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China’s cultural crackdown: few areas untouched as Xi reshapes society | China

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On the second floor of a nondescript concrete building in north-east Beijing, the Youyou internet cafe is less than half full. Quiet and dark, the cafe’s customers are all adults, sitting in brown sofas in front of screens set up for hours of comfortable online gaming.

Minors aren’t allowed in, and a poster on the glass entrance reads: “The whole society together cares about the healthy growth of underage teens.” Under new regulations from the Chinese government, minors are limited to just a few hours of gaming a week, with tech platforms ordered to enforce it. The intervention is just one of a recent rush of directives from Beijing aimed at reshaping society.

The slew of regulatory overhauls has been swift and dizzying. In recent months, Chinese authorities have come for e-commerce, social media, the $100bn private education industry, artists, celebrities and reality television, affecting individuals from Alibaba boss Jack Ma to actor Vicki Zhao.

At every step, regulators justified their move as one for the greater social good. In recent weeks the focus has been on celebrity and fan culture, but other sectors haven’t been forgotten: China’s internet regulator says it has shut down and banned 1,793 so-called self-media accounts since 27 August.

On Wednesday, regulators tightened their grip on ride-sharing companies, and separately invited Tencent and Netease – two internet giants in China – in “for a talk”. The terms of the conversation – relayed by Xinhua news agency, the official state media outlet – name-checked traits being targeted in other areas of the pop culture crackdown, including what has been pejoratively described as “sissyness”, and homosexuality.

The push comes at a time when many among Chinese intelligentsia are expressing their fear of the sort of tight control reminiscent of the pre-reform days. Labelled outside China as “profound”, a “great leap backwards”, or a “second Cultural Revolution”, the vast range of new regulations on society are seen by some as an attempt by Chinese president Xi Jinping to put his stamp on young minds and cement control.

The crackdown is having a global impact, too. China is now one of the world’s biggest markets. As offending industries and individuals have been targeted, stock markets have turned skittish, major brands have scrapped deals with celebrities, tech and gaming companies have scrambled to navigate new content and distribution laws, and foreign film producers and actors have struggled to navigate the increasingly sensitive market.

In response to concerns about specific moves against the social media accounts of K-pop artists, a hugely successful music genre with an extraordinarily powerful fanbase, China’s embassy in South Korea said the crackdown was not targeted at any particular country.

Fans of Chinese K-pop band BTS watch them perform at a Beijing festival in June
Fans of Chinese K-pop stars BTS watch the boy band perform at a festival in Beijing in June. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA

“China’s actions are aimed at all words and deeds that may impact public order – customs as well as laws and regulations – and will not affect normal exchanges between China and any country,” it said on Thursday.

Some say these moves were unsurprising and inevitable. Prof Peixin Cao of the Communication University of China, an institution that has trained much of China’s TV talent, said: “Recently there have been frequent occurrences of illegal, wrong or unethical behaviours by celebrities and entertainers in the economic, political and personal fields, which made me feel that the government … [should] put forward new requirements and norms.”

Cao said there had long been calls from parental groups and social science researchers for an intervention into the “negative impact” of the industry on children, but the industry had used its economic power and media influence to ignore them.“ I believe that the general audience also has dissatisfaction with the bad ethos of the entertainment industry, and the parents of adolescents may have felt it more deeply.”

Last week, the National Radio and Television Administration asked Chinese media to “resolutely resist showing off wealth and enjoyment, hyping up gossip and privacy, negative hot topics, vulgar ‘internet celebrities’ and the bottomless appreciation of ugliness, and other pan-entertainment tendencies”.

But the regulator was also clear that the new measures were designed to create an atmosphere of love for the party and the country, as well as respect for morality and art. They asked producers to include political and moral conduct as criteria in the selection of guests and performers.

In some ways, this reflects the party’s long and complicated relationship with popular culture. “On the one hand, the party represents the people and wants culture to be popular,” said Michel Hockx, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “On the other hand, they really don’t approve of what the people seem to like. They consider much of popular culture to be ‘vulgar’.”

Vicki Zhao, an actress and brand ambassador
Vicki Zhao, an actress and brand ambassador, appeared to have been deplatformed in China’s recent crackdown on celebrities. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The party’s stance on culture and who writers and artists ultimately serve was laid out in a big speech by Xi in October 2014. Artists should not “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve’”, Xi told the forum of artists and writers. “The arts must serve the people and serve socialism.”

Hockx said: “Xi’s 2014 speech was explicit about promoting a kind of culture that could set strong moral examples, as well as promote patriotism. Since then, the various government departments have been trying in various ways to implement these ideas.”

Hockx added that the underlying moral stance under recent crackdowns on popular culture “is very conservative – a bit like 1950s American TV culture: clearly defined gender roles [with] strong patriotism”.

China v the west

Dr Hongwei Bao of the University of Nottingham observed that the changes in the ways Beijing handles these issues are related to internal as well as external changes in the past couple of years. Domestically, China was undergoing a demographic crisis, and Beijing was concerned about the fallout of it.

Meanwhile, he said, the increasing antagonism between China and the west has led to a new wave of surging nationalism within China. “Increasingly, we are seeing – both inside and outside China – the forming of the narrative ‘China v the west’. The longer the standoff persists, the more likely Beijing is to emphasise its uniqueness in comparison to the west, or to other Asian countries.”

But the changes the authorities wish to pursue may not be easy in today’s China, where decades-long economic opening and societal change have upended traditional norms and rewritten parts of the unspoken social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

“In this process, rules are challenged, negotiated and sometimes consolidated, but they are very much a two-way street,” Bao said. “The authorities cannot determine everything in today’s China. Time has changed. Things don’t always stay the same and people never give up on their hopes.”

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New EU law may force big messaging vendors to open up • The Register

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The European Parliament’s new Digital Markets Act, adopted as a draft law this week, could compel big platforms owned by large firms including Apple, Google, and Facebook to make their tech interoperable.

Among other things, this might mean forcing the tech vendors’ messaging apps to allow communication with other services.

If the EU deems a company to be what it calls a “gatekeeper”, it could impose “structural or behavioural remedies” – compelling the largest outfits to allow interoperability, or imposing fines. The Act would also restrict what companies could do with personal data – not the first time it’s tried.

While the legislation carefully phrases the characteristics that make a company a gatekeeper in terms of its operations inside the EU, the fines are assessed against global revenue. It applies to companies that provide a “core platform service” in at least three EU nations, with more than 45 million monthly users and 10,000 business users. In money terms, it’s talking about €8bn a month inside the union, and a market cap of 10 times that.

A potential get-out is that it applies to “number-independent interpersonal communication services” – so services that identify you by your phone number rather than an account, such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, and the like, might be able to dodge the new rules, which won’t come into force for a year or two.

As we pointed out a week ago, services already exist that can talk to most vendors’ proprietary offerings. Nothing technical prevents this and many of the services talked to one another in the past.

For example, Apple’s iMessage originally used AOL’s OSCAR protocol, and AOL allowed authentication using Gmail credentials. Google’s Chat, Talk, and Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger, all used the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol or XMPP – to and from which Skype offered a gateway.

As far as the phone number-based systems go, there’s also an existing standard for internet-based SMS – not that anybody cares. ®

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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