By Pei Li and Adam Jourdan
China's censors have a new target in a widespread clamp-down on popular culture: the country's nascent hip-hop scene, which resonated with Chinese youth last year on hugely popular television show "Rap of China."
Hip hop artists Wang Hao, known as "PG One" and Zhou Yan, known as "GAI" - the two winners of the show - have been sanctioned in recent weeks for bad behavior or content at odds with Communist Party values. GAI was pulled from hit show "The Singer" last week.
The crackdown on hip-hop, still very much a new genre in China, reflects a broader squeeze on popular culture as the country's stability-focused leadership looks to rein in potential platforms for youthful dissent.
Beijing is eager to use popular culture to shape public opinion, including co-opting rap artists ahead of its five-yearly congress last year. With state support comes the insistence that Party values must take center stage in the artists' work.
The latest cleanup started when PG One was forced to apologize for lewd lyrics, which critics said were insulting to women and encouraged the use of recreational drugs.
The official Xinhua news agency wrote that PG One "does not deserve the stage," and that "we should say 'no' to whoever provides a platform for low-taste content." Other official media and companies quickly followed suit; the rapper's tracks were soon pulled from most online sites.
GAI, who had been in third place on The Singer, broadcast by Hunan TV, was cut from the program last week with no reason given. Rapper Vava was hastily edited out of the same station's flagship variety show "Happy Camp" because of her association with hip-hop culture.
"Hip-hop's prospects in China seem dim after Chinese rappers removed from TV shows," read one headline from influential state-run tabloid Global Times on Sunday.
The same paper this month said hip-hop - which it called a "tool for people to vent their anger, misery, complaints" - did not suit China and "cannot thrive" here.
The campaign underscores a broader clean-up of cultural content from video games, online streaming and even performance art amid a drive to make cultural products adhere to mainstream socialist core values.
PG One, Vava and Hunan TV could not immediately be reached for comment. GAI, who had tried to make his act more Party-friendly - including an impromptu performance in which he sang the words "long live the motherland" - did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese news portal Sina reported on Friday that China's broadcasting watchdog had said immoral and vulgar content should be kept off the air, including hip-hop - and even tattoos.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television did not respond to a telephone request for comment from Reuters on Monday.
This is not the first time Chinese musicians have run afoul of local censors. In 2015, China's culture ministry banned 120 songs - mostly rap - for "promoting obscenity, violence, crime or threatening public morality."
In July last year, Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Culture said it was "not appropriate" for Justin Bieber to tour in China because previous performances there had created "public dissatisfaction."
A month later, organizers aiming to bring Grammy Award-winning artists to China said they would only "promote artists with a positive and healthy image."
Li Yijie, a patriotic rapper with government-backed band Tianfu Shibian, said that regulators weren't blacklisting the genre as a whole, but that recent scandals meant "some institutions, firms, TV stations and the public had lost confidence in hip-hop."
"Maybe local television stations think it is too sensitive to run hip-hop shows now," he added.
(Reporting by Pei Li and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Gerry Doyle)