China’s television regulator SAPPRFT isn’t known for its sense of humour. So it was no surprise that as early as July it was already talking about selectively banning television shows to “enforce a strong and comprehensive political view” and “better welcome the major propaganda period of the 19th Party Congress”.
The all-important summit will begin on October 18. In the months leading up to it state TV channels have been obligingly airing long but bland documentaries on Party related matters.
One was a six-part series about Xi’s diplomatic efforts that was broadcast last month (“Wherever he goes, Xi Jinping sets off a whirlwind of charisma!” a narrator exclaims). Another six-episode offering detailed China’s social and economic achievements since 2012 – the year Xi became Party Secretary.
And in an apparent effort to stop them switching over to more watchable channels such as Phoenix and Shanghai TV – SAPPRFT has ordered some of their most popular shows off the air.
The first to go was a chat show called Jinxing on Shanghai TV. That was followed by a drama called Impossible Game on the same channel.
But the ban to cause the most surprise was Behind the Headlines on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.
The show first aired in April 1998 and was loved for its straight-talking host Dou Wentao, who until now was famous for “going close to the line but not crossing it”.
It was first broadcast at a time when Jiang Zemin was leader and was aired through Hu Jintao’s 10 years at the helm.
The format was simple – for half an hour Dou would engage in a three-way chat with two other guests – sometimes celebrities, sometimes experts on varied topics from geopolitics to health. On one occasion, long before she became First Lady, Xi’s wife, soprano Peng Liyuan turned up as a guest.
During the last episode Dou discussed Donald Trump’s rise to power and a scandal involving five-star hotels’ failures to change bed linen (see page 8).
“How come a show that has survived so long is banned now?” asked one disgruntled viewer. “Is China plunging into darkness?” another questioned. Eventually censors killed online discussion of Behind the Headlines and searches for its title were blocked.
It’s not clear if it will return after the Party Congress: a message posted to its official weibo account last week wasn’t a source of optimism. It said: “Because the company’s programmes have been adjusted, we will stop broadcasting. Thank you for the many years. We hope to meet again.”
Other more commercially-minded broadcasters are feeling the state censor’s wrath too. Hunan TV – China’s most viewed channel after CCTV 1 – was reprimanded for “chasing high ratings” this month.
“For a long time leaders of Hunan TV have believed that entertainment is the foundation of the station,” a government notice said after a three-month inspection.
“The channel has been wavering between economic benefit and social benefit. It has failed in its mission to be a mouthpiece of the Party,” the inspectors added.
In particular the channel was chastised for showing too many negative items on local news programmes and for allowing too many scantily clad women on other shows.
SAPPRFT has now helpfully provided a list of dramas that can be shown during the run-up to Congress: anti-Japanese war films are fine, as is anything on “farmers, subway designers, police and normal civilians”.
Speaking to Xinhua a day after Behind the Headlines was taken off air, the head of SAPPRFT Nie Chenxi proclaimed that the success of the 19th Party Congress was his “top priority”.
“We should thoroughly study and understand the important speeches of General Secretary Xi Jinping. and accurately grasp the Marxist standpoint,” he said.
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