China’s Entertainment Future Is Guns, Trains, and Loving the Party
As censorship tightens, tales of technology and the military are mandatory.
In the lead-up to this year’s National Day on Oct. 1, which marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China’s pop culture sector went on lockdown. While city authorities in Beijing closed bars and clubs, kicked people out of their apartments, and installed national flags every couple yards, media regulators cleansed the airwaves of any content that might be deemed unwholesome and monitored networks for sufficient patriotism.
On July 29, China’s formidable media regulator, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), announced the start of a patriotic “100 days of broadcasting” activity. For the period, local TV stations were advised to air programs from a list of 86 TV dramas deemed capable of “producing an atmosphere favorable for celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.” Idol dramas and costume dramas with a “relatively high entertainment value,” meanwhile, were discouraged.
While restrictions will probably loosen a little after this week, the NRTA’s list of 86 recommended TV dramas shows the future of pop culture in the People’s Republic of China. Restrictions on film and television have been steadily tightening under President Xi Jinping. The Chinese Communist Party is becoming increasingly paranoid about the shows that young people, whom they imagine to be mindless and celebrity-obsessed, prefer.
The explosion in popularity of youth-oriented online variety shows like The Rap of China and Idol Producer in 2017 and 2018 created a subsequent crackdown from censors under pressure to produce wholesome content instead of harmless pap. (The stars of The Rap of China frequently required heavy makeup to conceal their tattoos, another no-no for impressionable youth.) The wildly popular Story of Yanxi Palace, a costume drama about scheming concubines set in the Qing dynasty, was taken off broadcast television this year when a state-run newspaper criticized it for being too decadent. This summer, several movies were pulled for “technical reasons” before they could premiere.
In its notice, the NRTA said the recommended dramas portray “the struggle of the Chinese people to stand up for themselves, become rich, and finally to become strong.” But between struggle, wealth, and strength, the emphasis is decidedly on struggle. Of the 86 dramas, 23 concern the struggle of the Communists against the Japanese or the Nationalists or both before 1949.
This is hardly surprising: Anti-Japanese war dramas have been a staple of state TV for a long time. The portrayal of violence and cruelty inflicted by the Japanese in these dramas sometimes reaches ludicrous and graphic heights, to the extent that in 2013 the NRTA intervened to halt production of anti-Japanese dramas that were “overly entertaining” and “not respecting history.” The habit of Chinese producers of giving World War II heroes amazing kung fu powers didn’t help, especially when the brutality and the fantasy was combined, as in this clip of a heroine who fends off her Japanese rapists by getting an arrow between her toes. Expect this new crop of anti-Japanese shows, therefore, to be both highly jingoistic and extremely sedate—a titillating combination, to be sure.
More interesting is the new batch of dramas set during the “reform and opening up” period of the 1980s—a period that the party has been working to cast as a heroic era in light of the 40th anniversary this year. Accordingly, the 11 dramas set during this period portray a time of glorious achievement in science and technology. The list includes The Great Era, about computer entrepreneurs in Beijing’s Zhongguancun during early reform and opening up, and The Best Era, about young high-speed train engineers who fall in love while working to advance China’s high-speed trains to international standards. There are also dramas about the development of the FAST telescope; the Xichang cosmodrome; express delivery service; and the domestic car industry. Technology is as much a mainstay of national heroism as war.
Another five dramas address the flip side of reform and opening up, which was the emptying out and stagnation of China’s countryside. But while the Chinese countryside is still struggling to recover, rural revitalization in these shows is simply a matter of tapping into individual ingenuity, following government directives in the last few years to promote rural tourism and local specialties. In real life, these have largely been failures or boondoggles—not so on TV. In Searching for the North Star, a young entrepreneur overcomes resistance from locals to develop his hometown into a tourist attraction. In Flowering Season, a young cotton harvester in Xinjiang embodies the spirit of the “new peasant” when she starts livestreaming herself picking cotton, to great success.
Xinjiang, currently the target of a massive crackdown, is also the setting for Uncle Kurban and His Descendants, a drama on the list that once more dusts off the story of Kurban Tulum, a Uighur peasant and symbol of ethnic unity who was able to overthrow his landlord with the help of the Communist Party and eventually made it all the way to the National People’s Congress, where he shook hands with Mao Zedong. A follow-up to 2002’s Uncle Kurban Visits Beijing, this incarnation follows the Tulum family to the present day, in which Uncle Kurban’s great-granddaughter has become an officer in the Chinese navy. The show description does not mention whether any of Uncle Kurban’s descendants ended up in detention camps.
But unsurprisingly in a country where national pride and military might are usually equated, and where aggressive posturing is becoming more common toward neighbors, military dramas dominate. Despite complaints that young Chinese men are becoming too “soft” thanks to the “little fresh meat” phenomenon, most of the dramas feature these pretty-boy actors. In King of the Land War, the actor and model Chen Xiao plays a recruit who aspires to become a People’s Liberation Army tank commander. In Flying Youth, the C-pop singer Fan Shiqi plays an earnest young air force cadet.
Two of the military dramas return to the well of heroic Chinese in a backwards Belt and Road country that was so successfully exploited in 2017’s smash hit Wolf Warrior 2. Chinese Peacekeeping Force tells the story of Chinese soldiers in a small, war-torn West African nation, while Overseas Security Officer is about Chinese soldiers in a small, war-torn East African nation. As with Wolf Warrior 2, the Africans are a backdrop for Chinese heroism—and a way of telling war stories in a country that, for all its bluster, has laudably avoided actual fighting for more than three decades.
This patriotic fervor is likely to set the tone for the next few years of official entertainment. Some of them—like the military dramas—may be genuinely popular; others look challenging to sit through. The actual shows that young people have gone for—frothy comedies and pop TV—will be squeezed out or, more likely, will bend their themes toward even more crammed-in patriotism. But market demand comes a distinct second in Xi’s China to the censors’ pen.