November 26, 2022

By: Neeta Lal

Millions of Chinese are using the smash hit Bollywood number – “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, aaaaaaaaa” – from the 1982 film Disco Dancer as a protest anthem to rebel against the Xi Jinping government’s draconian restrictions on dance control the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country.

Hordes of jailed Chinese nationals have uploaded the videos of the iconic song to Chinese social media network Douyin – the Chinese name for TikTok – where they can be seen lip-synching to the Hindi number brandishing empty bowls and pans to encourage their withdrawal to highlight staples during lockdown. The song in China is recreated in Mandarin as “Jie mi, jie mi,” which translates to “Give me some rice? Who can help me? few members.” It can be heard here.

As Chinese censors are quick to search for language online to express frustration or irritation with the systems, tireless protesters use code words that constantly change as censorship shuts them down. “It has reached a point where a simple understanding of Chinese vocabulary, syntax and grammar is no longer sufficient to fully understand Chinese internet discourse,” according to a website called Internet Monitor. On today’s Chinese Internet, a full understanding of the language requires an in-depth knowledge of current events, a deep respect for historical implications, an agile mastery of cultural conventions, and most often, a healthy appreciation for current humor.”

While one video, which has been viewed more than 10 million times, shows a man dressed as a woman in a colorful outfit and hat singing the number with an empty rice bowl in hand, another shows a housewife engaging in exaggerated, theatrical gestures to the beat of the song sways. Children have also joined the online protests by singing their own versions.

Several Chinese cities including Shanghai; Population over 25 million remain under strict crackdown to contain Covid numbers. Although cases of infection are under control, residents have been forced to remain indoors for weeks while struggling with food and other shortages. Those protesting the policies face crackdowns from security officials, according to thousands of videos that have surfaced online showing police officers abusing the public, including women.

China’s Covid policy has also had an economic impact. “As of March, an estimated 345 million people in 46 Chinese cities were under full or partial lockdown, a population accounting for 40 percent of GDP,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report.

Foreign companies have also been victims of the Chinese government’s repressive Covid policies. Large numbers of workers jumped fences at Foxconn’s Apple iPhone assembly site in the city of Zhengzhou to escape the government’s “zero Covid” rules. Because they were denied transportation, they had to trudge several kilometers to leave the site.

Against this backdrop of oppression and fear, sociologists say, people resort to creative ways to rebel. And since Indian films have always been popular in China, Jimmy Jimmy’s phenomenal success is hardly surprising. Legendary film stars such as Raj Kapoor were already very popular in China in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, the overwhelming success of films such as 3 Idiots, Secret Superstar, Hindi Medium, Dangal, and Andhadhun has spurred record-breaking box office attendances in Chinese cinemas.

Disco Dancer is a musical drama, a rags to riches story of a young street performer. Jimmy Jimmy starring Mithun Chakraborty was a huge hit, followed by fans in South and Central Asia, East and West Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, Turkey and the Soviet Union. The song was written by composer and singer Bappi Lahiri, who died earlier this year. It also became a cult hit in Russia and remains popular in Russia and Eurasian countries to this day. Jimmy Jimmy also starred in a 2008 Hollywood film called Don’t Mess With The Yohan.

“Indian music composers have never shied away from composing protest songs that capture the imagination of the people. Many of these songs reflect the public fear of the prevailing political dispensation or the breakdown of law and order. Many also show the political climate in the country,” says Vishnu Jignesh, a Delhi-based music composer.

Hindi cinema, adds Jignesh, has a rich tradition of poets and songwriters writing songs that beautifully capture protest movements. “The Chinese adoption of Jimmy Jimmy is the most recent example of this,” he says. In another instance, the viral Tamil song “Enjoy Enjaami” (from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu) by rapper Arivu and singer Dhee was adopted by Sri Lankans to express their disenchantment during the country’s economic crisis and government corruption.

Cultural historians say that pop music’s association with protest movements goes back centuries and transcends countries. “Popular songs often become protest anthems,” says Dr. Preetha Nair, Associate Professor of Political Science at Delhi University. “If you look at powerful mass movements, be it the civil rights movement, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution or even the Cairo uprising, they all had pop songs that were taken over by protesters that acted as their glue for solidarity. This also reinforced their message while putting pressure on respective governments.”