When did government propaganda become so enjoyable? That’s what many Chinese are saying after watching Min’ning Town – a government-commissioned TV series about bringing people out of poverty in Ningxia province.
The 23-episode drama, called Shan Hai Qing, or ‘Mountain Sea Love’, in Chinese, is based on the true story of Min’ning – a ‘new’ town on the edge of the Gobi desert.
Min’ning county was created in 1996 with the help of the then deputy head of the Fujian Provincial Party Committee, none other than Xi Jinping.
The man who would go on to become Chinese president is said to have selected the location of the town as part of a scheme in which a wealthier eastern province (in his case, Fujian) would be twinned with a poorer western region, to speed up development.
Because of Xi’s personal contribution to Min’ning’s creation, there was every chance the series would be turgid hagiography. Indeed, many viewers stayed away at first, suspecting it of being sleep-inducing propaganda.
But Min’ning Town belongs to a newer wave of government messaging which is higher-budget and more nuanced. Its clever storytelling also makes it stand out, despite being one of 100 pieces of specially commissioned material to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party this year.
The series follows on the heels of other centrally-commissioned hits, such as the anti-corruption drama In the Name of The People (see WiC323) and another poverty alleviation series Flowing River.
“This is pure magic!” raved ThePaper.cn in its review of the series. “It respects characters, true history and the laws of drama.” A wider audience of viewers rated the series on China’s most popular review site Douban at 9.4 out of 10. “This drama shows that propaganda can also have literary and artistic qualities,” remarked one Douban contributor.
Min’ning Town opens with the news that several families have fled their new homes in the town because conditions there are worse than the lives they left behind in the mountains.
“There is only sand there,” complains one villager of the place he is being asked to inhabit. “At least in my old home the ground is clay. If it’s a choice between eating sand or clay, I’ll eat clay,” he jokes.
The heroes of the story – two local officials: Ma Defu and his older sidekick, Zhang Shucheng – persuade the villagers to put more of their faith in the government and relocate to the new town, saying that with time and effort it will provide more economic opportunity for its inhabitants. Over the episodes, Ma battles for the town to be added to the electricity grid and for neighbouring districts to be better supplied with water.
The connection with Xi Jinping starts to crop up in the plot. Min’ning’s prospects begin to look better when it is twinned with another town in Fujian and locals take on contracts from electronics factories there. Later Fujian officials teach Min’ning farmers to grow mushrooms, giving them a new crop they can trade.
Although the concept for the series might sound a little stilted, the series is beautifully shot and doesn’t gloss over all the challenges in local life, allowing audience to see some of their own experiences in the events portrayed. Furthermore, the characters speak in their local dialect, with earthy tones sprinkled through their dialogue, which has also pleased viewers.
In short, if you are looking for some topical TV to watch in China – you could do worse than tuning into Min’ning Town.
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