sat a live, shivering Pekinese dog. Just for effect. Finally, we got to a pretentious coffeeshop serving $7 lattes.
Shaking off the incongruity, I got out my recorder and asked Chuanzi about the black-humored tone of his songs.
“I think the black humor is because most of us feel resigned to life,” he said. “We feel a lot of pressure in society, the pressure to survive. Playing music is one way to console our souls – whether it is to soothe people’s hearts or poke fun at life. It’s to help people get out of their hard situation.”
Just poking fun at life, I asked, or poking fun at the system that makes life hard?
“I’m poking fun at the difficulties in our life, the difficulties we need to face,” he said. “By poking fun, we gain a certain amount of momentum or a certain amount of power to change our lives. But the system, I don’t think we can change… I think I’m a very small potato. I think I’m too weak by myself to change things. But if we stick together – we artists – it’s possible to change the society, and even the system, and to push it forward.”
Chuanzi went on to complain about counterfeit products in China, about unsafe food and milk and cooking oil.
“We need to rely on our responsibility and our consciousness,” he said. “It’s a generation of lack of consciousness, and reliability and trust among people. We should, through our music, raise people’s consciousness, and improve their moral bottom line.”
Chuanzi’s agent was becoming agitated. She took her mobile phone and stepped out of the restaurant. She came back, and pulled Chuanzi aside. When he rejoined the interview, it was like a politically correct clone had taken his place. I asked what needed to change in the system to bring about the social change he desired.
“I think this is a question for the State Council (China’s main governing body) and the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) to resolve,” he said. “We ordinary people have no right to speak on this.”
His agent left the table again. Again, she was on the phone. Again, she called Chuanzi away – and this time, put him on the phone. When he came back, he said there was an emergency at his recording company, and they all had to go. On their way out, the agent pulled aside my Chinese friend, and said she was cutting short the interview, on the advice of his recording company, because my questions were too sensitive. If I wanted to interview Chuanzi in the future, she said, I’d have to submit questions in advance for approval.
When my friend relayed this to me, I joked that this suddenly felt more like dealing with petty provincial Communist officials than with a folksinger known for his sharp social commentary. “All that’s missing is a demand for preapproval of my story,” I said.
A few minutes later, in came a text message, demanding preapproval of my story.
“I’m the manager of singer Chuanzi’s record company,” read the message from Xue Feng, manager of the recording company 13th Month. “Thanks for your interest in Chuanzi and his music. But based on the artists’ contract, we need to approve all publicity. Please send the report to us for review before broadcast. If anything unauthorized is broadcast, we reserve the right to take legal action. Thank you again.”
Ah, threats. Always the way to a journalist’s heart. I thought of the many times colleagues in China had been threatened by one government department or another – by those who must have actually thought this would lead to more favorable coverage. I thought of China’s ongoing quest for soft power in the world, and how simultaneous tactics of bullying smaller neighbors weren’t exactly helping the cause. And I thought about how a system affects the people in it, even those who make their name criticizing what the system does to people.
Chuanzi is a talented guy, who’s made his name singing about the inequalities of life in modern China. It’s a sad irony that those now making money off of him, and helping him make some of his own, seek to muffle his voice in the process. It’s a sad commentary on the state of free expression in China that they feel they should.