Every year in early March the annual session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), is convened. The meeting is closely watched by the domestic media but it’s generally a closely scripted event that features plenty of pageantry but little practical substance.
So perhaps it should come as no great surprise that Wang Qishan might want to take a break from politics to discuss real drama instead. During a panel discussion with the city of Beijing’s NPC delegation last week, China’s anti-corruption tsar enquired if they had watched the hugely popular Korean TV series You Who Came From The Stars.
“Have you all seen that trendy online drama called… something star?” Wang was said to have asked.
His question was met with silence until a young government staffer whispered the full title to Wang. Then the 65 year-old official continued: “You see? None of you officials know it. Only the young people at the back know what I’m talking about,” prompting a burst of laughter from the room.
As WiC reported in issue 227, You Who Came From The Stars tells the story of an egotistical actress who falls in love with an alien. It has built up a huge following in China, after being broadcast on two video websites and viewed more than 1 billion times. After the female lead showed a taste for beer and fried chicken, fans of the show flocked to indulge in the same treats – helping to buck a downturn in poultry sales brought about by avian flu.
Now it appears that the series has even caught Wang’s attention, although he claims that his wife was the one who turned him on to it. Wang, an influential member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, seems to keep a busy TV viewing schedule. He also revealed recently that he has taken a strong interest in Netflix’s political drama House of Cards, which tells the story about scheming politicians on Capitol Hill (see last week’s issue).
But Wang hasn’t just been watching TV series for his own entertainment. He also told reporters that he has been wondering why Korean dramas hold such appeal for Chinese audiences.
“Lately I have been reading a lot of books. The core and spirit of Korean dramas is the exact sublimation of Chinese traditional culture. They just propagate traditional Chinese culture in the form of a TV drama,” Wang claimed.
“[So] how can the Koreans cross the ocean and influence the US and even Europe? In the past few years, they came out with Gangnam Style (the Korean pop song),” Wang asked.
His lesson: “The future of China’s cultural industries should not stray far from what our ancestors have left behind for us.”
Wang’s comments about the Korean show quickly sparked discussion in the media, with commentary from Legal Daily reckoning that he was taking aim at China’s TV production industry.
“Why is it that Koreans can film something like You Who Came From the Stars that grabs people’s attention and yet China still can’t produce anything that is worthy of export? China has had a history much longer than South Korea so if anything, we should be able to produce something that’s better than that!” the newspaper lamented.
Sina, a news portal, concurred: “Cultural officials should make greater effort to explore the core and soul of Chinese traditional culture. Why can’t Chinese dramas achieve the same success as those from Korea?”
It is interesting to note that both of Wang’s favourite shows – You Who Came From the Stars and House of Cards – are only shown online and thus face almost no censorship – unlike terrestrial TV.
But this also drew retorts that the censors would never have allowed a Chinese version of a political show like House of Cards to be made.
“Behind the Korean craze is Korea’s successful cultural system. Our system lags far behind with approval procedures that are far too critical… Unless China reforms its censorship system, reforms how the TV industry cultivates talent to encourage more creativity… it is not going to produce quality work that will influence the world,” the Zhengzhou Evening Post indignantly predicted.
Wang’s reference to the Korean drama will have boosted his reputation among some of China’s younger online community. It likewise establishes his credentials as one of the more tech-savvy leaders. In the past he has used the internet in anti-corruption campaigns with the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) collecting tip-offs from web sources and releasing case information online.
“He fights corruption during the day and chases Stars at night; he reads The Old Regime and the Revolution and watches the US drama House of Cards. He is knowledgeable about history but he is also in synch with pop culture and in tune with the lives of ordinary people. Where does he find the energy?” is one of the most forwarded weibo posts about Wang currently doing the rounds.
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