State-affiliated researcher Jiang Yu said in a recent interview with the party's anticorruption commission that the "irrational expansion of capital" had corrupted China through the "much-hated" realms of celebrity fan culture, tech monopolies and private tutoring, which gives wealthier and middle-class students an unfair edge. He warned of the influence of big money manipulating culture and the arts.
"If capital is allowed to irrationally expand in the literary and art world, art and literature will lose their function of serving the people and socialism, and the spiritual home of the Chinese nation will collapse," he said.
Several dozen celebrities signed a public statement for "literary and art workers" in Beijing last month. Movie stars Zhou Dongyu and Du Jiang read the statement aloud, condemning fan culture and the "deformed aesthetics" of "sissy men" as signs that entertainers had become "slaves of the market."
Such grandiose language is common in Communist Party messages, but last week the rhetoric reached ominous heights when eight major party and state media outlets republished a commentary by a little-known blogger named Li Guangman, calling the series of crackdowns and new focus on "common prosperity" a "profound revolution."
"This change will wash away all the dust," he said. "The capital market will no longer be a paradise for capitalist to get rich overnight. The cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy-man stars. The news and public opinion will no longer worship Western culture. It is the return of red, of heroes, of hot-bloodedness."
The commentary sparked anxiety about whether a second Cultural Revolution was coming. A few state voices appeared to say no. Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, criticized Li on Weibo for using "exaggerated language." But Li's rant was not retracted or censored, implying authorities' tacit approval.
Xi governs through top-down commands that do not involve civil society, free press or the rule of law. He views such openness and liberties as "Western" and an ideological threat to the Communist Party's power. Instead, his party operates on propaganda and punishment, with sweeping purges and micromanaged, grid-level surveillance and control.
That approach was strengthened by China's claimed successes in containing COVID-19 and eradicating extreme poverty last year, said Bill Bikales, a developmental economist who advised United Nations agencies on China's antipoverty campaign.
"This has reinforced their confidence, their hubris even, that they have a superior system that can do things nobody else has ever done," said Bikales. "The solution to any problem is to double down on campaign-style approaches."
A long-term solution to reducing inequality, however, requires fewer slogans and deeper change, said Bikales. Policymakers need to cut spending on infrastructure and inefficient — often state-owned — enterprises, and redirect it to social protections. They should also reform the hukou system that blocks rural migrants from accessing the same benefits as urban residents. But Chinese leaders seem to be "avoiding those hard choices," Bikales said, and are instead squeezing the private sector for donations.