How Democracy Will Overtake China

November 6, 2004

Ever since arriving in China, my allergies have been really bad. Every day, my head is so stuffed up I feel like I live in an alternate universe. My sneezing could set world records for both strength and volume. My throat is permanently scratchy. I’ve alternated between Claritin and cold medications – just in case – but to no avail: it seems I can stifle the symptoms, but not eliminate them. Then, of course, today I was sitting on the end of my couch getting some work done, when my eyes strayed to the area under my bed. Illuminated in the daylight I saw a collection of Harvey-sized dust-bunnies. “Aha!” I exclaimed, to no one in particular, and then set out for the broom. I suspect this effort will have a positive effect on the level of in-house allergy suffering I endure.

As I write, I am having a nice (a term I use very, very loosely) glass of “Great Wall Dry Red Wine” and channel surfing through Chinese state-run television. Hmmm, what’s on now.…

There is the “100 Nights of Red Classics” movie marathon, which each evening shows a different old film about the valiant efforts of the People’s Liberation Army to overcome despotic landlords and the corrupt Guomindang officials to finally free the peasants and workers, who all then cheerfully work together for the glory of the new China and the Communist Party. As enlightening as these pictures are, once you are, oh, twenty or thirty nights in, they start to lose some of their freshness and originality. So on to other options.

I’ve learned – the hard way – that no matter what time of the day or night, there is always a televised version of a Chinese opera being broadcast. Sometimes these are classic Beijing operas, sometimes they pick up local area operatic traditions, and once – just once – it was a Cultural Revolution era model opera. Which, of course, makes me think of “Ambassador Duke” in China:

Chinese host: “This opera is about a peasant…”

Duke: “Who frees himself from the chains of a despotic landlord with the help of the communist party, after which the skies ring in praise of Chairman Mao?”

Chinese man (horrified): “You’ve already seen it!”

Duke: “No, no, lucky guess. Lead the way.” (Yes, I can recite Doonesbury cartoons off the top of my head. But really, only that series. It’s the classic, “Young Chu-ming, don’t you know there are starving children in West Virginia who’d give anything for some jellied duck’s web?” series. Someday I fully intend to use it to teach that era of US-Chinese relations.)

Aside from Red Classics and Model Operas, there are other movies on. Lots of westerns, actually – a total fascination with American cowboys ends up getting mixed into the frontiers of Chinese territory, namely, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The result is a bizarrely unique cultural product that strives to answer that age old question, “What would happen if John Wayne was pitted against Genghis Khan?” Then, of course, lots of American movies, all dubbed in Chinese: Julia Roberts with a high, screechy voice emoting, “Keshi, wo haishi hen ai ni de!” There is also almost always a dubbed Disney movie or cartoon on, which leads one to suspect that the televison stations do not pay close attention to copyright provisions.

Then, of course, there are the reality TV series. This, I truly believe, is the opening through which democracy will come to China. There are all these series – equivalents of American Idol, Fear Factor, and the one with the race, whatever it was called – and all include a climactic moment when the viewing audience is called upon to pick up their cell phones and text message their vote for the winners and losers. The screen shows an ongoing tally of votes, and little moments where each contestant campaigns for his or her own victory. I suspect that the people will ultimately become so accustomed to voting for absolutely everything on TV, that one day a rebellion of habitual cell-phone voters will be watching the news and think, “But wait! We voted for Miss China! We voted for the new Chinese R&B star! We voted on the challenges to be given to contestant twelve! Why didn’t we vote on the guy that leads us?” Just wait. I, like many of you, have lamented the absolutely moronic nature of reality TV when it staged its coup taking over the US primetime line-up. But when the fundamentally democratic roots of reality TV enters authoritarian third world societies, there will be a new cultural revolution. And to think, it all started with Survivor. Still never seen it.

Then, of course, there is Chinese music television. Every day MTV China (not to be confused with MTV Chinese, which broadcasts to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, but not the mainland) is on for exactly two hours. One hour is of Chinese language videos – thankfully, most of these are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore. It is hard to explain in words just how bad Chinese mainland pop music is. Too many years of hit records called “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China,” I guess, but the music is so unoriginal it genuinely sounds computer generated. (Yes, even more so than American mainstream pop. Scary.) It is also all slow and overly whiney. Thank goodness for Taiwanese rock…. (New Mayday album out this week)  The other hour is called, “Study English with MTV.” In this fine program, a host introduces the helpful, idiomatic, everyday English expressions that are used in the latest Madonna or Lenny Kravitz songs, then shows the corresponding videos with Chinese subtitles.

The local Jiangsu Province station shows some Korean soap operas, but always with an annoying host that breaks in periodically to tell you what is going to happen right before it happens and give you the impression that whatever stupid mess the main characters have gotten themselves into, it never would’ve happened to Chinese people. Common to all televised soap operas – Korean or Chinese – is the tendency to break for commercials at really jarring moments. By this I mean mid-sentence. The female lead will be saying, “I just came from the doctor. He said that I’m…” Enter shampoo commercial, followed by restaurant commercial, followed by previews for the next three shows on, a replay of the exact same shampoo commercial we just saw, and then, before you even realize the commercial is over, “…your half-sister. The bloodtest confirms it.”

(Whoops, Old Red Classic number 43 has apparently ended: the Nationalist general just surrendered to the triumphant PLA, and the province has been made safe for communism. Time to change the channel.)

I bet that most of you without the benefit of Chinese state television do not realize that the world Ping-Pong championships were last week. China won. The 2004 Olympics are being replayed – that is, all the moments of Chinese athletes in triumph – with lots of ads for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I’m happy to report that preparations are way, way ahead of schedule. The picture couldn’t be rosier. Cell phone text message voting on the mascot will take place early next year. The good money’s on Sun Wu Kong (The Monkey King from Chinese Tang Dynasty classic A Journey to the West); a panda bear would just be too cliché.

Alright. If I don’t stop soon, you will all start to think that all I ever do is watch television. Not true – in spite of all of these colorful options, I am not glued to my set. I’m not really sure why I just wrote a long email about Chinese TV, except that it is what I am experiencing at the moment, and I wanted to share it with all of you. Ahem. Oooh, gotta go. There’s a special on about a Tibetan singer who’s going to sing her 2002 hit single, “Long Live China”.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen