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'Chinese Idol' Slows Its Dance with Democracy

This season, the government hopes to win.

Jing Yang 14 Aug

Jing Yang is a staff writer at The Tyee.

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"Super Girl" victor Li Yuchun.

Li Yuchun won 3.5 million votes. She's last year's "Super Girl," winner of the third season of Super Female Voice, China's answer to American Idol.

Over 120,000 people auditioned for the pageant. Thousands of fans organized clubs on the Internet, plotted campaign strategies and, most visibly, hit the streets to lobby for their favourites. And 400 million viewers tuned in for the final episode (more than the population of North America). Contrast that with puny American Idol on the other side of the Pacific. The May 2006 finale of the fifth season of American Idol drew a record audience of merely 36 million viewers.

The finals of the fourth season of Super Female Voice start August 16. But while the show grew in popularity throughout the first three seasons, the Beijing Morning Post as well as other media are all speculating about why, this time around, the audience is shrinking.

The World Cup is one answer. Just as elsewhere in the world, the soccer fever in June grabbed many eyeballs that might otherwise have followed the Super Female Voice regional finals. Also, Super Female Voice's success in 2005 sparked a range of copycat programs that now each have a slice of the market.

But the sliding viewership actually has more to do with the new rules set out by the Chinese broadcast authority. Super Female Voice has served as an enormous ongoing exercise in one form of democracy in China. But just in time for round four, the government has entered the ring to make changes. And critics say the show is now a lot less appealing.

Government regulated pageant

Shortly before the planned launch of Super Female Voice's 2006 season, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) posted new regulations for nationally-held televised contests. The regulations forbid participants from wearing "vulgar" clothing and hair styles. They also mandated that TV stations broadcast fewer auditions and regional competitions, in an effort to reduce the "inappropriate" behaviour of those contestants. Finally, officials banned anyone under 18 from participating, which led to chat-room discussions speculating that fake ID would be the next hot item on streets.

Officials in the administration justified the move by saying they were concerned about the negative influences that such talent shows would have on the future generation. But fans of the Super Girl phenomenon and political commentators say there's far more to it than that.

Last year, U.S. media rushed to declare SFV a watershed moment for democracy in China. USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times led the cheering. "Chinese Youth Discover the Thrill of Voting…and drive campaigns as carefully plotted as those for office," ran the headline in the Los Angeles Times. Shortly after the show's finale, the New York Times also ran a story entitled, "The Chinese Get the Vote, if Only for 'Super Girl.'" In it, Jim Yardley wrote, "Unlike China's leader, Hu Jintao, Ms Li was popularly elected." Time Asia selected a photo of Li, the boyish, frizzy-haired music student, whom many people say had stage charisma that far exceeded her singing abilities, as the cover of its special issue on Asian heroes 2005, which further fuelled the phenomena.


But along with acclaim has come criticism. Kenneth Foster, a China expert at the University of British Columbia, believes Super Female Voice is at best carrying some democratic norms, such as the voting, but it is far from being a model for democracy.

"It's more like a campaign based on emotions, totally the opposite of a thinking person's politics," he said. "So if it is seen as a model for democracy, then it's a pretty sad model, a model that's hurting [democracy in] the United States and Canada with an emphasis on personality and slogan."

There's also been speculation about voting fraud, which some experts say could leave the public with less confidence in the idea of democracy. Zealous fans allegedly violated the rule limiting each person to 15 votes by hiring people to vote their way. Or they simply bought stacks of calling cards. According to many Chinese news reports, some fans were stopping people on the streets and pressuring them to vote for certain candidates.

Back to 'worldliness'

China's media regulator changed its approach to Super Female Voice in a move some journalists and bloggers say was a reaction to the western media's interpretation of the show as being pro-democracy and to China's lack of ability to censor that discussion.

In August last year, several Chinese media stories quoted government spokespeople saying the government would force broadcasters to take the show off air if it didn't correct its "worldliness." "Worldliness" refers to the fact that contestants only perform love songs, but not local operas and folk songs that would promote "inheriting and thriving national cultural legacies."

The national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) later hosted a forum accusing the show of having a negative influence on the country's youth. It said Super Female Voice was causing young people to strive for the short-lived quasi-stardom at the expense of hard work at school.

And there were also criticisms about the correctness of the winner. China's official English newspaper, China Daily, asked: "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?"

'Spiritual civilization campaign'

The government's taste for what gets called "high culture" -- meaning traditional culture or what Westerners would call propaganda art -- is well known. As early as in 1996, the Communist Party of China, as part of what it says was an effort to show to the world China's commitment to build not only a rich nation, but also a moral one, came up with a "spiritual civilization campaign." Under the slogan, "building a spirit appropriate to a modern socialist commodity economy," TV stations came under increased scrutiny for "vulgarity" and non-Chinese influences in the programs offered by the country's 3000 national, provincial and county stations.

Hunan Satellite TV (HSTV), a provincial TV station in southern China that produces and broadcasts the SFV show, has responded to the government's warnings. The last two episodes have featured Super Girls singing with state-favoured icons such as Ma Yutao and Huang Wanqui, and having conversations with them on the stage.

The Super Girls also seem to have heard the message. Li, for example, declined to discuss the political dimensions of the program or of her triumph. Hunan Satellite TV refused Time Asia's request for an interview with and photograph of Li. "According to one of her many agents, they were worried the stories would portray Li as more than just an entertainer," reports Time Asia. Appearing political in any way could ruin her career.

For China, the battle is typical of a more liberal, southern media outlet testing the policy boundaries of Beijing authorities. In previous cases, editors and producers either had to conform or were fired. The latest incident occurred in January this year, when the editor of a weekly supplement in the China Youth Daily was suspended for publishing a controversial article on high school textbooks.

Super Female Voice's compliance (or non-compliance), will be witnessed by hundreds of millions. Pundits and politicians will watch anxiously to see if the finals of the pageant will achieve the same viewer numbers with the new rules in place. Some say, even with the new rules, it's a win-win situation that everyone wants: the Beijing authorities get the message across that they still control the airwaves and the political process, the public is entertained every Friday night and Hunan Satellite TV cashes in (though possibly less than last year's US $250 million).

And whatever the result, politicians, pro-democracy activists and reality TV programmers will be thinking about the next step.

Jing Yang is on staff at The Tyee.

Related stories: Elaine Corden rants about Canada's Next Top Mishap and raves about So You Think You Can Dance.  [Tyee]

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