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Big Brother v. Big Bang

Big Brother v. Big Bang

CCTV Comment as posted on Weibo (The Nanfang)

On Jan. 5, 1930 Mao Zedong wrote the essay, “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire.” Yet over 80 years later, the phrase still rings true in today’s fragile and fractured China. One such recent example, although not nearly as serious in scale to what Mao was contemplating, occurred when CCTV, the state broadcaster, made a small, innocuous comment last week on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of a Twitter/Facebook hybrid. The comment, while perhaps attempting to curry favor with viewers as a small protest against censorship, instead set off a firestorm among angry Chinese netizens.

Shown below is the comment, as reported in The Nanfang, a community website based in the Pearl River Delta. According to website the comment on Weibo posted by CCTV congratulated Jim Parsons for winning the award for Best Performance of a Lead Actor in a Comedic Role:

There is a type of humor called “Sheldon”: The Best Performance of a Lead Actor in a Comedic Role is: Jim Parsons for “Big Bang Theory.” This is the fourth time Parsons has won the Emmy! But actually, his path has not always been smooth sailing. From his first appearance, the program could not find a television network willing to purchase it. However, ‘The Big Bang Theory” has been an exception. After reading the script for the pilot episode, Jim thought that this character was right for him… let’s congratulate him!

The comment would not have been noteworthy in most countries, but it was made in a country which had recently banned The Big Bang Theory. So what in normal circumstances would have been an outpouring of support by Chinese fans for the well-deserved Emmy for Parsons, instead turned into an online outpouring of rage — China’s netizens expressing their anger once again over Beijing having banned what some believe is China’s most beloved foreign comedy show.

Parsons’ show was one of a handful of shows pulled earlier this year from such Chinese online video platforms as Sohu. The Sohu version of The Big Bang Theory had been broadcast in English without any cuts and was accompanied by accurately translated subtitles, including additional notes to help explain the numerous pop cultural references. Other banned shows which drew the most attention were produced in the U.S. and included the political and legal drama The Good Wife, crime drama NCIS and legal drama The Practice. Earlier this year, a message was displayed on the websites of the Chinese video providers Sohu Video, Youku, and Tencent/QQ Video saying “due to policy reasons, this video is unable to be viewed”. Media analysts say the implementation of the policy may ultimately effect up to 80 percent of American TV shows, and many American shows will also face being taken down from the video websites.

This year marks a particularly difficult year for China’s netizens, following the announcement in March by the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) of the strengthening censorship of online dramas, microfilms, and other online audio-visual content. According to the SARFT notice, the new guidelines were necessary to equalize the treatment between domestically produced TV shows and the uncensored American and British TV shows purchased by websites. The rules call for the video platforms to censor content from all videos prior to public viewing, or face warnings, injunctions, or fines by SARFT.

The efforts to control what China’s netizens watch is nothing new. Last year, Chinese authorities started to cut down on how often broadcasters can air such reality, dating and talents shows as the Chinese versions of “American Idol” and “The Voice”, which drew huge audiences around the country. The regulations required talent shows to seek prior approval from SARFT, which allow one such program per channel each quarter for prime-time viewing. To perhaps counter the dumbing-down of television viewers, new regulations for 2014 also require satellite channels to allocate at least 30 percent of their weekly air time to topics including news, economics, culture and science. The new regulations are in addition to long-standing restrictions on Hollywood which limit the number of foreign movies shown on the mainland to around 20 per year, ostensibly to protect and nurture the domestic film industry.

The latest efforts to censor content are not haphazard efforts by lone nationalists sitting in provincial bureaucracies, but are rather elevated as a policy imperative under Xi Jinping. “Cultural threats” were identified to be among the five threats targeted by China’s new National Security Committee, announced after the Party’s third plenum last November. Colonel Gong Fangbin, a professor at the National Defense University, pointed to “the ideological challenges to culture posed by Western nations” as a target, along with extremist groups, cybersecurity and online dissent. Gong noted that the West was imposing its values on the world, and Hollywood movies were changing the thinking and values of the nation’s youth, making it difficult for China to protect its interests.

While the call for purification from negative Western programming may be laudable in some cases, Beijing’s push may be too late and largely ineffectual. Deng Xiaoping fought a losing battle in 1982 to control the forces of “spiritual pollution” brought about by liberalization, including excessive individualism and an obsession with money. Subsequent efforts to purify the populace have only resulted in Chinese obsession with such American television as “Prison Break”, a 2005–09 series about an engineer who robs a bank in order to be sent to the prison so he can break out his older brother. More recently, the Chinese have taken to viewing “Breaking Bad,” a violent television show depicting a school teacher turned methadone producer.

Ultimately, as Eve defied God’s wishes by biting into the “forbidden fruit,” the efforts of Beijing to deny and control Western content will come to naught, as Chinese consumers pay less and less attention to guidance from the government. Savvy internet users have for years been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around internet restrictions, and despite recent calls for online shops to stop selling VPN tools, censor-busting technology will continue to evolve. Innovations, such as Google’s uProxy, will make further advances to allow users in countries like China to access the Internet. The Chinese have long been inventive at skirting rules and regulations in a controlled environment and also possess that universal curiosity for that which has been forbidden. Any short term advantage the censors may have will be quickly eroded by a determined and increasingly culture-hungry netizenry finding new ways to watch their favorite shows, banned or not.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666