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China's Propaganda-Heavy New Year's Gala Fails to Impress Viewers

It annoys more than it entertains. That seems to be the message people are expressing via social media after this year's broadcast of China Central Television's Spring Festival Gala celebrating Chinese New Year.

Known in Mandarin as Chunwan, the variety show regularly draws tens of millions of viewers every year and has become an essential part of celebrations for the New Year since its start three decades ago. The South China Morning Post reported that 750 million Chinese watched the gala last year, more than six times the viewership of the Super Bowl in America.

But its popularity has dwindled in recent years. This year's nearly five-hour long event on January 30, 2014, consisting of stand-up comedy, dancing, singing, magic and other performances, drove home the themes of the Chinese Dream - an idea promoting hard work and collective effort for the prosperity of China. The television show also struck the tone of nostalgia for the country's red past. 

The show was never short on rosy language. For example, a song titled “I am not too demanding” performed by a popular comedian tells of a comfortable middle-class life as representing the Chinese Dream:

The lyrics go:

I have an 80 square-meter house and a gentle wife. Our kid already finished college and secured a great job right after graduation. I commute between my workplace and home quite smoothly, rush hour is non-existent. I exercise outdoors and see the blue sky every day.

Pensions and health care are not problems because they will be covered by the government. This is my Chinese Dream, it’s small and simple. I am not striving to become a dragon or a phoenix. Instead, I want to be immersed in happiness. It’s easily attainable by standing on your tiptoes.

The backdrop behind the performance displayed the vast landscape of China, complete with newly built rural houses and some showcase infrastructure projects – all packaged to represent the Chinese Dream, a phrase coined by President Xi Jinping which is frequently evoked in media discourse and official speeches.

In addition to the theme of the China Dream, a session was devoted to the Chinese Communist Party's revolution history. The performance of the Red Detachment of Women, a Chinese ballet set in the 1930s, made its debut during the show at a time when the legacy of red culture remains a contentious issue in China. The storyline follows peasant-turned female soldiers’ devotion to communism:

The political underpinnings are subtle but pervasive, in the words of the hosts, and reflected in the choreography. These messages lacing the performances are ordered from above – in an earlier visit to CCTV, Minister of the Central Propaganda Department Liu Qibao urged that the gala should “spread positive energy” and promote “the rhythm of our era – the Chinese Dream”.

However, the gala is losing its magic spell on ordinary people. According to a recent survey, nearly 60 percent of the viewers were extremely disappointed in the program this year, particularly with the reduced number of stand-up comedy routines, which usually mock social happenings. The news of Cui Jian's pullout of the show caused the gala's reputation to take a hit. He reportedly quit after refusing to comply with censorship requirements for his songs. 

The comments trickled in as the gala was underway, and the topic has remained trending as of the morning of January 31. Microbloggers in China have been largely critical of this year's show. Editor-in-Chief for the Financial Times Chinese Zhang Lifeng exclaimed:

春晚啊,你到底怎么了???

Chunwan, what has happened to you???

Some took notice of the “red” performance. A Beijing-based media professional under the Weibo name Zhangwen de Wenzhang wrote:

春晚,红色娘子军主导!

Chunwan has been dominated by the Red Detachment of Women.

Xiong Peiyun, an outspoken commentator, found the program full of conflicting values:

奴役与自由、丑与美、暴力与温柔,在同一时代的舞台。如果我承认一个集体的中国梦,这个梦就是希望这个国家彻底告别“红色娘子军”,走向“玫瑰人生”。

Enslavement and freedom, ugliness and beauty, violence and softness, all displayed on the same stage. If I subscribed to a collective Chinese Dream, it would be a dream that is detached from the “Red Detachment of Women”, a dream that would lead to a “rosy life”.

Writer Beicui criticised the propaganda nature of the gala:

春晚现象:为什么春晚总导不好?仿佛经年痼疾?病灶到底在哪里?就在它“用文艺节目推销意识形态”,谁导都得贯彻这个主旨,就像要人把一杯白水说成美酒那样痛苦;2、为何年年吐槽年年看年年骂?也是因为同一个原因“推销意识形态”,热议的是意识形态,不是文艺;3、伟光正存在一天这现象就持续一天。

Chunwan phenomena: Why is it difficult to direct Chunwan? As if it's some chronic disease? What is the root cause? The answer is found in the fact that it uses the show to promote ideology, whoever directs the show has to implement the theme, it's like making plain water into good wine; 2 Why do [people] lash out at Chunwan every year while continuing to watch it? It's for the same reason of ideology promotion, the hotly debated part is the ideology itself rather than the art; 3 The phenomena will last as long as the “grand glow” [referring to directives from state leaders]. 

On Twitter, Chunwan has also generated a buzz. Jeremiah Jenne, a PhD candidate at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote:

Elaine wasn't entertained, she lamented:

Human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig seemed to poke fun at Chunwan:

This wasn't the first year that the show's declining popularity was a topic of discussion. Writing in a Chinese newspaper in 2007, Ren Yi, a former visiting scholar of Harvard University, commented:

The Spring Festival Gala still needs to accomplish its political mission and disseminate political information. But its current format still uses the old political propaganda methods which will lose more and more of the younger audiences. Young people want to watch truly interesting entertainment programs, not to attend a class in political theories. In my opinion, that type of politicized style is in serious conflict with the market and commercial needs.

  • Zhuubaajie

    Well, like it or not, it is still the biggest show watched by the most humans at one time.

    If you pay attention, you would also appreciate the work and thought that went into the planning. LOTS of minority culture showcased. Compare that to ANY show in the U.S., you would never see as much minority culture (song and dance and garb). The pitch about China doing away with minority cultures is just plain silly.

    This year the quality went down mostly because of the reduced budget. Yet get what you paid for.

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