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Anxiety’s Remote Control

What’s Behind the Latest Crackdown on Chinese Television

The Chinese government agency that English speakers know as SARFT has several monikers. Its full name is the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television. Literally translated, its Chinese name, guangdian zongju, is more like the "General Office for Radio, Film, and Television.” But among netizens, it has a nickname: guangdian zong ji, the "General Anxiety of Radio, Film, and Television.” In Chinese, the character zong, which means “general,” also means “always.” So the nickname sounds a little bit like the “Perpetual Anxiety of Radio, Film, and Television.”

Why perpetual anxiety? Because it is so anxious to ban so much of the output of the media it oversees. On Baidu, the largest search engine in China, you only need to plug “SARFT + ban” into a search box to get a sense of SARFT’s range: from forbidding foreign cartoon programs between 5:00pm and 8:00pm to forbidding the broadcast of sexual enhancement advertisements; from forbidding local satellite television from broadcasting talent contests during prime time to regulating dating and game shows; from forbidding television appearances by Internet celebrities or scandal-ridden figures,  to banning the use of “NBA” and other abbreviations of foreign terms and . The Perpetual Anxiety controls everything.

SARFT’s orders are meticulously detailed; they sound as if they might have been written by a prim nanny charged with rearing a particularly disobedient child. A directive issued in 2007 dictated the terms of participation in televised talent selection shows: in singing competitions, 75% of the songs in each airing had to be “patriotic”; the host was not to refer to the contestants, guests of honor, judges, or other entertainers as “brother” or “sister”; cell phones and telephones were not to be used to cast votes, nor would online voting or other off-site voting methods be permitted.

SARFT’s anxiety was on display again in its October 25, 2011 memo, “On Going a Step Further to Strengthen the Management of Satellite Television Programs,” which ordered satellite television channels, beginning January 1 2012, to air more news and programming on culture, education, and technology, and announced an intention to implement controls to prevent “excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.”

These “suggestions,” popularly known as the “limited entertainment order,” limit broadcasts of dating shows, talent competitions, and five other similar types of programs. Between the primetime hours of 7:30pm and 10:00pm, satellite television stations cannot air more than two of these programs weekly, and airing of these types of programs cannot exceed nine shows nationwide. The order required satellite stations to broadcast a “morality show” that “promotes traditional Chinese moral virtues and core socialist values” and dictated that provincial radio and television stations set up new listening and viewing organs with personnel who would specialize in the tracking and inspection of excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.

This “limited entertainment order” elicited a deluge of contempt on the Internet. One netizen wrote, “Apart from the guys at the Perpetual Anxiety, China’s 1.3 billion people don’t have the power to make adult decisions, to think for themselves, or to decide for themselves what they like.” The head of SARFT’s Television Show Supervision division, Li Jingcheng, insisted that SARFT’s “documents have never used the word ‘prohibit.’ In general, it is only recommended that television stations should broadcast certain programs.” But it matters little whether the word used is “ban” or “recommend.” The reality remains that in China, SARFT can use administrative orders to dictate what’s on TV such that the television audiences don’t even command their own remote controls.

Moreover, SARFT’s constant orders to “purify the screen” only serve to underline the television stations’ appetite for broadcasting “vulgar” programming and their audiences’ appetite for watching it. Vulgarity has been ingrained in televised reality shows and TV series so thoroughly that it seems vulgarity and television are inherently tied to one another. The government is officially against the “three vulgarities,” (a conveniently vague formulation sometimes translated as “vulgar, cheap, and kitsch”) but never actually defines them. This reflects the logic behind China’s present control of culture. The government, in effect, says to the Chinese people “I am noble, you are coarse. I am mature, you are naive; I lead, you follow.” SARFT bans crime flicks on the theory that they teach bad guys how to commit crimes; it bans melodramas on the theory that they display too many unhealthy conflicts; it bans films depicting fights against government corruption because they make the people distrust the Party. The government has the authority to dictate and define entertainment, even though since the beginning of Reform and Opening Chinese tastes in popular culture have never been susceptible to any arbitrary government influence.

This “limited entertainment order” came on the scene just after the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party began to talk about a strategy of using culture to build a powerful country. The government clearly didn’t want the country projecting an image of moral decay.

In October 2011, a two year-old girl named Yueyue was run over by two large vehicles in the southern Chinese city of Foshan; nearby security cameras caught eighteen pedestrians walking by her without stopping to help. The incident made national and international news and was likely the catalyst for SARFT’s demand that satellite stations begin to broadcasting morality programming. It seems SARFT’s personnel blame entertainment programs for the rotting of the nation’s moral fiber. As an editorial in the People’s Daily put it, “Chinese audience’s television viewing has been besieged by entertainment.”

Each province is allocated a satellite television station, competing with the others for national market-share; this is the way China’s television industry is structured. Of the limitations put on entertainment, local television has taken the biggest hit. These stations rely on lowbrow entertainment to compete with the monopoly occupied by CCTV, increase their ratings, and garner advertising revenue. In the competition between television stations, CCTV’s advantage has slipped terribly. In 2010, it emerged that for the first time viewers of provincial satellite television exceeded those of CCTV. Restricting entertainment should remedy CCTV’s shortcomings and enable it to retake its top “godfather” position.

As far as increasing news programming is concerned, even though satellite stations have been ordered to broadcast more news, the government prevents them from airing segments on major political and economic issues, “suddenly occurring incidents” (such as natural disasters), or social conflicts. So news programs have little space in which to operate. That the Party passed a resolution on “Deepening Cultural Reform to Promote the Development and Flourishing of Socialist Culture” does not mean that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is now opening up opportunities for culture and the arts. On the contrary, as the well-known media entrepreneur and director of Enlighten Media, Wang Changtian, predicts, it will instead tighten control over the Chinese culture industry, especially over content. As Wang said, the economy is leaning towards the right (that is, towards a more free-market philosophy), but media content still leans in another direction.

Translated by Sara Segal-Williams and Susan Jakes.