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?

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