Ask Mei

The spring gala

Why is the Spring Festival Gala the show Chinese love to hate?

As most of Week in China’s readers know, the world’s most watched live TV programme Chunwan 春晚 or the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV is tightly controlled and scripted by the central government. So every year the show receives maximum scrutiny and a fair share of ridicule from tens of millions of netizens (see issues 96, 136, 172, 225).

It didn’t use to be like this, though. During the early years of the Gala, which was first broadcast in 1983, it was loved by viewers because the programmes were actually entertaining, inspiring and unpretentious. It faithfully reflected the national mood during those years when China was recovering from the horrendous Cultural Revolution and embarking on the road to opening-up and reforming. I believe the early 1980s were the golden age of contemporary China.

However, with the tightening of ideological control by the Party since the late eighties, the Gala has lost its lustre, partly also due to the emergence of the internet and other entertainment platforms. Even still, out of pure habit and tradition, most Chinese families tune into the annual programme on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

This year’s Gala probably set a new record in terms of its awfulness (I haven’t seen a single positive comment except those from official sources). There was hardly any entertainment and almost every item had to closely toe the Party line. Many viewers complained that it was like watching an extended version of Xinwen Lianbo 新闻联播, the daily primetime news programme on CCTV that strictly follows the Party’s agenda.

With the theme of “Your and My China Dream, Building Prosperity All-Around” (my honest translation without exaggeration), the live programme started with a singing and dancing bonanza eulogising a happy year in a happy China. In case viewers couldn’t understand the important policy achievements, the singers rapped out the following key points: the Tiananmen Square military parade showed off the country’s military power, the anti-corruption campaign gained people’s hearts, Beijing won a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the One Belt One Road policy is “infinitely brilliant”, China’s largest passenger airplane (the C919) was launched, its space exploration technology reached new highs, the renminbi was included in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, and Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize. The rap finished with the line “Our achievements in 2015 were all real!”

Similar themes ran through the five-hour show, which in turn generated a different type of bonanza in the social media.

Even before the show finished, various jokes started to go viral on WeChat and Weibo platforms. Here are just a few examples:

“North Korea’s nuclear weapon technology is catching up with that of China’s, whereas China’s propaganda skill is catching up with that of North Korea;”

“As long as you can survive this year’s Chunwan, there will be nothing you cannot tolerate in the coming year;”

“We must apologise to all previous years’ Chunwan as this year should be the most lousy one ever.”

My favourite two jokes were probably written by financial professionals. The first is a quip about the central government’s new emphasis on supply-side economic reforms, and the second about the short-lived stock market circuit breaker:

“This year’s Chunwan has all to do with supply (by the government) but nothing to do with demand (by the viewers);”

“We should demand to have CSRC Chairman Xiao Gang produce next year’s Chunwan and ask him to introduce a circuit breaker system: if 5% of the viewers can’t bear the programme, the live show should be suspended for 15 minutes for the viewers to calm down. When 7% of viewers say they can’t take it any longer, then the show should be shut and wait for the next Lunar New Year’s Eve to relaunch.”

Another notable difference at this year’s Gala: there were no foreigners participating at all. It makes me wonder if China is becoming more inward-looking.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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