[UPDATED] China’s Ministry of Culture New Karaoke Regulation

What can we do? KTV!

Where can we go? KTV!

Brain Failure 脑浊, « KTV »

[UPDATE] The regulations have been adopted. To see what has changed from the draft to the actual regulations, see this part at the end.

Since the 1980s, karaoke parlors – or KTVs – have been one of the most important and intriguing entertainment space in China – and more generally in East Asia, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. KTVs have been also stigmatized, some of them being linked to prostitution, drugs and organized crime. Recently in Taiwan, Wanhua district’s KTVs have been designated as hotbeds of COVID infection. KTVs have indeed a bad reputation, but are also a relatively cheap space of leisure, where young people used to hang out, perform songs, and more generally enjoy themselves. Scholars, as Anthony Fung, have analyzed the social and cultural functions of KTVs, which also serves as a free space in a society with many constraints. KTVs have always been special spaces, allowing people to freely express themselves by consuming and producing music. And also doing illegal stuff. And helping Wuhan punks perform.

On July 6th, 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism (文化和旅游部) published a draft proposal on its webpage entitled « Interim Provisions on Content Management of KTVs and Entertainment Venues » (« 歌舞娱乐场所卡拉OK音乐内容管理暂行规定 »). The draft proposal is aimed at managing in a more efficient way the music content in KTVs and other entertainment venues. To rapidly explain Chinese music censorship mechanism (you can always read my article on the subject here), different institutions are in charge of managing music in China: the NRTA (the infamous National Radio and Television Administration, ex-SARFT, now under the direct supervision of the State Council) is responsible for overseeing the TV and radio industries. They’re the one who pulled the plug on Chinese hip-hop during the so-called « hip-hop ban ». In short, when it’s on TV, on radio or on the Internet, the NRTA will be in charge of the musical censorship. When it’s « live » music, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism – and its local branches – that will be in charge – which includes of course KTVs and other entertainment venues. So what’s going on with the Ministry and KTVs?

According to its statement, the Ministry of Culture wanted to strengthen the content management of KTVs, in order to « promote socialist core values, maintain national cultural security and ideological security, and spread positive energy » – buzzwords frequently used since Xi Jinping took power in 2012. The Ministry adds that in 2020 they have found 100 « prohibited » songs in the music libraries of KTVs, which contain approximately 100,000 songs – so 0,1% of KTV songs are found to be problematic for the Ministry. Since there are 50.000 KTVs in the country according to the document (I guess the real number is much higher), the Ministry recognizes that it is difficult to enforce the ban on the prohibited songs. Thus the Ministry suggests to establish a list of illegal Karaoke songs, which would be the responsibility of (1) the local culture and tourism department, (2) the on-demand songs providers, which provide KTVs with their music libraries. The Ministry of Culture will be responsible for implementing the list in local KTVs. The Ministry also suggests establishing a National expert panel for KTVs that will provide opinions on wether or not KTVs have violated the rules.

What’s also interesting is that on the same day the Ministry of Culture and Tourism solicited the public opinion on this new Karaoke regulation. People can send their opinions by e-mail, to a certain Feng Xiaofeng, or by letter to the « Market Management Department of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism » in Dongcheng, Beijing. Unfortunately the time period for sending your opinion was very short, it ended on July 13, only a week after the request was made. A Chinese administration calling for public participation is not something new or unseen; for years the Letters and Visits Administration have received the complaints and suggestions of the Chinese public, see Isabelle Thireau’s work on this administration.

The Ministry has also provided the public with the actual draft regulation in Word format. The draft paper has 3 chapters and 20 articles. The draft explains who is responsible for what (the Ministry is responsible for supervising KTVs music content by establishing a list of prohibited songs and a national expert panel, the national and local cultural and entertainment industry associations for the implementation of the the music content, the music providers and KTVs for self-examining and self-reviewing the content of the songs). Technically, how does it work? If the content providers or the KTVs, through self-examination, find songs that should be prohibited, they have to report them to the Ministry of Culture. The National expert panel will then examine the content of the songs reported by KTVs, and include them in their list of prohibited songs. The local culture and tourism administration will perform random checks at KTVs (I can only imagine local cadres going to KTVs to « check » their music library, and spending the night in the old-fashion way…), and if they find prohibited content, the Ministry could name and shame the KTVs. Mini-KTV booths are also targeted by the regulation.

So how can you say if a song should be prohibited? The draft quotes the article 13 of the « Regulations on the Administration of Entertainment Places », which lists all the contents that should be prohibited. These « Regulations » were adopted by the State Council on January 2006, and list 9 themes that are off-limit, more specifically songs that:

  1. Violate the basic principles established by the Constitution 
  2. Endanger national unity, sovereignty or territorial integrity
  3. Endanger national security
  4. Incite ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination and undermine ethnic unity
  5. Violate the national religious policy and promote cults or superstition
  6. Propagate obscenity, gambling, violence, and drug-related activities
  7. Violate social morals or national excellent cultural traditions
  8. Insult or slander others
  9. Other content prohibited by laws and administrative regulations.

So… it’s very broad to say the least.

If you remember, the Ministry of Culture has already done something like that in the past, back in 2015 when they published a list of 120 songs promoting « obscenity, violence, crime, and immorality » – basically a list of rap songs by In3 阴三儿, 新街口组合 and MC Hotdog. A list that had a undesired Streisand effect: people who didn’t know In3 started to illegally download their songs, some netizens praised the Ministry for giving them a list of songs to listen to. The Taiwanese MC Hotdog became one of « The Rap of China » jury member two years later – so, overall, not a success.

The question is why, and why now. Why the Ministry wants to establish a super-complicated National review committee, supervise the 50.000 KTVs, all that for 0,1% of KTVs music libraries? One explanation is of course the general tendency of official institutions to tighten their grip on public expression. We have seen more and more banned songs, musicians, and cases of censorship in the past few years. Another explanation would be the fact that for years, KTVs have been a sort of haven for music lovers to express themselves without any constraints, but also a safe space for illegal activities, thus controlling the list of songs is also a way to control what else is going on in these KTVs. It’s a way to say that there are no more safe public or private spaces in China anymore. Will it work? Only if you count on local officials not to be corrupted by KTV managers, hostesses and alcohol. The regulation is made to control not only KTVs, but also content providers – those who manage the music libraries – does it mean that copyright infringements will be more severely punished? That is also a general trend in the administration of music industries in China.

The regulation is not officially accepted yet. We still have to see if public opinion had any effect on the draft. And personally, I am very interested in the list of KTV banned songs. Will it mean that there is going to be a officially approved list of songs that every KTV has to implement, so that every KTV will have the same songs from the same provider? That will indeed change the face of KTV industry in China forever.

Will 卡拉 be 永遠 OK?

UPDATE

The new « Trial Provisions on the Management of Karaoke Content in Song and Dance Venues » has been published on the website of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism on July 26th, and will take effect on October 1st, 2021 – just in time for the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, coincidence? So, what does it say, and is it different from the draft paper we analyzed a month ago? Did people send comments to Mr. Feng Xiaofeng to improve the regulation?

Basically, except some minor additions which have no impact on the text, the draft and the present version are virtually the same text. For instance, a difference between the two versions is that on article 1, now the « regulations are formulated in accordance with the National Security Law, the Regulations on the Administration of Entertainment Places and other laws and regulations » (根据《国家安全法》《娱乐场所管理条例》等法律法规,制定本规定) while in the draft it was « in accordance with the « Regulations on the Administration of Entertainment Places » and other laws and regulations » (根据《娱乐场所管理条例》等法律法规,制定本规定) – so the National Security Law was added (a law issued on 2015). I’m not a jurist, so I’m not sure if that changes anything, but maybe the regulation has now more symbolic power since it’s also a matter of National Security.

Otherwise, the provisions are the same: songs that are in violation of the article 13 of the « Regulations on the Management of Entertainment Venues » are prohibited. The Ministry of Culture will set up an experts group for reviewing karaoke content, and will establish a national list system for songs that violate rules for karaoke. The same procedures will be applied: there will be random checks in KTVs, KTVs will establish self-review platforms (so new jobs will be created in KTVs so self-examine the songs), if a song is considered in violation of the law, it has to be reported to the Ministry. If the national expert group confirms that the song contains prohibited subject, it will be added to the list. The mini-karaoke booths are also affected by these regulations.

I was curious about the punishment, and to my surprise it is the same as before: if a KTV is found guilty of having prohibited songs, the Ministry will give a warning, « stop it through methods of administrative guidance », make an appointment with the KTV management, and finally name and shame the KTV and the content provider. I guess « stop it through methods of administrative guidance » means they can administratively close the KTVs, but I don’t see any financial penalties (but that will surely take the form of bribes).

So prepare yourselves for a new list of prohibited KTV songs on October 1st!


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