Censors reduce TV viewing to luck of the draw
One of the more annoying things about living in Guangzhou is how frequently provincial censors insult your intelligence. The broadcast 'footprint' of Hong Kong's four terrestrial television channels - two Cantonese and two English - easily encompasses the Pearl River Delta.
But for those living in hotels, apartment blocks or residential compounds with centrally controlled television systems, Hong Kong broadcasts are routinely censored.
This means that Taiwanese businessmen, who have invested billions of dollars in Guangdong, cannot watch the Taiwan news programmes re-broadcast on Hong Kong channels. More recently, reports concerning the publication of The Tiananmen Papers and the Spring Festival Falun Gong protests in Beijing have been blocked - even after Chinese Central Television documented, in grotesque detail, the January 23 self-immolation protest of five Falun Gong members.
Instead, viewers in this supposedly most modern and open of mainland cities get to watch a television 'screen saver' for a few minutes. Over the holiday the standard screen saver read something like 'Have a happy Year of the Snake'.
It has since been replaced by a computer-generated cityscape with the exhortation: 'Guangdong is our home, keeping it clean is everybody's duty.'
Reports about internal Hong Kong matters, such as recent speculation that the SAR Government might be moving towards a ban of its own on the Falun Gong, have also been blocked out. And sometimes the censors make mistakes. Over the weekend a report about a government employment training scheme in Hong Kong was censored. A minute later, the authorities realised the harmless nature of the report and allowed it to continue.
Not even the twice-weekly broadcasts of Hong Kong's Mark Six lottery results are safe from the censors. But at least the reason is not political paranoia but pure economic self-interest.
According to a survey on China's lottery industry published recently by Guangzhou's Yuegang Information Daily , lottery tickets worth 100 billion yuan (about HK$93.71 billion) will be sold on the mainland over the next 10 years. Intent on keeping this bonanza to itself, the government is cracking down on black-market lotteries, which in coastal areas of Guangdong are often based on the Mark Six draw. Hence the censorship of Mark Six reports.
Provinces are only allowed to operate two centrally approved lotteries. The China Welfare Lottery comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and its proceeds are directed towards China's nascent social security system.
The second - the China Sports Lottery - is run by the State Sports Bureau and is used to fund the country's growing athletic infrastructure and Olympic teams. Last year the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the State Sports Bureau raised 20 billion yuan from lotteries.
In Guangdong, the welfare lottery is drawn every Tuesday and Friday, and the sports lottery every Monday and Friday. The prize money for the next drawings of the welfare lottery and the sports lottery is, respectively, 12 million yuan and 16 million yuan.
The sudden flourishing of lotteries in still nominally communist China has not, of course, been easy to justify ideologically. Deng Xiaoping's essentially capitalist reforms could at least be rationalised on the grounds that in the early stages of socialism people should receive according to their contribution, and only later according to their needs.
But lotteries, which in China are most popular among peasants, workers and the unemployed, are basically a tax on the poor. Indeed their whole appeal is summed up in the Chinese phrase bu lao er huo - roughly 'no work all gain'.
Indeed, in Fuzhou, where China's first lottery was launched in 1987, the government banned lotteries in the run-up to the Spring Festival holiday and it is not clear if they will be resumed.
In particular, the Fuzhou government was concerned that migrant labourers were gambling away all their money on lottery tickets. The government feared that the migrants, unable to return home and with little money to sustain themselves, might become a threat to the city's 'social stability'.
Similarly, in December, the Ministry of Finance ordered that punters should no longer be able to pick their own numbers, and instead had to make do with buying computer-generated combinations. The hair-splitting rationale for this change is that it supposedly makes playing the lottery less like 'gambling' and more like a 'lucky draw'.
But Guangdong reportedly fears for its own social stability if people are suddenly denied the right to choose their own numbers and is seeking a compromise with the Ministry of Finance.
In 'researching' this article, I happily purchased two computer-generated lottery tickets and, if Lady Luck is smiling, will retire with my non-convertible winnings to a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen.
After all, 28 million yuan should take some of the sting out of having to live with censorship.