Pardon my French

Former Google boss organises petition to boycott “bullying” TV show

Pardon my French

“I take it I didn’t get the job?”: host Zhang berates contestant Guo

Lee Kai-fu is a busy man. In addition to running Innovation Works, a venture capital firm he started in 2009, the former head of Google China also ‘tweets’ to his 13.7 million Sina Weibo followers as often as five times a day.

But in the last few weeks, Lee has been focusing on something else too: a boycott of the reality television show Fei Ni Mo Shu. Lee says it has no respect for its contestants, and has demanded that the show’s host and judges apologise.

Every week jobseekers from around the country go on Tianjin Satellite Television’s Fei Ni Mo Shu (which means ‘Only You’) to be interviewed by 12 company managers. Successful applicants are offered jobs on the spot, while unsuccessful ones are sent home (see WiC106). The judges – some of whom are famous entrepreneurs – dish out career advice (as well as criticism) to the applicants.

What launched the recent bout of controversy is a pair of clips that went viral on the web.

In the first, a contestant called Liu Lili gets into a row with the show’s host Zhang Shaogang. While explaining why she enjoys Shakespeare’s poetry, Liu breaks momentarily into English, which appears to offend Zhang’s nationalist sensitivities.

Liu – who grew up largely in New Zealand – then explains her decision to relocate back to China. Again, Zhang isn’t pleased, this time by Liu’s use of the country’s full name, (“China” rather than ‘wo men zhe’er’, meaning ‘here’). “This is our country,” Zhang scowls, implying that Liu’s language lacks patriotism.

The interview then turns into a verbal battle between Liu, the host and the judges. One judge says Liu’s facial expressions are “unnatural and fake”. Another says her interview wouldn’t have lasted longer than a minute in real life because of her “attitude problem”.

If anything, things get worse in the second clip. This features Guo Jie, who tells the judges that he is not only proficient in French but also has three degrees after studying in France for eight years. But when one of the judges, who also claims to have studied in France, then speaks to him in French, Guo appears lost and confused.

In fact, Guo later collapses, and almost faints when the judge – examining his three diplomas – dismisses them as mere degrees from a vocational institute. Guo is then asked, “Are you acting?” and is subjected to other barbed remarks.

All in all, netizens seem to think Zhang has stepped beyond the bounds of being an objective host. Others accuse him of bullying. The judges too have faced criticism for being disrespectful and condescending. China News Service even defended Guo, saying that he couldn’t answer the questions in French less due to his own language skills but more because the judge’s French was almost incomprehensible.

Internet tycoon Lee Kai-fu agrees. “After watching several shows, I feel that the interviewers are condescending and the host lacks basic respect. Even if the applicant isn’t qualified, they should show respect and need not resort to scorn and insults,” he wrote on his weibo page.

But when Zhang refused to apologise, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, Lee decided to start an online petition to boycott the show. In its first week, more than 410,000 netizens on both Sina and Tencent weibo, two of the country’s largest microblogging platforms, had voiced their support.

The incident also struck a chord with the show’s critics, many of whom see it as emblematic of a larger issue: the ‘job interview’ judges generally prefer contestants that are not necessarily the brightest but who are humble and low-key. Those who show ability to think independently or have spikier characters are more quickly rejected.

That explains why China can’t foster outstanding people with imagination and creativity, says Tencent Entertainment, an internet portal.

But as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Fei Ni Mo Shu has enjoyed a spike in ratings and Tianjin Satellite Television is even thinking about another reality series on the job market, also to be hosted by, you guessed it, Zhang.

To stop that, Lee had better down to some serious tweeting…

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