Fulbright Scholar and comedian Jesse Appell has been our far-flung correspondent in China this year. Most recently, he appeared on the Business Desk writing about China’s theme song, exposing the economic desperation underlying the country’s avid consumption. But he’s more widely known for his fall 2012 “Gangnam Style” parody — “Laowai Style”— which racked up more than a million views within its first month on Youku, China’s version of YouTube. His music video was so popular in China, Appell was invited to perform his routine live on Chinese TV — but not before the TV studio tried to censor his lyrics. Appell fought back, getting to keep two of the three censored lines, and share his message about the commonalities between the Chinese and a foreigner (laowai) like himself living in Beijing.
Now, Appell is back with another rap music video explaining the development of the Chinese economy — this one set to “Mo Money Mo Problems.” That should be a good hint as to the theme of the song. It’s as catchy as “Laowai,” and given that first video’s success, if you care about being in-the-know, about pop culture or China’s economy, it’s not to be missed. Here Jesse elaborates on how he got the idea for the song and what it means.
Jesse Appell: Earlier this year, I sat at a café in Beijing, listening to ’90s rap searching for insight into the nature of the Chinese economy. All of a sudden, my iPod played the classic song “Mo Money Mo Problems” featuring P. Diddy.
Diddy may not be a published author in the field of economics or have an advanced degree like Dr. Dre, but his lyrics nonetheless go a long way toward describing how China has developed: “The more money we come across, the more problems we see.”
Money has meant both progress and problems for China. Indeed, as an economy, China is a chimera, one where the Qing Dynasty and modernity exist side by side. Crossing the street in Beijing means dodging both Mercedes and rickshaws. This confusing juxtaposition of old and new simultaneously bolsters and strains Chinese society.
When it comes to development — or “Fazhan,” in Chinese — sometimes the good and the bad are so closely interrelated it is hard to tell them apart. In P. Diddy parlance, mo money has meant mo cars, but also mo pollution. For better or worse, it goes like this: mo money, mo fazhan.
“Mo Money Mo Fazhan,” I thought to myself. “That could be a rap song.” Thus was born a bilingual rap song chronicling the economy of China from the late Qing Dynasty to the modern day.
As an intercultural comedian, a good deal of my work seeks to allow people to understand China a bit better through humor. So aside from giving me an excuse to wear a bike chain with a massive wooden carving around my neck, I wanted to use comedic rap to reflect the amazing changes in China, both its blessings and its curses, and above all, communicate the frenetic pace of economic modernization that dominates the country’s national identity.
We start back in the late 1800s, when China was ruled by the Qing Emperor and was falling apart at the seams:
Late Qing, no bling
Feudal society all up in this place…
Railroad protests, Imperial pressure,
How’s a player gonna develop his economy?
A fair question. Indeed, up through the socialist period, the economy was in a shambles — a century of war and revolution eventually placed Mao Zedong and the Communist Party in the seat of power, and upon the death of Mao in 1976, the economy was arguably not much further advanced than it had been during the Qing dynasty.
But change — like the second verse of the song — kicks off with a bang:
Then we’ve got my Bro Deng Xiaoping
The man was 4’11” of ice cold bling…
He made the SEZs (Special Economic Zones) to raise the GDP
To get the PRC into the G20
Attract the MNCs (Multinational Corporations) but keep the SOEs (State-owned Enterprises)
This is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”
In a few quick decades, the reforms of the diminutive Deng began the rapid expansion of the economy. The reforms were termed “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” a delightfully vague phrase that gave the government license to introduce capitalist policies without needing to formally address decades of pro-socialist, anti-capitalist rhetoric.
Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were established to make China a part of the international economy. High-rises went up overnight as a floodgate of trade and investment poured into these special areas. One such zone, Shenzhen, has grown from a tiny fishing village in 1979 to a metropolis of 11 million.
But even as capitalism took hold, vestiges of the old way of doing things remained. With one hand, China beckoned to multinational companies, inviting investment, while with the other hand, it shielded the massive communist-era state-owned enterprises, which monopolize industries such as oil, banking and mining. This dichotomy defines the confusing mix of capitalism and communism that continues to this day.
Growth spread like wildfire through the ’80s and ’90s, from the coast inland:
Build roads to Xinjiang and trains to Tibet
Rebuild the Great Wall and dam the Yangtze
Incorporate Hong Kong, don’t talk about Taiwan…
You know it’s on when you say “Economic Reforms.”
In these circumstances, the new and the old began mixing in the ways that make modern China such an interesting image:
We’ve got fake DVDs and smartphones,
3D, 3G, and Three Kingdoms dramas,
We’ve got migrant workers selling fake iPhones,
Sons of Nouveau Riche bragging ’bout their second homes…
The modern, the ancient; the rich, the poor… all of these things exist within eyeshot of one another on any given street in Beijing. Illegal workers line the streets at night markets, trying to make a few extra bucks by hocking electronics arrayed on grimy carpets, while the sons and daughters of the new rich display their wealth by any means necessary.
Technology and culture collided, with interesting ramifications. Urban China has the same 3D and 3G technology as the West, and they use it not just to watch Hollywood movies, but also to re-create Three Kingdoms historical dramas as well, making their own culture appear flashier and more vibrant than ever. This is the fabric of modern China, a confusing mélange of money, history and cultural pride.
Some may say macroeconomics and rap don’t mix. And they have a point — rap traditionally examines microeconomic issues, such as the purchasing of luxury goods and non-traditional markets such as drugs or guns. Nevertheless, even those bearish on China (in rap lingo, we call these people “haters”) must admit that China and the West are enmeshing themselves together, and in the process something new is being created. With “Mo Money Mo Fazhan,” that “something new” happens to rhyme.
Jesse’s video parody of “Gangnam Style” went viral in China and briefly flared up here in the U.S. as well.
This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions