January 8th, 2012
09:30 PM ET

Zakaria: Where did China's TV shows go?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Imagine if you flicked on your television and found that the government had cancelled American Idol, 30 Rock, The Office, and Dancing with the Stars. That's essentially what happened in China, where last week Beijing eliminated a staggering two-thirds of all prime-time entertainment. What in the world is going on?

Supergirl looks and feels like American Idol. But the Chinese talent show was pulled for being too vulgar, and too Western. It's one of 88 entertainment shows that have been canceled. Other programs that have survived have had to change. Censors have ensured the dating show "If You Are the One" is now less racy - gone are the Western-style discussions about sex.

Why all the cuts?

Beijing reportedly wants to combat what it calls "excessive entertainment" and "a trend towards low taste."

These orders came from the very top - from President Hu Jintao. In an essay published in a party magazine last week, Presdient Hu claimed that "hostile international forces" were plotting to "Westernize and divide China."

He called for "forceful measures" to develop home-grown cultural products that could engage China's youth.

Mr. Hu worries about China's place in the free world: the discrepancy between its growing economic clout and its relatively feeble cultural influence.

We all know that China's GDP will likely surpass America's total output within a decade or so. But as far as entertainment goes, the U.S. is completely dominant.

China's top grossing films last year were all from Hollywood - the latest sequels to Kung Fu Panda and Pirates of the Caribbean. And that's despite a huge number of restrictions the Beijing government imposes on Hollywood.

What about domestic Chinese films? Well, the state lavished money on two star-studded propaganda epics last year. But they didn't bring in as much revenue as the Hollywood releases - and that's in the domestic Chinese market! Outside of China, these Chinese films barely registered.

All this is putting frowns on the faces of China's leaders.

Beijing isn't satisfied simply with controlling domestic TV news and the Internet. It wants to control the Chinese cultural diet. And the appetite goes outside China's borders, as well. Beijing wants more "soft power."

But back to our canceled TV shows - this is not simply about cultural exports. It's about controlling what the Chinese people hear and see, Mr. Hu is trying to create a layer of stability in 2012 and beyond. 2012, of course, is an election year that sees Beijing on the cusp of unprecedented change.

Seven of the nine top members of the Standing Committee will be stepping down. 70% of China's top 200 leaders will be replaced. And in his final months in office, Mr. Hu is focusing on internal politics and the transition, setting the ideological foundations to guide a new generation of young leaders.

Some of them, like Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongching, have been openly arguing that China has become too Westernized, too materialistic, too unequal, and too untethered from its past. Bo has spoken of a return to Confucian values, encouraged festivals of communist songs from the Cultural Revolution. He speaks reverently of China's Moaist values. It is a conservative lament about the consequences of capitalism.

We've seen a bold, assertive Beijing in 2011. It spoke confidently after the crash of '08; it was tough on its neighbors. But 2012 is going to be different. Look for a more inward-focused Communist Party that is trying to slow down and control the consequences of the economic juggernaut it has unleashed.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.

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Topics: China • Culture • What in the World?

soundoff (139 Responses)
  1. TisJustMe

    Bo Xilai sounds like a modern-day version of the Dowager Empress.

    January 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  2. Old enough to make my own decisions...

    China needs to give up this censorship stuff, they need a Chinese Playboy in publication. They treat their Adult population like Children...

    January 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • scot

      You probably non't mind let your 10 years old son read playboy. I do. On this respect I applaud chinese government.

      January 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  3. That's notTrue={

    Agree with everyone else. American shows are in the slums, nothing good about the so called "American culture". Dear author, FOCUS ON MORE IMPORTANT THING such as the US elections or military reduction...complaining about another country's lack of TV shows just make you look dumb.


    January 9, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      It is good for us to report on things outside of the U.S., because some of us rely on reports like these to make international career decisions. Stop being so selfish with your news media. One of American's problems is that we are too self absorbed, you have proven this once again. Your complaints sort of make you look dumb.

      January 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
      • That'snotTrue={

        ....Self absorbed....This must be your first time on CNN....The US isn't self absorbed enough, if it was all your problems wouldn've been solved a long time ago, ignorant fool!

        January 9, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  4. alex

    What people are not talking about is that this shows that the chinesse dont want american ideas and products to develop in china OHH but wait we buy everything from them and they manipulate their currency.FAIR???
    The fact is that we dont need CHINA AT ALL, pass immigration reform build factories that are more robot oriented rather than man power and china will collapse in 6 years. Anohter thing is that we need canada for resources

    January 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  5. Anti_Fareed

    Fareed Zakarian offers nothing but his biased views. It's amazing that CNN would employ a journalist who frequently writes hogwash articles about a country that he has little or no knowledge of. It's understandable that he feels compelled to criticize a country that is more successful than his native country India to suppress his own inferior root and that of India.

    January 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  6. Anti_Fareed

    Mr. Zakarian, what about explaining the caste system to American audience? And where do you fit in on that caste system? I would bet you hail from somewhere down below the caste system since you dare not even once criticize the country India and its culture.

    January 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  7. gerald

    wish they would cancel some of the bs shows here

    January 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  8. r.ortiz

    china is a country with human rigths violations, they rule their people in a dictatorial way, have you seen the kungfu movies that come out from there their just as violent as their goverment.

    January 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • scot

      That is just movie. The true violence have been in Iraq and Afghan. People were blow up in wedding party, on the road and in their home.

      January 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  9. Apocalypse

    I wish the U.S. government would pull all those damn Wives shows, Bachelor/Bachellorette, and American Idol.

    January 9, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  10. bob

    How about the chinese government just leave the shows alone and on the air but let "me" decide what I want to watch ?

    January 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  11. liem nguyen

    No Tv =more babies=good luck

    January 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  12. scot

    "too Westernized, too materialistic, too unequal, and too untethered from its past." That is majority view in China, if not a consent. The restriction maybe inconvenient. But maybe necessary to limit the explosive growth of garbage on the air. Nothing come without a cost. For sure china is seeking a balance of free speech and guarding against attack on her tradition al value and culture. I am for it but hope the country will look deeper than just TV program. There should be a ban on luxury imported car for high-ups using tax payer money. It is ridicules that so..many of them are on the road today.

    January 9, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  13. rudy de wit

    I often read that there is a real danger of unrest all over China if and when GDP growth drops under 9 % per year. I think the cultural centurship, the aggressive stance in the south china sea and even the threat of reneging on the one country two systems pledge for Hong Kong all point towards a deep concern of the authorities in China about unrest and protests. And maybe with good reason !

    January 10, 2012 at 12:01 am | Reply
  14. McTroll

    First of all, is Fareed Zakaria able to write any article that isn't designed to bash a 'rival'/enemy of the US in some way?
    Secondly, how did that man get so hideously ugly? He looks like a half-baked Michael Jackson.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  15. ep tor

    Like all government interference communist, totalitarian or democratic, this "initiative" will have the opposite intended effect. To appreciate entertainment that is more "culturally" Chinese, it has to be more entertaining to the viewer. You can't "force" someone to like something. Rather than grow and mature, their entertainment industry will shrivel and the the best talents will find a way to leave for "greener" pastures. Artists especially, will either leave if they can or produce the pseudo art or "art sarcasm" so prevalent in the "old" communist era that the old feeble minded rulers are trying to dredge up. The result will be the same as the "worker propaganda films" that the "loyal" party members used to watch so they could be seen watching by the loyalparty boss, so they could be promoted so they could get previledges the "ordinary" worker couldn't get. Even with all their censorship, this world is way too connected for that to work – unless they they decide to follow North Korea and totally isolate themselves – but then trade would stop, industry would stop, money would stop, food would stop and the golden revolution would start (red failed).

    January 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  16. raf

    with intellectual property rights barely enforced in china, i wonder if the chinese can download bootleg torrent copies of the very same shows their leaders cancelled...

    January 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Reply


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