(forthcoming, New York: New Press)
In October 2011 Chinese authorities banned scores of racy and overtly materialistic entertainment shows on primetime television. Within days Western media were abuzz with speculation on China’s tightening cultural policy. I received a fair amount of questions from deadline-chasing journalists soliciting my “expert” opinions on the “crackdown.” Unsurprisingly, the official Chinese line of “curbing excessive entertainment” is met with dismissive skepticism.
A Chinese dating show, If You Are the One is frequently cited as an example of “excessive entertainment”1. In this program provocatively dressed young women publicly embrace materialism, opting for wealth and affluence over romance and relationships, all of which evidently defies traditional Chinese morality. This and similar shows featuring material girls, and boys, have overwhelmed old party comrades, conservative cultural commentators, and viewers who believe that such programming constitutes the increasing vulgarity and cultural degradation of Chinese television.
In 2011 new rules were issued that forced 34 satellite stations across China cut vulgar entertainment programs. Under the new rules, each television station can broadcast only two entertainment shows during prime time each week, and each is expected to broadcast at least one show that promotes traditional Chinese virtues and core socialist values.
The apparent “harsher” turn on entertainment has alarmed some China observers, who see the tightening as signs of China retreating to a more militant past. The intrigue keeps China in the news, as if there weren’t enough news about China already, including the recent Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s US visit and the dismissal of Bo Xilai as CCP secretary of Chongqing municipality and a potential member of the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee.
To crack the China code, a bit of historical perspective is in order. The subservience of media to politics remains China’s official ideology today. Such an ideology is not entirely the invention of the Chinese Communist Party—it is rooted in a longer tradition of Chinese aesthetics that defines art (and entertainment). According to Chinese aesthetics art is meant to represent the ‘good and the beautiful.’ This perspective can be traced to a moral and ethical fabric grounded in Confucianism.
Cultural policy in China has been interventionist since the Chinese Communist Party established the League of Left Wing Writers in 1930. Cultural centralization and homogenization were the result of Chinese cultural policy. This is not to establish a hoary adage, but rather to acknowledge a greater relative emphasis, compared to Western traditions of art as a critical vanguard—the responsibility of art in the normalization of society.
In China, entertainment is supposed to teach moral lessons instead of pushing cultural/artistic boundaries or expanding markets. Thus the Chinese state is constantly waging a cultural war against Western influence. A speech delivered by China’s President Hu Jintao at the annual plenum of the party’s Central Committee in 2011 reasserted the party’s control on culture and ideological affairs and efforts to fend off Western Culture pollution2. The battle against Western popular culture is equated with ensuring what the Party likes to call “cultural security”.
With Avatar dominating the Chinese box office in 2011 and Lady Gaga becoming a popular icon among Chinese youth, a prevailing sense of cultural anxiety among Chinese cultural guardians echoes Hu’s assertion that “The West is trying to dominate China by spreading its culture and ideology and that China must strengthen its cultural production to defend against the assault”3. Pitting Chinese culture against Western culture, Hu declared that an escalating culture war between the two sides has begun.
Published in the party magazine Seeking Truth, certain passages in Hu’s speech register a cold war tone. Hu urges Chinese cultural policy makers to “clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration… We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarm and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.” The apparent militancy of Hu’s speech and the ensuing new rules on Chinese prime time television are reminiscent of cultural cleansing movements during the earlier CCP era.
“The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status,” as Hu puts it. He encourages the development of a Chinese national culture rooted in Confucian tradition capable of countering Western cultural influence.
Now as the influence of communist ideology withers, the Chinese state is resorting to Confucianism in its reconstruction of “national culture.” The Chinese state is not alone in this. The effort to revive Confucianism and Classical Chinese learning is nothing new among traditionalist Chinese scholars and cultural commentators. Over the past decade or two they have actively participated in ritual recitation of the Classics, exhorting traditional private schools to soak up on traditional Chinese virtues and values.
Responding to the demand for learning the Classics in elementary education, Chinese universities have begun to train scholars of Confucian Classics. The first College of Chinese Classics was inaugurated in 2005 at the People’s University in Beijing. The revival of Confucianism at the grassroots among the traditionalists has paved the way for the state’s call on an all out cultural war against decadent Western culture.
However, the Chinese versus Western rhetoric in Hu’s charge of amoral Western influence is deceptive, or at least misguided. The current cultural clash is not China versus the West but an envisioned nationalistic high culture versus the vernacular pop culture ushered in by a market economy. The real clash is therefore between the mandate of a cultural tradition dictated by morality and the demand of a market system dictated by profit maximization.
The paternalistic Chinese cultural guardians have yet to come to terms with the reality that pop culture is the logical extension of a market economy, which the Chinese state has embraced. Instead of blaming the West for eroding its cultural mores, China needs to take ownership of its self-inflicted cultural dilemma. The cultural war is internal, between China’s own vernacular and the genteel, both ignoring the discredited propaganda culture.
The moral panic registered by the Chinese over vulgar content on its national television is no different from what the FCC chairman Newton Minow registered in 1961 as he referred to American commercial television programming as a “vast wasteland” and advocated for programming in the public interest. With morally challenging reality shows of all sorts on the rise on US television, the Chinese better brace themselves for what is yet to come.
The current cultural tightening in China is the continuation of a top-down project propelled by political needs, yet it does reflect an organic, bottom-up response to Chinese society’s loss of moral grounding. Viewed in this light, the recent ideological and cultural tightening in China is symptomatic of the ambivalent march towards a market economy. Historically, the infiltration of the market and its profit logic into every fabric of a society has triggered society’s protective mechanism in preserving its social and cultural integrity, through means of state legislation and other forms of societal intervention. In addition to the often-highlighted Chinese state intervention, what we witness in China is also a spontaneous moral response to the shocks of a free market that threatens to tear apart China’s moral fabric.
Obviously the tightening up cannot last long when the bottom line is at stake. Some speculate that the top-down tightening up is symptomatic of the state-commerce cronyism rooted in China’s television structure in which the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the state agency regulating the industry, is financially linked to China Central Television (CCTV), the only national network that serves as the party’s mouthpiece. CCTV’s market share has been eroded over the years by entertainment shows on provincial television. Yet CCTV remits a fraction of its annual revenue to SARFT. Indeed, SARFT has been consistently criticized for suppressing attempts by provincial TV stations to expand regionally and nationally, thereby securing the network’s national monopoly.
As I trace in my forthcoming book, “Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television,” the overnight sensation of a singing competition show, Super Girls, from a provincial TV station in 2004 sent a shockwave through CCTV’s leadership, which promptly denounced the show as “a rogue program” produced by “the rogue broadcaster.”4
Feeling the heat for becoming increasingly irrelevant to the masses, especially the youth it was mandated to reach and unify, CCTV aired a story in June 2005 to criticize the prevalence of entertainment shows modeled on foreign programs and their detrimental impact on Chinese society. On July 19, 2005, CCTV sponsored a much publicized industry summit attended by top propaganda officials and television hosts from major broadcasters around the country. Three of its anchor hosts spoke at the summit and criticized Super Girls for being vulgar and condemned ratings as “the source of all evil.” Wang Taihua, general director of SARFT, complained that there were too many low-quality and lowbrow reality shows that cater to the least common denominator and that the government must strengthen supervision of entertainment programs and restrict the number of reality shows allowed on TV5. CCTV pledged to adhere to its vocation of “spreading advanced culture” and “actively advocate mainstream values in line with the times.”
In private, the network lobbied the central propaganda department to cramp down on the show. The SARFT announced a ban on airing talent shows during prime time (between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.) starting in October 2007. Under the new rules, the programs must be no more than 90 minutes, and offer no prizes to attract contestants. After a year of siesta in 2008 when the Beijing Olympic Games preempted all other events, Hunan TV made an attempt to re-launch Super Girls under a different name, Happy Girls, in 2009. Hunan TV submitted to SARFT conditions that Happy Girls would only last for two months and each episode would air only after 10:30pm. The draconian directives of the SARFT were astonishingly amusing: judges must hold themselves to some decorum; publicity revolving around the private lives of contestants is banned; and text-based and online voting systems are no longer allowed; Finally, competitors are forbidden from hugging each other or expressing extreme emotions on stage, and no fan groups are allowed to cheer for contestants in the studio. As my 12-year-old daughter puts it, “This is ridiculous. A reality show is all about the instant display of raw emotions.”
As CCTV condemned Super Girls, it aggressively launched its own talent quest show, Dream China, in 2005, and entrusted Li Yong, CCTV’s king of pop culture as its host. Li later claimed in his interview with me that the idea of Dream China came before Super Girls and that Hunan TV could not possibly measure up in market share and cultural influence to CCTV. To show national unity, Hunan TV took great pains to drive home the point that Hunan TV and CCTV are not enemies. The point was delivered to me during my interview with top-level policy makers at Hunan TV in July 2009. While asked if CCTV has attempted to create hurdles for Hunan TV, I was told that “the rules are handed down by SARFT, although people do link CCTV with SARFT.”
TV remains the party’s most manageable vehicle for cultural engineering yet even the Chinese state can’t control consumer behavior. The tightened regulations will only convert more TV viewers into web surfers, as the younger generation has already turned to the Internet for entertainment programs.
TV remains the party’s most manageable vehicle for cultural engineering yet even the Chinese state can’t control consumer behavior. The tightened regulations will only convert more TV viewers into web surfers, as the younger generation has already turned to the Internet for entertainment programs. By the end of 2012, the number of Chinese watching entertainment programs online is tipped to surpass 445 million6. Finally, the cycle of cultural tightening and loosening up is nothing new in China; moreover as the Chinese put it, “For every measure from the top, there are strategies to sidestep it.”
So allow me remind the Chinese policy makers and cultural pundits that Western culture is not the real culprit in the withering of China’s high culture as marketization and globalization have pushed open the Pandora box of the vernacular. A reminder to my alarmed fellow Western observers that the recent crackdown should not come as a surprise and that not all policy moves by the CCP signal a political and cultural Tsunami. Let’s all chill a bit.
1Edward Wong, “China TV Grows Racy, and Gets a Chaperon” New York Times(1/1/12)
2David Bandurski, “All in favor of culture, say “Aye” China Media Project (10/26/11)
3Edward Wong, “China’s President Lashes Out at Western Culture” New York Times (1/4/12)
4Yong Zhong (2007) “Competition is getting real in Chinese TV: A moment of confrontation between CCTV and HSTV,” Media International Australia, no. 124, August, pp. 68-82
5Peter Feuilherade (2007), “China threatens reality TV crackdown” BBC Monitoring (January 16)
6“How Youku is helping China’s film-makers get round the censors” The Guardian (1/24/12)
AUTHOR BIO: Ying Zhu is a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. She is the author and editor of seven books, including “Chinese Cinema during the Era of Reform: the Ingenuity of the System” and “Television in Post-Reform China: Serial Drama, Confucian Leadership and Global Television Market.” Her co-produced documentary, “Google China Standoff” aired on the Netherlands National Television in 2011, receiving wide attention.