Mass TV culture and the Party – the great divide

June 9, 2014 by Wei Yang

Two years ago television regulators in China began to tighten up on the number of foreign imported serials that could be shown, despite their huge popularity. Now they are being limited even further. What are the censors afraid of?

For the past two years China has been attempting to rein in foreign influence First, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s media watchdog, announced that no foreign TV series may be shown during the prime time hours of 7-10pm and overseas-produced shows “could take up no more than 25% of total programming time each day”.

It had previously limited the number the reality TV programmes and historical dramas and had shown a particular distaste for plots that involved time travel back to a Chinese historical era. In 2009 it issued a directive to highlight 31 categories of content that were prohibited online, including violence, pornography and “content likely to incite ethnic discrimination or undermine social stability”. Another directive issued in 2011 was aimed at overturning the over-emphasis on purely entertainment programmes on Chinese satellite channels.

The SARFT, which issues mandatory guidelines for media content, recently decided that as of 2014 broadcasters have to cut radically the amount of international programming they air. Under the new rules, satellite stations will be obliged to broadcast a greater proportion of educational, documentary and public-interest programmes.

This move also has an impact on foreign TV shows streaming online. Although the online streaming industry is usually freer than state television, some American TV shows that have gained great popularity during the past year – such as The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife – are set to be axed from online streaming portals. The move suggests government attention is intensifying towards the online streaming industry, which has stretched the boundaries of what can be seen in the country.

So what precisely does the Communist Party fear? Government officials say these measures are aimed at preventing forces abroad from trying to westernise and divide the country through their cultural influence. They are also part of the Party’s broader push to reinforce socialist principles in an attempt to counter calls by liberal Chinese for “universal values” (such as freedom of expression), which state media often portray as western concepts unsuited to China’s circumstances.

It comes against a background of substantial growth in the broadcast sector in China in recent years. There are now around 3,000 TV stations across the country, including a large number of satellite broadcasters. However, the main state-owned broadcaster, CCTV, retains a substantial market share, particularly in the more remote regions away from the eastern seaboard, where there is much less choice. It has many separate channels, including services in English, French, Spanish and Russian.

China also has a nationwide satellite TV network. Locally produced programmes are often broadcast nationally through satellite. These local satellite channels are often very popular; for instance, Hunan TV is China’s second most-watched channel, behind CCTV. The channel has featured various hit shows and popular series such as Strictly Come Dancing, I am Champion and Soccer Prince. The Shanghai Media Group and BTV also run major TV and radio networks.

However, the real fear for the leadership of the Party is that the ideas conveyed by foreign TV shows are dangerous, subversive, and might undermine their political power. One example was the banning two years ago of a popular TV talent show— Happy Girls which was broadcast by Hunan TV, but quickly gained a devoted following across the country.

The Party’s disdain for shows such as Happy Girls has long been clear. The programme’s forerunner, Super Girls, a programme similar to American Idol and its predecessor Pop Idol in Britain, upset the authorities by allowing viewers to vote for contestants by sending text messages from their mobile phones.

Liu Zhongde, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, said Super Girls was “poison” for the youth of China: “Super Girls is certainly the choice of the market, but we can’t have working people revelling all day in low culture,” he told China Times. Despite this, some 400m people watched the final on 27 August 2005 – nearly a third of the population – and around 8m text message votes were cast.

In a country conspicuously lacking in democratic choice, the idea of public voting is perceived as threatening. Happy Girls trimmed its sails by restricting voting mainly to a studio audience. But there were other issues that continued to upset the authorities, in particular, the massive audiences drawn by talent shows, compared with the staid programming of the official China Central Television (CCTV), as well as the participants’ unscripted emotional outbursts.

Although these talent shows are widely accepted and popular in western countries, they clearly wrankle with Chinese officials. After the incident of Happy Girls, more measures were introduced by the authorities to help push more domestically produced “morality-building programmes” on air and limit the number of reality shows. Today, no public voting is allowed in any talent shows in China.

The subsequent arrival of China’s Talent and The Voice China – Chinese versions of American Idol and The Voice have been regulated almost from their inception. According to the SARFT, there were too many such talent shows on television. Consequently, from July 2013, no satellite channels were allowed to produce new singing competition shows, while programmes that had finished filming, but had not yet been launched, were to be pulled until the summer vacation period was over and the schedule of shows already airing adjusted to avoid overlap.

Moreover, starting from this year, China’s censors are asserting their authority over foreign TV content on the country’s booming online video sites, after years of hands-off regulation, raising the risks for US distributors left in the dark about which shows might fall foul of the rules. Although the online streaming industry is usually freer than state television, some American TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife that have gained great popularity during the past year are set to be axed from online streaming portals.

Chinese authorities gave no reason when they unexpectedly slapped rare takedown notices for these popular shows. None of them are known for political or sexual content that usually makes Chinese censors queasy, raising suspicions among some experts of a covert attempt to protect the revenues of ailing state broadcaster CCTV.
While China television regulators are busying making efforts to block foreign influence on their people, today’s Chinese are more informed, interconnected, and worldly than ever. They will not easily accept government propaganda as news, nor will they remain silent when faced with official lies about issues affecting their lives. According to a Sina Weibo poll, over 120,000 netizens voted against media censorship rules, compared to 6,000 who were in favour. Protests over China’s draconian censorship regulations are also widespread across the country.

In the face of opposition and with a population that is increasingly net-savvy the regulators are unlikely to be able to block foreign influence for much longer. Economic development has opened up China to the world. More and more Chinese have worked and travelled overseas and many have been educated in western countries. They are not only used to the idea of freedom of speech, but also consider it an essential element of any society and believe that freedom of speech and unfettered access to information are universal rights that make countries stronger.

In March this year Michelle Obama visited China where she gave a speech in Peking University in which she stated that China had some of the world’s tightest media restrictions. Although Mrs Obama’s comments were absent from state media, these were circulated in social media, where they were widely praised. It was left to Zhang Lifan, an independent historian, to spell out the significance: “Although the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, Chinese citizens don’t really enjoy that right. I think Mrs Obama just reminded China in a polite and mild way that not allowing freedom of speech is not conducive to China.”

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