Flip on the television in China this month and you might wonder if some networks have slipped back to the Little Red Book-waving days of the late 1960s. On 1 July, it’s the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party. With the date fast approaching, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has sought to ramp up the revolutionary spirit in the country by ordering broadcasters to temporarily stop airing soap operas, crime dramas and spy programmes, and instead show more patriotic-themed fare such as Dong Fang, a historical drama about the establishment of the People’s Republic and the achievements of Mao Zedong. It’s sure to be scintillating viewing.
Also oddly banned through the end of July are programmes about time travel, which SARFT criticised for “casually making up myths” and “having monstrous and weird plots”, according to Xinhua, the state’s official news agency.
This is not new territory for SARFT, which is hardly a paragon of visionary thinking. The agency still maintains a tight grip on the number of foreign films “officially” allowed into China each year — that is, those screened at cinemas, not sold at pirated DVD shops — and in recent years, has clamped down on everything from money-worshipping on TV dating programmes to lip-synching on a televised Chinese New Year’s gala.
But while local broadcasters must more or less follow SARFT’s marching orders, young Chinese are increasingly blasé. With access to any foreign programme they want online, many have reacted with yawns and sarcastic asides to SARFT’s throwback edict.
Taylor Yang, a 27-year-old who works for a British company in Shanghai, says she has stopped watching Chinese TV altogether. “All the patriotic stories are the same,” she says. “We learned these stories 20 years ago and now they’re still telling the same story.”
Shanghai resident Gu Qian Yi also prefers Japanese and American soap operas to the “empty formalism” of Chinese historical dramas. “I watch foreign programmes from the internet,” the 22 year old says, “but that doesn’t mean I do not love my country.”
Indeed, SARFT’s ability to influence public opinion may be limited these days, but that doesn’t mean patriotism is waning in China, says Wanning Sun, a Chinese media and cultural studies professor at the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia.
“(Young people) like to think they are savvy users of internet content, but they’re not totally immune from propaganda,” she says. “When it comes to reporting on international news, they have almost absolute faith in what the media is saying.”
For those who grow weary of the “red programming” over the next two months, however, there is an escape: China’s Got Talent hasn’t been pulled from the airwaves. Yet.