Five hours prior to this year’s Spring Festival Gala, the show’s director, Yang Dongsheng 杨东升, spoke to a CCTV reporter just meters away from the main stage, vowing to put up a show better than the 2017 one, which he also directed.
“My goal is to outperform myself,” he said.
Last year’s show was so heavily criticized — for its sexist sketches, propaganda-like performances, and overuse of young pop idols who were caught lip-syncing — that the country’s media regulators had to censor online criticism to prevent the backlash from growing out of control.
Yang, of course, didn’t want to talk about any of those disgraceful moments during the interview. When asked how he processed online reaction to the 2017 gala, he said, “I briefly glanced at online reactions to the show last year, and I didn’t find a lot of criticism. Some people made constructive comments.”
Maybe Yang was living on an alternate internet. In any case, the question looming over this year’s gala — which seemed awfully similar, in many respects, to last year’s, featuring a lot of the same tropes and even the same actors — was how much criticism would be allowed.
Yang gave some promising signals during his interview. “I am cool with criticism,” he said. “I believe they are all well-intended. It’s a kind of opinion. So I will accept those constructive criticisms and won’t take any mean taunts seriously.”
Merely two hours after the 2018 gala concluded, users on Sina Weibo discovered they were prohibited from searching for “Spring Festival Gala complaints” (春晚吐槽 Chūnwǎn tǔcáo).
What sort of criticism might people have been searching for? Well, we have one really good idea:
Well, I know what all the English-language articles are gonna focus on tomorrow.#SpringFestivalGala's Africa skit gave us all a close look at how China views Africa: monkeys, giraffes, half-naked dancers, and a region in need of Chinese ¥. pic.twitter.com/JHzcLRlgN5
— Anthony Tao (@anthonytao) February 15, 2018
Every year, Chinese people tune in to watch the gala in anticipation of something different. But most of the time, they end up disappointed. It’s no secret that the show has been struggling to maintain its audience, and that it has a problem connecting with younger audiences. And if I can be honest, I have no idea how a show can be improved if its director shows such hostility toward criticism, and authorities attempt to shield him from honest feedback.