View from the Wall

Television

Window to a Changing China


What do you do in your spare time? If you would ask a Chinese this question today, the answer could well include aerobics, studying, dancing, traveling, making friends, playing “majiang,” keeping up on the news, marketing and so on. But, for the majority of households, one answer is certain: watching TV.

According to government statistics, China had 300 million TV sets by the end of 1998, and the country’s 2,100 TV stations’ broadcasting covered 90% of the population. The average time spent on TV watching was 185 minutes per person per day. There is little question that China has become the world’s largest TV market. Watching TV has become an indispensable part of everyday life. This is due, in part, to the fact that China’s recreation and tourism industries are not as developed as those in the West and leisure time for the average Chinese is very much constrained by limited economic resources.

Another important reason is the fact that, for Chinese, TV is the most effective and most convenient means for getting to know about the outside world and for acquiring new knowledge or information. It was through TV that the ordinary Chinese learned about the Apollo project, the Gulf War, Dolly—the cloned lamb, the impeachment trial of Clinton, the resignation of Michael Jordan and other happenings from all corners of the world. With its unprecedented speed and overwhelming flow of information, minute by minute, TV is slowly and steadily changing the life styles and thinking patterns of the Chinese people.

The Chinese government understands quite clearly TV’s huge impact on people’s thinking and life. In order to guarantee the “political correctness” and “purity of ideology” of programming, all levels of government have set up a “broadcast and TV bureau” to specifically control TV programming. At the same time, the Chinese government has tried to utilize this modern tool to promote party policies and principles, thus serving the political purposes of the government.

To carry out these purposes, the Chinese government set aside huge amounts of governmental funds to provide TV coverage for every village in China by the year 2000. It believes that the mere repetition of any information or doctrine will eventually wear down the people’s resistance to accepting it. The government believes that any doubt or disbelief about Communist Party propaganda that people currently exhibit has nothing to do with the irrelevance of its contents, but has a great deal to do with lack of promotion; thus, more promotion is badly needed. Based on this mentality, Communist Party propaganda bureaus, at various levels, put TV stations under their total control. In other words, all TV programs in China must meet the Party’s political criteria before being aired.

This is the general background of the TV industry in China. However, government control over TV broadcasting does not mean that TV stations can rely totally on the government to provide funds. On the contrary, for a TV station to survive in the Chinese market, it has to rely on its commercial advertisement income. In one sense, it is the invisible hands of the market economy that are pushing forward the progress of TV broadcasting in China. As long as a TV station promises to promote party rule and not conflict with the government line, it may broadcast whatever programs it chooses. The result: foreign TV distributors have rushed into the market providing a variety of programs. The Chinese producers, encouraged, have released numerous programs of their own, quickly driving China to become a TV programming buyers’ market. It was reported in 1997-1998 that there were at least 1000 new TV dramas gathering dust on the shelf. This situation forced TV stations and program producers to constantly ponder the question, “What do Chinese people want to watch? What on earth do they like?”

These are simple as well as complicated questions. In the past, people were generally attracted to TV drama series as Yearning, Stories at the Editor’s Office and Liu Luoguo.  While these enjoyed extensive viewership, the great majority are simply uncreative works. Imported TV drama series are extremely few due to governmental control. This gave rise to TV feature programs introducing science & technology, nature, the environment, travel and so on, which quickly became popular.

The traditional cultural and entertainment programs continue to play their major roles in Chinese TV. People enjoy these relaxing, engaging programs that do not contain much political color. However, in recent years, the real rising star of TV programming has not been dramas, martial arts programs, police stories or science fiction series, nor even the colorful feature programs, but rather, a new type of program covering current political and social affairs. These “current affairs” programs are a new phenomenon to the Chinese audience. Issues in Focus and Oriental Horizon are the best of these. After they aired and achieved extremely high viewer ratings, numerous provincial TV stations followed in their footsteps by presenting their own “current affairs” programs with interviews and analyses. For quite some time now, these programs have been the subject of everyday conversation. This can be seen as a sign of social progress in China, for, at least on TV, people can now view criticism of current social ills. Although these criticisms are currently limited to the provincial and local levels, they attract the attention of wide audiences and are well accepted by the people. The influence of these new programs was shown when Prime Minister Zhu Rongji paid a personal visit to the Issues in Focus program.

As we try to predict the future TV market in China, it is certain that intelligent, interesting and well-produced programs will replace dry, indoctrinating and dogmatic ones. The TV broadcasting industry will become more and more capitalistic, while the Chinese audience will become more and more selective. Competition between programs will become intense and go international; even children’s programming will face increasing challenges in the area of visual arts skills. Chinese people will no longer be satisfied   with just a simple variety of selections such as dramas or features, but will look for program value and content. Each program will have its own loyal audience. Diversity of program types and differing audiences are the future trend of Chinese TV development. With this trend, outdated political indoctrination will be ignored. What, then, will next fill the spiritual vacuum ? People are searching for the answer.

Translation by Ping and Martha Dong.

Image credit: TV by Jonathan Baker-Bates via Flickr.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio