Banyan: In China’s war on graft, television is a double-edged sword

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A PRIME-TIME window opened this year onto sleaze, sex, graft and murder in Chinese politics. The imaginary universe of “In the Name of the People”, a 52-part television series, is bleak. A police chief orders the assassination of his enemies. One official stashes wads of ill-gotten cash in his fridge. A mayor, tipped off that he is in trouble, escapes to America using a fake passport, only to fall prey there to an ethnic-Chinese mafia. As sleuths follow the trail, it leads them to a senior leader in Beijing.

For viewers, the series has been like a taste of forbidden fruit. It was the first to focus on corruption in the Communist Party in a decade. And sometimes such fruit comes in bunches: two other shows about corruption are due to be broadcast this autumn.

Going by past form, viewers will lap up the programmes. Instead of the diet that usually dominates China’s airwaves—imperial costume dramas and patriotic pabulum about the second world war—these shows offer a peek at contemporary politics: rapacious officials, factional scheming and abuses of power. On television, “In the Name of the People” set ratings records. Online, it has continued to do so. As of late August each episode had been watched, on average, 174m times.

Unquestionably, these shows are meant as propaganda. In 2015 the party’s anti-graft agency noted a gap in President Xi Jinping’s efforts to clean up the government and army (and crush his rivals). How could the public appreciate this heroic struggle without works of art, especially televisual ones, depicting it? Officials wanted what they called “anti-corruption shows” in which clean, upstanding officials always prevail over bad ones.

Yet creating good propaganda is fraught with danger. Chinese viewers are canny and have plenty of other options for entertainment, legal and illegal, if government-sanctioned television bores them. So the only way to get their attention, and to make the whole enterprise believable, is to throw in plenty of realistic grit. That can muddle the message. Audiences are drawn to the bad stuff. Online, many just skip the bits that are meant to be morally edifying. Some viewers conclude that the Communist Party is irredeemably corrupt, not that it is bravely fighting graft.

Anti-corruption propaganda has gone through various cycles. It was not until the 1990s that Communist officials allowed the publication of novels focusing on the venality of officials. The reason they did so was plain: corruption was becoming so rampant that it could not be ignored. The party hoped such works would show that good forces in the party were determined to curb corruption. Television producers started turning these books into shows, which became immensely popular. The spread of egregious corruption was partly the product of a sea-change in China. The drive to build a capitalist economy gave officials unprecedented opportunities to line their pockets. Market economics affected propaganda, too, as television stations wanted commercial success. In the early 2000s, to boost ratings, they let their dramas about corruption become edgier.

Thinking that these were doing more harm than good, the party imposed a prime-time ban on them in 2004. This was a death knell for the genre: producers knew they would not be able to recoup their investments. Television shows, mostly historical dramas, continued to touch on corruption-related topics from time to time. But for a decade no shows set in present-day China were dedicated to the theme.

Since coming to power in 2012, however, Mr Xi’s onslaught has resulted in the jailing of several of the most senior figures ever to be convicted of graft under Communist rule. Official accounts of their wrongdoing have been staggering: rooms piled high with banknotes, luxury villas galore and family members, as well as mistresses, living the life of Riley. So in 2015 the propagandists decided to lift the ban again. They had a fine line to walk. They had to avoid the extremes of the anti-corruption shows of the early 2000s. But with so much information already public, they could hardly pretend that just a handful of officials were bent.

The propagandists are thus on an erratic path. They are fast developing slick techniques for making their works more convincing. “In the Name of the People” breaks new ground. The series portrays a chain of corruption reaching right up to a fictitious deputy leader of the country (only costume dramas are allowed to implicate the emperor). Yet the party already seems to be regretting its success. It is blocking comments online about “In the Name of the People”, and making sure it is not promoted on the front pages of websites that host it. Tellingly, censors have delayed release of one of the other anti-corruption shows.

The art of the impossible

Sitting in his modest home in the eastern city of Nanjing, the scriptwriter of the series, Zhou Meisen, explains how he managed to get his story approved: it was entirely based on real events, reported in state media. “Corrupt officials do things that are far beyond the imaginative powers of writers,” he chuckles. Sometimes writers also manage to do things that are beyond the imagination of censors. Mr Zhou is one such author—he flashes anger at the notion that he might be a party stooge. Even though censors carefully vetted his script, many fans of his work say his crooked protagonists are far more convincing than the good ones.

Can the art of anti-corruption propaganda ever be perfected? A comparison is telling. Propaganda of a more conventional kind, with nationalist themes, has started hitting the mark. Take “Wolf Warrior 2”, a blockbuster in which a Chinese commando kills American mercenaries in Africa. It has generated such patriotic fervour that audiences have broken into the national anthem. Over the top, yes. But the film is grounded in what many Chinese people believe to be true: that their country is catching up with America. The problem with propaganda about the party’s clean-up of corruption is that, ultimately, few really believe it.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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