China's censorship goes into overdrive with ban on US TV dramas

Chang Ping says Chinese censors' ban on four American TV shows with no apparent offensive content reflects their true appetite for control - even harmless entertainment is not spared

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 5:18am

Many Chinese fans of American television are feeling aggrieved. They cannot understand why their government is robbing them of even the small pleasures in life. Earlier this month, four US shows - The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice - were removed from Chinese internet streaming sites on the censors' order. No reason was given.

Since the 1980s, television shows from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and the West have won a huge following on the mainland, with Chinese from all walks of life devoting substantial leisure time to such entertainment.

Thanks to rampant piracy and the wide reach of China's internet, the typical Chinese fan of American shows is often more knowledgeable about the shows than most Americans themselves. Some say that these television programmes have become an unwitting tool for the government to "maintain stability" in society. No matter how intolerable the problems are of government corruption, pollution and sexual abuse in schools, China's drama addicts spend no more than a few minutes venting their fury through weibo messages and internet postings before being lured back into the embrace of their addiction. They're too busy being entertained to take to the streets.

The harsher the political repression, the greater the demand for entertainment. Celebrity gossip and television shows offer a convenient escape from reality.

Of course, fans of US television don't think of their pastime as a problem: at least they're better off than those sad people who are obsessed with Korean soaps and their unrealistic love stories. Through American television, they feel, they at least get to know Western culture, perhaps learn a little English (which implies a commendable wish to improve oneself, in case there's an opportunity to go abroad for study or work).

The truth is, without having some basic English language ability, the chance of learning the language from scratch from watching television is nearly zero.

And while we may learn something about American values from its popular culture, to think an understanding of freedom and democracy as portrayed on television can be used to remake China is just wishful thinking.

Because of these "benefits" attributed to watching American television, weak though they are, many people suspect the four shows were banned because censors saw something subversive in them that could somehow incite Chinese people to agitate against the government.

Yet, others dismiss this as a conspiracy theory. They think it's a straightforward bureaucratic blunder, not the result of an edict from higher up. China's leaders know very well that a ban on both politics and entertainment would turn society into an active volcano, ready to erupt at the slightest trigger. Thus, their cultural policy has been to encourage the mindless pursuit of entertainment.

One report said CCTV has acquired The Big Bang Theory and is preparing to broadcast a scrubbed version of the show. Given that all four shows were broadcast on US public television, and are as "clean" as it gets, many think the real reason for the ban isn't offensive content. Rather, they suspect the state broadcaster of leaning on the regulator to kill off competition.

I believe the ban was part of the government's campaign to control the web. The stated purpose is to clean up online content and make sure it meets certain standards. But, at the end of the day, what the authorities seek is control. A programme does not need to be promoting democracy, freedom or rule of law in any way to provoke their ire; the government just cannot tolerate any cultural product it cannot control.

Not long ago, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a notice saying that it would further control the webcasting of drama series, short films and other web-based audio-visual programmes. It stressed that all programmes must be approved before broadcast and warned that anyone who runs foul of the rule would be dealt with seriously.

Programmes that offer frivolous entertainment can distract people from their political frustrations. Alas, the government insists that even these programmes must be strictly controlled. However, won't a ban on popular, well-crafted shows lead to more public dissatisfaction, which may in the end spark a public protest?

The government has concluded that this worry is unfounded. After all, we've seen enough violations of human rights and dignity in the crackdown on political dissent, and there's been no lack of social problems that directly harm health and destroy life in China. Yet, none of these events and issues resulted in a people's protest that the government could not control. Why should it fear a few disgruntled fans of American television?

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese