Tea Leaf Nation
Why 700 Million People Keep Watching the Chinese New Year Gala, Even Though It’s Terrible
It’s glitzy, nationalistic, campy propaganda. And no one in China can imagine the holiday season without it.
The Chinese New Year Gala, which aired live on Feb. 18 on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), is a four-and-half hour variety show with song and dance, comedic skits, magic tricks, acrobatic acts, and celebrity cameos. The show celebrates the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, the country’s most important family holiday. Every year at this time, hundreds of millions of people will make a total of 3.6 billion trips — the world’s largest annual human migration – to crowd together on sofas with their family members, eat dumplings, and watch the New Year Gala. In 2014, an estimated 704 million people watched the show live — and that was considered a bad year for ratings.
People who see the Gala for the first time, or the 32nd time since its debut in 1983, probably find it glitzy, over-the-top, and schizophrenic in its attempt to try to be all things to all people. Acts intended to appeal to different demographics — Chinese opera for the elderly, street dancing for the youngsters, military songs for the soldiers — are mashed up against each other with the narrative fluency of a high school talent show.
But the Gala is not meant for clear-eyed analytical viewing. Most Chinese families keep it on as they polish off endless plates of greasy holiday fare, gulp down rice wine, and mindlessly snack on candy, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. The show essentially serves as background noise while people go on their holiday business of gossiping, playing mahjong, fielding phone calls from well-wishers, and keeping sugar-fueled children out of trouble, all the while listening to firecrackers pop outside in the wintry air.
Even if only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of viewers were paying attention, though, the Gala still offers one of the best chances for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to present the image of China as a prosperous and harmonious nation. The amount of stage management that goes into the Gala is astonishing – each year a special CCTV team spends three to six months planning the show and staging several dress rehearsals for the show’s thousands of participants, with the last serving as a backup tape in case the live broadcasting goes awry. CCTV directors and party officials from several agencies must approve every spoken line and lyric.
As a result, the Gala is entertainment by committee at its worst. But while it is easy to see the television extravaganza as propaganda that airbrushes darker realities underlying Chinese society, the show is also complex and revealing. Below are five surprising findings from this year’s Gala.
Chinese ethnic minorities were awarded a stronger showing. Against the backdrop of rising tensions and religious restrictions in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China where more than 10 million Muslim Uighurs live, this year’s Gala attempted to paint a picture of ethnic harmony. Negmat Rahman, a 31-year-old Uighur man who already hosts popular quiz shows on CCTV, was the first recognizable minority to be one of the Gala’s eight hosts. (One of Rahman’s co-hosts, Sa Beining, is an ethnic Hui, a Muslim ethnic minority usually indistinguishable from the majority Han.) A Uighur woman named Rihanguli Yimier, wearing traditional garb (but not a headscarf), was designated a “model citizen” and chosen to deliver holiday greetings in her accented Mandarin.
Such tokenisms aside, the Gala does embody a cultural melting pot ideal in less visible ways. Ha Wen, an ethnic Hui, has for the past three years served as show’s chief director, and is one of the most powerful women in Chinese showbiz. Her husband Li Yong, a well-known CCTV personality and frequent Gala host, is a Xinjiang-born member of the majority Han ethnicity, and a convert to Islam. They named their daughter Fatima Li — a highly unusual name in China — as an assertion of their religious and ethnic identity.
Anti-corruption satire is now officially hilarious. Censors made a 180-degree turn this year when they commissioned two comedic skits to address the issue of corruption among the official ranks, whereas in previous years they studiously made sure that such material was scrubbed from the Gala. It’s a sign that President Xi Jinping’s government, which has instigated a sweeping anti-graft campaign, is determined to reap propaganda value from the carnage of corrupt cadres. One of the skits was quite sharp, mocking officials for sleeping around and kissing up to superiors, but the other barely mentioned official corruption, centering instead on bribing a school principal. In any case, the irony of party-ordered political satire doesn’t sit right with many observers. When Cao Lin, a reporter with the state-run China Youth Daily wondered if having anti-corruption skits in the Gala meant more openness in state media, most commentators disparaged this notion. “It’s truly scary that the government is controlling the art of satire and exact extent of criticism,” one social media commentator wrote.
Hong Kong made a conspicuous appearance. After more than two months of street protests in late 2014 that pitted pro-democracy Hong Kongers against pro-Beijing authorities, Gala planners seemed eager to emphasis Hong Kong’s membership in the big harmonious Chinese family. The presence of Hong Kong performers this year was hard to miss. Well-known celebrities Andy Lau and Karen Mok delivered solos, but more surprising was the precious screen time devoted to two newcomers in their 20s. The show featured Gloria Tang, also known as G.E.M., who wowed Chinese fans in a 2014 reality singing show, and Zhou Jiahong, a young (and lackluster) magician who hails from Hong Kong. CCTV likely arranged their appearances to make sure that mainland audiences did not feel too alienated from their Hong Kong “compatriots” after the Occupy Central movement that many in China believe to be a manifestation of anti-mainland impulses of Hong Kongers, particularly among the younger generation.
The generation gap played a starring role. The biggest controversy ahead of the Gala was the Feb. 17 cancellation of the planned appearances of wildly popular young heartthrobs Luhan and Kris Wu, allegedly due to legal troubles with their management company. Millions of Chinese fans, usually in their teens or early 20s, greeted the sudden cancellation with a collective groan. The singers’ scheduled Gala appearance had seemed a stamp of approval to the boys, who win over youthful audiences but, not unlike Justin Bieber, irritate the older generation.
CCTV directors have tried to reach out to the smartphone-toting younger generation, but institutional inertia has so far kept the Gala staid and rigid. Private endeavors to attract younger audiences seem more promising, though. The Chinese video site iQiyi introduced a “barrage” technology that became popular with the younger set in 2014 — in which users type comments directly onto their laptops, joining hundreds of other (mostly negative) comments scrolling down the screen like credits.
But Gala critics still miss the point. Cynics assail the Gala as nationalistic, excessive, disingenuous, cheesy, and even, as Reuters deemed it in 2009, a “propaganda party.” And they’re not wrong. But what most critics miss is that, for all its faults, the Gala is a nationally shared experience. In spite of the show’s often glaring faults, no other cultural event serves as such rich fodder for water cooler conversation after Chinese families return to the office after Spring Festival. For millions of Chinese, watching the Gala is inseparably entwined with fond memories of going home, seeing family, and being in the festival spirit. Whether the audience actually finds each individual act entertaining is beside the point. Without this loud and colorful spectacle, a Chinese New Year’s Eve would simply seem too quiet.