“Chunwan,” the New Year Gala broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV) every Chinese New Year’s eve, has a yearly viewership of hundreds of millions. In the 1980s and 1990s, it used to be the only new year’s eve show on television, humming away as the family rolled dumplings. The show is still a major event in China today, given that flagship channels on provincial television networks are mandated to broadcast the Gala rather than their own programming.
Chunwan is usually over 4 hours long—so imagine a Super Bowl halftime show that is a little longer than the game itself. A key difference is that Chunwan has an audience several times greater than the Super Bowl’s, thanks to China’s population. This makes it probably the most watched annual television event in the world.
But in China, no state-run, premier television event can confine itself to mere entertainment. As one Internet user remarked recently about the forced confession of the Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu: “China’s politics looks pretty entertaining, and the entertainment industry looks pretty political.”
Chunwan has a long history of serving the Party’s propaganda needs: there are red songs with titles like: “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China,” dances showing the “happiness” of life under the leadership of the Party, and celebrations of the “national achievements” of the year past.
Even CCTV openly proclaims: “Chunwan is a premier political task assigned to CCTV by the Party and our nation.”
However, Chunwan in 2016, the Year of Monkey, seemed to go too far in executing its political function. There is a rare consensus among Chinese netizens that this year’s Chunwan is the worst in decades. “It’s not even close. I apologize to all previous Chunwan that I labeled as ‘the worst,'” one viewer wrote.
A large number of comments on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, discuss how over-the-top the political content felt this year. A widely forwarded post said: “In previous years, we saw entertainment shows mixed with some political elements; this year, we saw a political show mixed with some entertaining elements.”
Some users summarized the abundant use of political slogans in Chunwan, joking that the gala could serve as a useful textbook for a political study examination (still mandatory in Chinese schools). For example, all key economic and political events in the past year, including “the September 3 Military Parade,” “Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics,” “Renminbi joins the IMF basket,” and “a Chinese scientist won the Nobel Prize,” and more, were included in the lyrics of the opening song.
Another popular remark, drawing attention to North Korea launching a long-range missile on the same day of Chunwan, wrote: “China’s Galas are approaching North Korea’s level, and North Korea’s missiles are approaching China’s level.”
Despite the venom online, Party mouthpieces declared that the 2016 Chunwan has received “very positive feedback” from 95 percent of audience members who watched it on CCTV’s international channels. The gala director also said that he was happy with his work, and would rate the show 100 out of 100.
In the meantime, numerous Weibo posts that criticized or joked about Chunwan were removed. On many mouthpiece websites, comments had been disabled on articles about Chunwan. These petty attempts to stifle mockery simply frustrated people further.
One post that was found popular says: “I heard that the 2016 Chunwan received 97.5% positive feedback—but I don’t know how that rating was obtained. If this is true, it indicates how considerate and tolerant Chinese people are [to put up with it]; if it’s false, it indicates how ‘incredible’ our statistics bureau is [to make up data]. If Chinese believe it, it indicates what a great job our education system has done [to indoctrinate people]. If Chinese don’t believe it, it indicates what a great job the Party’s stability maintenance system has done [to protect a regime not favored by the people].”
Another comment said: “They shut down audience commentary then give themselves 100 out of 100, claiming ‘the positive reaction was like a torrent.’ Typical shameless behavior.”
Three years ago, Sina published an interview (since deleted) of Hong Minsheng, the former CCTV vice president who took charge of Chunwan between 1984 and 1993. In the interview, Hong mentioned that he observed how Party members worshipped in front of statues of Buddha while on tour. “Those who knelt before Buddha were all Party members. We sang praises to the ‘Great Motherland’ in the Gala. But later we found that we had no faith in our soul.”
“Politics destroyed our Chunwan,” Hong concluded.
Viewers at least found enough in the program this year to entertain themselves. One of the more popular exercises was to match photographs of popular Chinese dishes or beverages with CCTV’s dances and colorful tableaux. A sampling for your delectation is below.