Why a sweet pop song penetrated the skin of China


HONG KONG – At first, “Fragile”, a Mandarin song that has gone viral in Asia, might sound like a sweet pop track.

Scratch the surface of the clip, however, and it’s chock-full of mocking references to China, its ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, prompting the authoritarian government to ban the two musicians behind it, Malaysian rapper Namewee and Australian singer. Chinese Kimberley Chen.

“Please be careful if you are fragile pink”, a message at the beginning of the video – which was viewed more than 29 million times on Friday – warns in an apparent reference to “little roses,” a derogatory term for internet-savvy Chinese nationalists who are quick to defend their country and Xi against any perceived criticism .

The video itself is awash in color. The balloons, furniture, and outfits Namewee and Chen wear are all pink, as are their heart-shaped glasses. A panda costumed character who features prominently throughout the video is also wearing pink overalls.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, hurt your feelings.” I hear a sound, the fragile self-esteem has shattered into pieces, ”the couple sings as the panda dances.

Since its release on Oct. 15, the song has been at or near the top of the YouTube music charts in places such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, where Chinese is spoken. It was also trending in Australia and New Zealand.

“The first impression someone has if they don’t listen or watch carefully is, ‘Oh, this is just a syrupy love song,'” said DJ W. Hatfield, associate professor. at the National Taiwan University Institute of Musicology, Taipei University. “But everyone knows Namewee is a blacksmith and he’s very funny, and he’s also politically quite shrill.”

So what is the song about?

Mostly without ever directly mentioning them, the song, which uses Chinese and Taiwanese internet slang, makes a lot of topical references.

Taiwan: The words about an “inseparable” and “not lacking at all” relationship are seen by experts as references to China’s territorial disputes, including its claims to Taiwan. There is also a line on apples and pineapples, products that China stopped importing from the autonomous island earlier this year. Namewee and Chen are both based in Taiwan.

Xinjiang: The song alludes to human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, as well as one of its main exports, cotton, which activists say , is produced using forced labor and ends up being used by major international garments. brands. China has denied the accusations, saying it is trying to counter extremism in the region.

Hong Kong: Some viewers see the inclusion of apples as a reference to Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in China’s Hong Kong territory that was forced to shut down in June after police raided its offices, arrested editors and frozen its financial accounts. Hong Kong saw months of protests and political upheaval in 2019 before Beijing imposed a national security law last year in an attempt to quell dissent.

Xi Jinping: The song refers to Xi as Winnie the Pooh, a character taboo in China for several years after Chinese netizens made playful comparisons between him and the cartoon bear.

“Common prosperity”: This phrase used in the song is what Xi calls his desire to redistribute China’s wealth more equitably among the people.

“Every time I listen to it, I discover new things,” Hatfield said.

The song jokes about the consumption of wild animals such as bats and civets, a trope on China amplified during the coronavirus pandemic that has been widely criticized as contributing to anti-Asian racism in the United States and elsewhere. He also refers to China’s “great firewall” of strict internet controls and censorship of sensitive terms – Namewee and Chen’s accounts on Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, were deleted shortly thereafter. the release of the song.

“It’s a song about censorship,” said Jeroen de Kloet, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who studies the cultural implications of globalization with a focus on contemporary China. “But then it’s censored, which only amplifies the impact of the song.”

Hatfield said many of the song’s references are easily recognizable as they echo the language used in Chinese government propaganda, which often accuses foreign countries, businesses and individuals of “hurting the feelings” of the 1.4 billion. inhabitants of China.

“The target of the song is not really the Chinese people,” he said, “but a certain sector of the Chinese government, and the Chinese and non-Chinese speaking people who allow the Chinese Communist Party.”

“I’m sorry I hurt you. It doesn’t matter if my Weibo gets deleted, ”Kimberley Chen sang in an Instagram and Facebook post.Gene Wang File / Getty Images

Who are Namewee and Kimberley Chen?

Namewee, 38, a Malaysian national whose real name is Wee Meng Chee, is no stranger to the controversy. He was investigated by police in the Muslim-majority country for music videos that authorities said insulted Islam, and he was almost charged with sedition over a 2007 video mocking him. the National anthem.

Her satirical 2015 K-pop clip has also been criticized as being race-insensitive. Namewee’s previous Weibo account was blocked in August after he posted “suggestions” for the new Taliban government in Afghanistan that were seen as a coup against China.

Namewee, who is ethnically Chinese, said “Fragile” was not meant to insult China.

“A song can have a double meaning or even multiple meanings,” he said in a Facebook post in October. “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, that’s just what they’re willing to get from this song.”

Chen, 27, who previously appeared on a girl group’s reality TV show in mainland China, grew up in the Australian city of Melbourne and became a professional singer as a teenager after moving to Taiwan.

She responded to her ban from Chinese social media by updating the song’s lyrics.

“I’m sorry I hurt you. It doesn’t matter if my Weibo is deleted, ”she said sung in Mandarin in a post on Instagram and Facebook. “I hear a sound, a fragile self-esteem that has shattered into pieces. It’s okay, I still have IG and FB.

What has been the reaction in China?

Namewee and Chen’s Weibo accounts were blocked by Chinese censors days after the song was released. YouTube itself has been blocked in mainland China since 2009.

When something is considered “offensive to China,” it’s hard to know who the “pink army really is,” De Kloet said.

“The suggestion is very quick that all Chinese are angry, and of course they are not,” he said. “Many Chinese would also be critical of the government, many Chinese would also appreciate this song. “

Some reviewers on Weibo have said they find the song insulting and some fans have said they will stop listening to their music.

Another user lamented that Namewee’s music had been available a few days earlier “and now it’s all gone suddenly. It’s a complicated society where you have to be careful what you say.

Others made censorship jokes.

“Namewee’s last song: 404,” said one.

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