Running on empty

A popular TV format has become the latest vehicle for propaganda


Angelababy: one of the stars of the Keep Running reality TV show

Some wondered what motivated tech giant Alibaba to purchase the South China Morning Post (it paid $266 million for the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper back in 2015). The New York Times said Alibaba gave it a mission to “promote China’s soft power” and improve “China’s image overseas”.

Even though the US newspaper accused it of pioneering a new form of propaganda, it conceded in its March article that readership has been “surging” after more than a decade of declines. That suggests the extra resources devoted to China coverage could be a winning strategy.

Meanwhile, a hugely popular reality TV series in China has also quietly added a dose of Communist Party propaganda to its format.

Keep Running, which used to be called Running Man before it was rebranded last year to distance itself from its South Korean counterpart, is now on a mission to bring Chinese soft power onto the small screen.

The show follows a group of seven celebrities, including actor Deng Chao and actress Angelababy, as they seek to complete different challenges every week and thus win the race. Since it began airing in 2014, Keep Running has proven the biggest ratings winner for Zhejiang Satellite TV. However, the new season – which started last month – has left audiences puzzled as their favourite action show is less and less action-based. In fact, many say the franchise had become downright “boring,” says Beijing Daily.

Take the first episode: the cast travelled all the way to Vienna to visit a United Nations office, where they were given a tour and were educated on China’s contributions to global peacekeeping efforts. As for the challenge, they had two hours to prepare and deliver an English-language presentation on the UN Development Programme’s sustainable development goals.

“The sight of a young, energetic group of Chinese celebrities proclaiming their country’s commitment to resolving some of the international community’s most pressing issues bolstered China’s image as a responsible global superpower-in-waiting,” Han Li, associate professor at Rhodes College in the US, wrote for Sixth Tone, a state-backed news portal.

The second episode saw the group travel to Innsbruck, the only venue to have hosted three Winter Olympic Games. During the episode, the cast completes different challenges in an ice-skating rink before sitting down in an ice cave to play a trivia quiz about the upcoming Beijing games in 2022 (see WiC390). They also remind viewers that the official logos of the 2022 Beijing games are stylised forms of the Chinese characters for “Winter Dream,” a play on President Xi Jinping’s cherished “Chinese Dream”.

The most recent episode, which aired last Friday, finally brought more action. The group of celebrities travelled to Hangzhou to compete in a varsity dragon boat race against students from Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard (as well as a handful of local universities). The show highlighted the history of dragon boat racing, which dates back nearly 2,300 years to the Warring States period, to commemorate the suicide of a poet and statesman, Qu Yuan.

Even though the Keep Running team eventually lost the race to Zhejiang University, which came in first (and also organised the event), there was some key messaging in the show: “The spirit of dragon boating is about taking risks, about breaking through. Rowing is not about how strong you are individually, but whether through teamwork, you can propel yourself to greatness. This is what dragon boating is about.” (The times of the crews from Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale were never revealed – suggesting their participation may have been more of a ‘cultural exchange’ and less a genuinely competitive exercise.)

Many viewers are disenchanted with the franchise’s shift from escapist entertainment to cultural promotion, with even the state-owned Beijing Daily admitting that the show now feels like a sightseeing tour. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, Keep Running received a rating of just 6.3 out of 10, compared with the first season, which had a score of 7.5.

“The show has become so preachy and dense. Where did the entertainment element go?” one netizen complained.

“I think the production team of the show has lost its way. It is now too high-brow and too cultured,” another wrote. “When did a reality TV series become a cultural show?”

Some argue that the show’s shift in tone is designed to align with the increase in government scrutiny of the entertainment industry. For instance, Divas Hit the Road, a travel show, recently swapped destinations like Spain for countries like Kenya, which have more of a Belt-and-Road connection.

“It is more and more difficult for reality shows in terms of development. On the one hand, the star power and entertainment element is the starting point for all reality shows. On the other hand, all the reality shows must now be tasteful and project the right values,” says Entertainment Unicorn, a blog.

Nevertheless, despite a rocky start to the season, ratings for Keep Running have proven resilient. So far, it has continued to dominate prime time television. Even online, the show regularly accumulates over a billion views per episode.

And at a time when state-run broadcasting is often outdated and didactic, Keep Running’s more subtle propaganda has proved less of a turn-off. “The first time I watched the show I laughed so hard my whole body was shaking. I did not expect such a politically correct show could be so funny. It is not easy! It’s so fun to watch. And besides, it is so heartwarming to see the national flag of China waving in the wind outside the UN,” one netizen wrote on Douban.

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