While Chinese families gather together and roll their dumplings for the Chinese New Year, the regime’s propaganda authorities are hoping that televisions will be firmly set to just one show: the gaudy costumes and crooning strains of the “Spring Festival Gala.”
The gala is a product of the state-run China Central Television, and has been broadcast nationally since 1983 (CCTV is, in fact, the only national broadcaster). The show runs for over four hours, and aims to be a cultural touchstone, mixing humor, singing, celebrity, and extreme glitz.
But many Chinese are now saying that they find the gala increasingly distasteful. It’s too political, they say—too insistent on ramming home the Party line. And there’s way too much red.
The tensions around CCTV’s gala seem heightened this year, given that communist officials have heavily promoted its political importance.
“This year it’s being even more emphasized [by high-level leaders] as a ‘national project,’” Lü Yitao, the executive director who has participated in directing CCTV gala for three seasons, told official media China Newsweek. “It is the very first time it was ordered this way.”
Lü added: “What is a national project? The opening of the Olympic Games is a national project, right? Therefore the gala must have a high level of style and high attention like that. It also shows that the leaders are eager for changes.”
Whatever the changes, audiences are confident that the political role of the gala will remain the same.
Strong China, Happy China
A common sentiment about the gala was shared by the Internet user Shoulashou Guibenguan. He or she wrote: “The spring festival gala is just about telling people how strong China is, how happy the Chinese people are. As long as it completes this mission, it achieves its goal. Whether the people like it or not is not important!”
The contradiction between these paradise-like images and the reality in China can put some people off, though. “The direction of the gala has been wrong, especially in the past five years,” said Hong Minsheng, a former deputy director of CCTV, in an interview in the Chinese press. “Many Chinese people are living quite bitter lives, but the ‘Spring Festival Gala’ still sings praise for and flatters the Communist Party,” he said.
Hong further remarked that since 1992, CCTV has had to run each gala performance through the censors five times before it can be put on the official list, to ensure there’s nothing embarrassing for the Party. The Byzantine system of censorship also means that celebrities from Hong Kong and Taiwan need to gain approval from higher levels, and have their performances carefully examined before they can appear.
The gala used to be merely an evening party where a group of artists gathered, Hong said, but now it’s “completely irrelevant to art.”
‘Dancing in Shackles’
One of the vaunted changes to the gala this year was the appointment of Feng Xiaogang as director. Feng is a celebrity in China known for his direction of comedies and period dramas.
As the first film director, and a relatively independent one, to take over the gala, Feng has had a terrible time struggling with the complex and confusing system of censorship.
His job is to balance what he thinks the people want, with what he’s told the Communist Party leaders want.
“I can say that I absolutely would not do this again in my whole life,” Feng said in an interview with CCTV on Jan. 19. “Absolutely impossible.”
An associate director of the gala this year, Yu Lei, said in the same interview that Feng is used to making films as he pleases, and only at the end submitting it to the censors.
But directing the gala is wildly different, because Party leaders directly intervene and offer constant guidance and direction, Yu said. “They’ll say ‘no’ to you when you are in process of creating something. One needs very strong nerves to handle it.”
CCTV gala planning team member, Zhang Heping, provided a vivid metaphor. “It’s like dancing in shackles,” Zhang said. “It’s not about what you want, but about what they tell you to do.”
A number of performances this year, expected to be popular with the crowds, were canned because they were deemed politically sensitive.
One related to Cui Jian, the father of rock music in China, and famous for his support of the students during the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989, which ended in a bloody military crackdown. Cui once performed the ballad “Nothing to My Name” on Tiananmen Square to show his support for the students.
The song was ruled inappropriate for the gala, and Cui turned down the opportunity to change the lyrics or perform other songs, according to his agent.
A satire called “Alumni Association,” meant to make fun of corrupt officials being invited to expensive dinners, was also killed by censors. This form of corruption is common in China, and widely reported in the media, but parodying corruption in the Communist Party does not suit the agenda set for the “Spring Festival Gala.”
One result of all the cutting is that there are few spoken-word performances left this year — only 5, from the 42 programs on the list. Most will be songs or include skits or entertainment that doesn’t include dialogue. It’s a record in over the 30 years of the gala.
CCTV has attempted to bring foreign celebrities to participate, in order to liven up audience interest.
These include French actress Sophie Marceau, and the young Korean pop idol Lee Min-ho, who will sing this year. Last year the Canadian diva Celine Dion sang the saccharine Chinese melody “Jasmine Flower.”
Despite the authorities’ best efforts, the climate of online opinion is generally negative toward the event. Endless comments by Internet users complain that it’s “brainwashing,” “ruining Chinese culture,” and “just a combination of nondescript hodgepodge.”
“The gala shows garbage culture, because [the authorities] force culture and art to follow their will and interests,” wrote the Internet user Zuojia Caojunshu. “In a normal country, a gala’s biggest purpose is to entertain. It shouldn’t be about forced indoctrination and political stuff.”