BEIJING: Women belting out feminist lyrics that denounce gender inequality.
Teenagers in glittery dresses dancing to songs celebrating LGBTQ freedoms.
The number 1989 – the most sensitive year in modern Chinese politics – displayed in huge type on the theatre screen.
This was the scene at a recent showing of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour concert movie in Beijing, as the US pop juggernaut packs theatres across the Asian nation with young, female audiences.
The values celebrated in the show stand in stark contrast to President Xi Jinping’s increasingly conservative vision for women, providing a rare outlet for young women rejecting ever-tighter social controls and the Communist Party’s rigid expectations.
Faced with a shrinking population, China’s most-powerful leader since Mao Zedong has urged women to cultivate a “culture” of childbirth and take on a more domestic role.
His administration has crushed the nation’s nascent #MeToo movement and in 2022 wiped women from the Politburo for the first time in decades.
Shuo Tao, 22, has watched the movie twice.
“It felt great,” she said, kissing her bicep as Swift does when introducing her song The Man, about society’s double standards for men and women.
“She gave me the courage and strength to say no to things that hold me back,” Tao added.
Alice Evans, a senior lecturer at King’s College London who researches gender equality, said Swift is “extremely emotionally expressive”, which resonates with a younger generation more aware of gender issues.
“China is traditionally patriarchal society, where women were expected to obey their fathers and husbands,” Evans said.
Many educated Chinese women are increasingly critical of sexual harassment, male violence and labour market discrimination, she added.
Swift, an American billionaire in her 30s, has skipped the world’s second largest economy on the highest grossing music tour ever – one that gave a US$5.4 billion boost to the US economy.
Her absence comes as China recorded the deepest rate of deflation since the global financial crisis last month amid sliding consumer sentiment.
A typical Swiftie spends US$1,500 to attend a live show, including the cost of tickets, hotels, flights and food.
Hong Kong’s leader John Lee vowed to “work hard” to attract superstars after the US singer opted to perform in Tokyo and Singapore over the finance hub.
Instead, the tour has been unleashed in China via some 7,000 screens raking in 95 million yuan at the box office – a boon for the industry even though it isn’t topping the chart.
“China Film Bureau members are under tremendous pressure to fill theatres, due to over building in the sector and a slowing overall economy,” said Chris Fenton, a former movie executive who wrote Feeding the Dragon, about Hollywood’s relationship with China.
“Even though she’s not very political, she has her own ideas on important issues,” said Juzi, a 20-year-old woman who asked not to give her real name as she’s afraid of repercussions, explaining why the film had been so popular.
She also noted Swift’s vocal public support for the LGBTQ community, another group that has faced government suppression in recent years.
The 2023 movie Barbie was similarly seen as a rare outlet for Chinese feminists, in a nation where the ruling party has stepped up censorship of concerts, movies and streaming content.
The blockbuster achieved critical acclaim in China during its limited release, as audiences flocked to see a film that highlighted gender inequality.
Despite Swift hailing from Beijing’s biggest political rival and being a symbol of an American society that’s often derided in Chinese state media, she has been welcome in China in the past.
The Shanghai stop of her 2014 tour sold out within one minute, making it the fastest ticket sale in Chinese history.
Swift followed up that tour with the release of her fifth studio album, 1989.
The title, coupled with her initials, TS, sparked speculation Swift could run afoul of censors who might interpret the album name as a reference to the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protests that took place in 1989.
That controversy failed to materialise and the American star has continued to find new audiences.
Yangyang Zhou, 29, who attended Swift’s Reputation tour in the UK when she was a student there, has seen the movie three times.
“It’s this feeling of I deserve it,” said Zhou, of why she had embraced the star’s music.
As the Eras movie extends its run until March 1, Swift fans across the nation are preparing to attend shows during the Lunar New Year holiday starting today.
A weekly state-media magazine summed up why the show had been a runaway hit in a review last month.
“She talks about love, exposes her fragility openly and bravely, and then she moves forward, continues to love,” the author wrote.
“This makes me feel very powerful.”