Over the last two years, I’ve watched with bemusement as the Communist Party of China’s anti-Western criticisms have multiplied under the stress of trying to guide a society’s values amid economic strains and an increasingly interconnected world. Surely Chinese officials and their families are among the hundreds of millions of devoted fans who enjoy the country’s new offerings of trashy reality TV?
Maybe not. These are officials who wrote in early 2015 that Western values are a “ticket to hell and can only bring disaster to the Chinese nation.” In 2014, a high-level Party member complained that Western countries promote “their own values as ‘universal values.'” More recently, an op-ed in a state-run publication criticized Western media and U.S. leaders for news reports, censored in China, about leaked documents that fingered the world’s elite — including President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law — and their use of tax havens.
And lest this seem purely a safeguard against political freedom and a Soviet Union-like collapse, Western values have also been blamed for government corruption, and China’s education minister has instructed schools to avoid textbooks that celebrate Western mores.
If the CPC’s objective with this campaign is feverish nationalism, it could conceivably succeed. But if the Party’s leaders want Chinese society to be rid of all thought that could be deemed Western, they have already lost the battle. That’s because some values integral to the cosmopolitan experience of educated, interconnected and economically empowered people around the world don’t align with traditional Chinese viewpoints. Unless the nation wants to close itself to the benefits of modernization, these new values will remain.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go inside my parents’ California home for a second. I was recently there for dinner when they turned on the TV mid-meal to watch a dating show on KTSF called Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates literally to “Do not disturb unless you’re sincere” and has been called If You Are the One for English-speaking audiences.
The bachelor appearing on the episode that evening had made a video flaunting his wealth by following him on a drive through the Australian countryside in his Porsche. He then sang a tune — in English — entitled “What I Want in My Life.” Even more bizarre: My parents, who had gone through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and all of its restrictions on acceptable thought, were utterly fascinated and entertained, along with 36 million other fans during the show’s heyday.
The program was a nightly ritual for them, but 30 years ago, when my parents and others like them emigrated from China, the premise of it would have been impossible. Courtship and dating were conservative and rigid. Families likely chaperoned — even arranged — matches with the children of friends. Wealth never hurt, but conspicuous displays of it were soundly rejected.
Fei Cheng Wu Rao, in contrast, pits 24 women against a male contestant. They stand around him in a semicircle. He shares professionally edited videos about himself and banters with the women while the host and two pundits provide witty commentary about love and relationships. Sometimes the results are heartwarming: One episode featured an accidental reunion between a long-separated Romeo and Juliet pair. Another time, a contestant made the tasteless decision to remain silent while displaying the many zeroes on his bank statement for the cameras. The program can be cruel, too — one woman notoriously rejected an offer to go bicycle riding with “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW.”
Believe me, my parents’ values have not changed much since they dated, yet it’s clear that they have altered enough to allow for this guilty pleasure. The moral flexibility demonstrated by them and other Chinese is exactly what allowed Fei Cheng Wu Rao to become a hit, and many programs in the reality TV genre followed with their own successes. Baba Qu Nar, or “Where are We Going, Dad?” features celebrity father-child teams working through various challenging games together. Ben Pao Ba Xiong Di, or “Running Man,” shows teams of well-known people competing against one another in obstacle courses. Add to the mix other programs such as the singing competition Wo Shi Ge Shou (“I Am a Singer”) and edgy talk show Qi Pa Shuo (“You Can, You BS”), and reality TV is now as popular as dramatic mini-series critical of capitalistic cynicism, as well as traditional historical dramas, which offer a glorified and nostalgic view of Imperial and Revolutionary China.
That alarmed the government’s top censors, who steadily watch the country’s moral compass for any signs of excess. To address the worries about “celebrity worship” and other transgressions, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued a circular last July urging reality shows to “blend in socialist core values” and not become “a place to show off wealth and rely on celebrities.” The information overseer even got philosophical and asked that shows not “deliberately flare up conflicts” or “reflect the evil of human nature” — both potential hazards of reality TV.
The irony is that most of these programs, along with China’s drama mini-series, are based on South Korean shows and bear little resemblance to Western offerings. Furthermore, what SARFT is railing against in these shows goes beyond West or East. As crude as it is, reality TV echoes the themes of challenges common to the people of countries around the world who are trying to build meaningful lives amid dramatic changes in wealth, knowledge and interconnectivity.
Modern people, whether Chinese, American or Korean, contend with finding love as attitudes toward relationships become more liberal and the number of potential partners expands. They encounter fraying family bonds as career-oriented people make more excuses based on a shortage of time. They see a celebration of material wealth and fame, and wonder where their own success fits in. They see deliberately provocative talk as honest because the ever-present demands of commerce and survival require false pleasantries. They encounter governments offering platitudes and economic excuses while humanity’s ever-quickening race takes its toll on the environment and general quality of life.
None of these circumstances is particularly Western. They are simply modern.
Perhaps the Communist Party would be better off creating or encouraging new content that celebrated “socialist core values” — whatever those may be — rather than trying to make mass media more generally conservative. That might allow it to communicate its concerns while encouraging more creative approaches to television. Almost anything would be an improvement on these reality TV shows. More often than not, they are nothing more than a numbing agent, vacuous and undemanding enough to dull any sensory reaction. They provide cheap and shallow answers to deep and serious questions. The Chinese viewing public deserves better.
Editor’s note: Readers, what do you think? Share your observations on Chinese reality TV and modern entertainment with SupChina’s editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Liao is a contributing editor with SupChina, an international corporate attorney and a China analyst based in Silicon Valley. She is a director on the business team at Globality, a startup focused on international trade. In six years of practicing law, she represented clients in Asia, North America and Europe across a variety of industries, including Internet, mobile, semiconductors, enterprise software, energy, advertising technology, consumer technology and finance. She has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and The National Interest. She is a member of the National Committee on United States–China Relations and the Brookings Society.