‘Little Fresh Meat’ and the Changing Face of Masculinity in China

The embrace of a more fluid form of masculinity shows that many Chinese are frustrated with the traditional ideas pushed by the establishment.

Mr. Cai belongs to the tribe of “little fresh meat,” a nickname, coined by fans, for young, delicate-featured, makeup-clad male entertainers. These well-groomed celebrities star in blockbuster movies, and advertise for cosmetic brands and top music charts. Their rise has been one of the biggest cultural trends of the past decade. Their image — antithetical to the patriarchal and stoic qualities traditionally associated with Chinese men — is changing the face of masculinity in China.

Innocent as they may seem, the little fresh meat have powerful critics. The state news agency Xinhua denounces what it calls “niangpao,” or “sissy pants,” culture as “pathological” and said in an editorial last September that its popularity is eroding social order. The Beijing newspaper’s decision to include Mr. Cai in its profiles apparently prompted the Communist Youth League to release its own list of young icons: patriotic athletes and scientists, whom it called the “true embodiment” of the spirit of Communist youth.

The government attacks on this evolving idea of masculinity have triggered a strong counter-backlash from fans of the celebrities. And in online essays and posts, defenders of the young men make clear that their preference is more than a youthful countercultural fad. At its heart, the embrace of a more modern, less rigid form of masculinity represents frustration with traditional ideas of manhood.

“The ridiculous condemnation of ‘sissy pants’ men shows the gender ideology of a patriarchal society that equates toughness with men and fragility with women,” a journalist who goes by the name Wusi wrote in an online essay in September, voicing a widely shared opinion.

The official push of traditional masculinity — including reinvented school curriculums and the sponsorship of boys-only clubs — is motivated in part by worries that the decades-long one-child policy produced a generation of timid and self-centered male youth ill equipped to fulfill their social responsibilities.

And in the context of China’s increasing power, the establishment’s preoccupation with promoting old-fashioned, Hollywood-style manliness also has a political message. Just as patriotic intellectuals a century ago argued that national strength derives from the virile energy of the youth, present-day Chinese nationalists see their ambitions take the shape of a macho willingness to fight for righteous causes.

This vision is on display in the 2017 action thriller “Wolf Warrior 2.” The movie, featuring a former People’s Liberation Army soldier caught in an African civil war, showed him putting the lives of local civilians above his own while single-handedly beating American-led mercenaries. The goal of the story, said Wu Jing, its director and lead actor, in media interviews, is to “inspire men to be real men.” The movie went on to become China’s top-grossing film in history.

There is little question about who in real life is meant to best personify the masculine chauvinism characterizing the official line today: Take a stroll down a city street or switch on the television at news hour — and you are greeted by the face of President Xi Jinping with a perennial look of self-assurance and determination.

The Missiles of August

In reality, the Cuban missile crisis was the kind of scenario many of us feared could follow the election of Donald Trump: An inexperienced president gets elected on promises of toughness and flagrant lies, makes a series of bad decisions that provoke escalation from our foes, at which point political considerations make him feel he can’t back down, and suddenly we’re staring at nuclear war.

.. That’s basically the sequence of events that gave us the Cuban crisis, as Ben Schwarz pointed out in a revisionist Atlantic essay in 2013. Kennedy was elected after attacking Richard Nixon over a supposed “missile gap” with Russia that did not exist. He proceeded to fulfill his promise to Make America Tough Again with a series of poorly planned, Mafia-entangled, occasionally ludicrous attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the same time, he went ahead with a plan to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a provocative gesture that made the Soviets suspect that we were looking for opportunities for a nuclear first strike.

.. When Khrushchev responded to this aggression and incompetence with the missiles-to-Cuba scheme, Kennedy decided that while the missiles did not place the United States in greater military danger (a nuke is a nuke whether fired from Havana, Russia or a submarine off the U.S. coast), they created an unacceptable political problem for his presidential credibility. Thus the escalation that followed — the quarantine, the invasion threat, the nuclear brinksmanship.

.. “success” required giving the Russians the strategic concession they had originally sought. The Jupiters were removed as well, but on a delayed timetable to allow the Kennedy White House to deceive about the crisis’ resolution. Meanwhile, American efforts to overthrow Castro diminished, and his regime endures today.

.. The weapons’ purpose is blackmail and self-protection, with no Cold War grand strategy involved. The U.S. military seems more likely to be a restraining force in this crisis than a hawkish one.

.. Meanwhile Trump himself is far more publicly unmastered and privately ignorant than J.F.K. But in fairness, Trump also has confined his real bellicosity to Twitter, without ordering any Kennedy-esque military misadventures or escalations yet.

.. My sense is that he would gladly — nay, eagerly — take a version of the deal that Kennedy ultimately struck: a bargain that looked better publicly for the U.S. than in secret, that allowed him to claim success even if the reality were different.

..  the concessions we would have to make to Pyongyang are unlikely to be kept secret.

..  can see the price of letting a U.S. president save too much face.

.. So it’s more likely that if we avert war, it will be because Trump is fundamentally a bluffer, who will issue threats on Twitter but won’t overrule his advisers if they tell him not to give an order that will leave hundreds of thousands dead.

Unfortunately, the bluster and incompetence will also probably make any deal worse than it otherwise might be.

But that’s the nature of the Trump presidency: You root for the least-bad outcome, knowing that the best one is probably already out of reach.