Why Beijing's tightening ideological grip on TV may backfire

January 24, 2019 13:14
China's media regulator has been clamping down on content it deems harmful or not in line with ‘socialist core values'. Photo: Bloomberg

China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) recently issued yet another diktat: male artists are now barred from wearing earrings when appearing on TV.

In TV programs that have already been shot, all images showing men wearing earrings must either be blurred or mosaicked when they go on air.

This latest no-no immediately provoked a backlash among mainland netizens, with some mockingly asking: “Is it still the Qing dynasty?”

By frequently banning one thing after another on the TV and movie theater screens as well as on the internet in recent years, the SAPPRFT has become like a cultural, moral, religious and political court.

Prior to 2014, the SAPPRFT focused mainly on regulating the content of media productions in the mainland.

However, since then the department began to step up censorship of almost all forms of media productions and on-line material.

The moves came after President Xi Jinping stressed at a symposium on culture and art in Beijing on October 15, 2014 that “art and culture must not be a market slave… art and cultural workers should fulfill their role as the standard bearer of the socialist core values.”

With prodding from the top leadership, SAPPRFT began to relentlessly tighten its ideological grip on TV programs and movies, and basically all aspects of pop culture.

For example, in 2015 the SAPPRFT ordered that the airtime for historical period dramas, which have become all the rage in the mainland in recent years, must not exceed 15 percent of the total time slots allocated for TV dramas during national TV prime time.

The question is, as young people across the mainland are having access to an increasingly broad-scope cyberworld, they are also getting more and more hungry for information about what is truly going on in the outside world, as well as a more diversified cultural and mass entertainment life.

The SAPPRFT, however, still has its head stuck in the sand, functioning as a paternalistic entity that is still operating in the Cultural Revolution era dominated by the so-called “model operas”, and as an agency that won’t hesitate for a second to ban whatever it deems may contaminate the mind of the youth.

Authorities should realize that If they continue with their heavy-handed approach, it will strangle innovation among media creators and prompt more and more young viewers to shun free-to-air TV.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 19

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor