Turn on Chongqing Satellite TV and you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d been transported back in time to the 1960s. It’s unlikely that you’ll see any other drama aired but a show called Mao Anying – a new biopic about Mao Zedong’s son who died fighting against “imperialists” on the Korean peninsula.
Most Chinese TV stations these days are rabidly commercial, chasing the advertising dollar for all its worth. But as of March 1, such capitalist running dog behaviour was purged from Chongqing TV. Instead, during primetime hours (7.30pm till 11pm), advertisements have been banned in favour of public service announcements reminding viewers of an erstwhile revolutionary spirit. And according to Xinhua, a new series of programmes called Red Song Every Day will air primetime to instruct the muncipality’s 32 million residents on how best to revive the stirring lyrics of the Maoist era.
Viewers of this patriotic channel will get fewer dating shows and cheesy soap operas. But they will be able to re-educate themselves in classic tunes like The East is Red.
Reaction around the rest of China has been bemused, to say the least. A typical comment is by microblogger Fairy Xiao Yin: “Chongqing Satellite TV has actually stopped broadcasting commercials! I feel frightened about this news. Can the wheel of history really reverse?”
The initiative is the brainchild of local Party boss Bo Xilai (the son of one of Communist China’s so-called ‘Eight Immortals’, Bo Xibo – one of those who helped Mao turn China ‘red’ in 1949). Bo junior’s campaign to get the Chongqing masses singing red songs has been going on for more than a year. But the radical changes on local TV mark a significant upping of the ante.
It’s getting talked about too because Bo is one of the few regional politicians to have national name recognition. He grabbed headlines – in China and abroad – for his first big campaign: to purge, jail and execute the triad gangsters living it up in the western Chinese city. The PR he earned for this – casting him as a sort of Chinese Eliot Ness – was largely benign. And for some Chinese he took on a vaguely heroic aura, just as his habit of giving press conferences seemed to present him more like an American politician than other senior leaders in China.
So what explains Bo’s red campaign, for which he has earned more in the way of ridicule from netizens and commentators?
Bo says that his initiative is a “spiritual endeavour” and his use of red culture is designed to “firmly build up the socialist core value system in every heart”.
According to the Beijing News, Bo’s deputy, Mayor Huang Qifan, has gone further in his advocacy, comparing red songs, ballets and dramas to the works of Shakespeare. Huang said these songs mustn’t be forgotten, and that young people are discovering that singing is inspirational.
The campaign to ‘sing, read, tell and inspire’ has been conducted in a style worthy of Mao himself. Chinanews.com says that local officials are boasting 128,000 screenings of red culture material, with 93.4% of the population having seen at least one show. Apparently, 94.7% of those have expressed ‘satisfaction’ with what they saw.
Presumably the offending 5.3% have retreated to their preferred obsession with Lady Gaga.
The timing of the red campaign will not be lost on Party historians. It was 45 years ago this summer that Mao began his Cultural Revolution. That makes it all the more ironic that Chongqing is the current location for the red-fest. As the leading foreign historian of the Cultural Revolution, Roderick MacFarquhar puts it in his excellent book Mao’s Last Revolution: “Of China’s major industrial centres, Chongqing was among the worst affected.” In 1967 the city was close to civil war, MacFarquhar points out, as Red Guard factions fought with those loyal to the Party’s more established figures.
Writes the historian: “According to a postmortem conducted by the Party centre in 1970, the fighting on one particular construction site involved close to 10,000 combatants ‘employing virtually every conventional weapon available [tanks, mobile artillery and anti-aircraft guns]’ and ‘resulted in the death or wounding of 1,000 class brothers, and the destruction of vast amounts of state property’.”
Bo won’t be as keen to draw on this particular cultural legacy, no doubt. But his campaign probably has two purposes. First off, for some of the local population, there is indeed a nostalgia about the revolutionary era. In a country where income inequality strains the social fabric, there are many who associate the songs and drama of the former era with a purer age, when corruption went largely unmentioned and more egalitarian goals prevailed.
On a more personal level, Bo will also have an eye to being elected to the nation’s powerful Standing Committee next year. So he may be hoping his patriotic endeavours will endear him to the hard-leftist faction that still retains a voice within the Party, and is more disposed to Mao’s legacy.
Meanwhile over in Anhui, there’s an entirely different sort of TV controversy brewing. According to the Guangzhou Daily the province now has as many as a 1,000 TV channels operating illegally in rural areas. They’re set up with very basic equipment by local entrepreneurs and replay pirated content. “The stations make money from rogue advertisers marketing shoddy medicines or pesticides,” reports the newspaper.
Apparently many have survived not only by offering local officials a cut of their profits but also because they eschew political content. Pure-minded Bo would take umbrage on both accounts.
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