Lights, camera, patriotism

If you didn’t like shows about loving your motherland, this was a bad week

wangfei w

Faye Wong: came out of retirement to lend her voice to her motherland

Last month 620,000 poorer families in China were given a 32-inch TV. The gesture undoubtedly made many of them happy. But that wasn’t the principal aim of the plan.

The gift came from the Publicity Department of the Central Committee – the division of China’s ruling Communist Party responsible for ideology and propaganda.

The goal was to get more people watching the National Day celebrations, as well as the patriotic television schedule planned for the period either side of the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

“If poor people have a TV set they will be able to feel the great achievements of these 70 years of construction and development. It will stimulate them to roll up their sleeves and participate in creating the Chinese Dream,” Xinhua claimed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is a great believer in old-school propaganda. Since becoming leader he has reminded state media regularly that their job is to “reflect the Party’s will” and “safeguard the Party’s authority”. Xi has also overseen a massive “rectification” of non-state media channels, which have been commanded to remove “vulgar” content and spread “positive energy” – code for content that shows present-day China in a more flattering light.

All of these directives were distilled into the instructions issued to television channels two months ahead of the National Day celebrations. Sent out on July 31, the notice from the National Radio and Television Administration banned popular drama genres, such as imperial period soaps and South Korean-style romances. Instead it told channels to observe a 100-day “propaganda period” in which they were to broadcast programmes that focused on “the great struggle of the Chinese nation”.

The administration also provided a list of 86 approved shows, including series with names such as The Great Pediatrician and Hello, Public Prosecutor.

Channel bosses were warned not to “broadcast lively dramas or idol dramas that are more entertaining”.

Much to the displeasure of the censors, television series based on court life in imperial China have become hugely popular in recent years. The authorities dislike the format because it glamourises life in the pre-revolutionary era and poses a challenge to the Party’s official version of history.

A second genre – so called idol dramas – have also caused disquiet because they are too removed from reality. They often feature impossibly handsome but quite effete-looking men, following romantic plot lines. Opposition to the genre – which originated in South Korea – seems to stem from the physical appearance of many of the male stars (see WiC424), with the military particularly worried about the threat to national ‘masculinity’ from niangpao or ‘sissy boy’ culture.

When the 100-day ban was announced some viewers vowed to avoid television for three months.

“It’s going to a be steady diet of tasteless red porridge. No thanks,” quipped one unhappy netizen.

TV channels have tried to make the 70th anniversary content as interesting as they can by co-opting younger actors and presenters, and dropping the didactic style associated with traditional anniversary pieces.

For instance, iQiyi – China’s equivalent of Netflix – produced a five-part series called Me and My Country in which young celebrities sit round a table to discuss the achievements of their grandparents’ generation.

In one episode about Xinjiang an older man recounts how he helped to lay railway track through the far west of China. “There was nothing there before we came,” he explains.

Back in the studio the young celebrities (denim jackets and beanie hats) marvel at his stamina and personal sacrifice.

In another episode they talk excitedly about the advances of modern agriculture. “It used to be you had to pull carrots from the ground, but now robots do it,” enthuses one.

The series got better ratings online than most, although many viewers said they tuned in only because a favourite celebrity was taking part.

The same channel also helped to promote the flagship cinematic offering of the anniversary period – a film called Me and My Motherland, which charts the nation’s story through seven tales filmed by seven different directors.

The movie covers the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949 through the eyes of the engineer who had to make sure the new national flag rose smoothly. Other stories in the anthology include the Beijing Olympics as seen by a small boy trying to get a TV signal for his family, and the safe return of the Shenzhou 11 astronauts.

The title song for the movie (of the same name as the film) is a revived version of a 1985 classic. Faye Wong sings it but iQiyi has also posted clips of dozens of other celebrities crooning it as well.

Cinemagoers have had plenty more patriotic fare to choose from over the holiday period. The Captain tells the story of a Sichuan Airlines flight whose cockpit glass blew out in May 2018. The focus is on the heroic actions of the pilot who managed to bring the plane down safely.

The Climbers re-enacts the events of 1960, when a team of Chinese mountaineers reached the summit of Everest from the notoriously treacherous “north side” of the mountain for the first time (back then the achievement was questioned by the international community due to a lack of photographic evidence).

Lastly the People’s Daily has been promoting a micro-movie starring the Chinese actor Yang Yang. In it, he simulates running through the crowds at the founding day ceremony 70 years ago and feels the revolutionary fervour for the ‘New China’. The trick is that people can swap Yang’s face with their own to put themselves at the centre of the action.

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