The rise and fall of some of the best-known TV shows in China often follows a recognisable pattern. A channel releases something new, it becomes widely popular and then SAPPRFT, the eternally vigilant media regulator, decides the programme is “unhealthy” in some way and bans it.
A recent example is Dad, Where Are We Going?, a reality TV show from Hunan Satellite TV which follows celebrity fathers and their kids as they leave their pampered lifestyles in the city and head into rural China.
The series ran for three seasons until April this year when regulators issued a directive forbidding celebrities from bringing their own children onto the show on the grounds it makes them instantly famous and prevents them from having normal childhoods.
That should have been the end of the series. But Hunan TV is one of the more creative outlets and it decided to work around the ban by moving the show online and swapping the father-children teams for combinations comprised of a ‘normal’ child with a celebrity ‘intern’ dad instead.
Hunan TV said the idea was to bring out the soft caring sides of the male celebrities and to provide encouragement to men who are about to become fathers.
But as the Global Times pointed out, the results have been a bit “creepy”. The most controversial pair on the show is Dong Li, a 23 year-old member of the national fencing team, and his four year-old “daughter” Arale, who move to a simple village where they must share a bedroom and work out how to feed themselves.
Arale calls Dong “Daddy” throughout and says she wants to marry him when she grows up.
In a promotional interview, Dong even said that Arale is his perfect girl and he will wait for her to reach marrying age.
Disturbingly, some fans started to refer to Dong and Arale as a couple fated to be together. “Please don’t break them up; they will be true lovers in 20 years,” wrote one on weibo.
Initially Hunan TV played up the idea, releasing a video of the couple looking adoringly at each other to a schmaltzy tune titled, “Let’s fall in love”. Later, however, it denied suggesting anything inappropriate, saying the show was about “family love” and should be watched in a “pure light”.
By then the audience mood had started to turn, with many viewers calling for the show to be banned because it makes children vulnerable by glamourising abnormal relationships.
“It is not right to call a strange man ‘dad’ and sleep in the same bed as him. It is detrimental to our efforts to protect and educate our children against child abuse,” wrote Girls’ Protection, a Beijing-based NGO, on its website.
China Women’s News said the programme “could contribute to a situation where children are harmed”. The newspaper added that 304 cases of sex abuse against children were recorded in 2015, most of which were perpetrated by someone the victim knew.
The very idea behind the show seems bizarre and misconceived. Certainly, no TV channel in the US or Europe – particularly the BBC after its Jimmy Savile scandal – would have given the go ahead to such a programme.
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