China: The Cultural Revolution Will Be Televised

Chinese man with TV
Chu Wan, 72, shows off his new television set in Fanling, China, Aug. 28, 2003 (Photo: Ricky Chung/South China Morning Post/AFP-Getty Images).

Cut off from government funding but still run by the state, China Central Television (CCTV)—the country’s only national network—has run a completely uncensored foreign television series for the first time. Band of Brothers, co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, is not some light-hearted family drama or love saga—it’s an Emmy award-winning serious World War II epic. Based on the bestseller by Stephen E. Ambrose, the 10-part miniseries tells the story of “Easy Company,” from the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Drawn from interviews with survivors of Easy Company, as well as soldiers’ journals and letters, Band of Brothers “chronicles the experiences of these men who knew extraordinary bravery and extraordinary fear,” in the words of the show’s official Web site.

Any young Chinese person may have grown up watching and loving Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Their enthusiasm for American television seems to have grown only stronger over the years. Shortly after Band of Brothers premiered on Oct. 25, bulletin boards and Internet chatrooms were filled with lively discussions about the show. “This is an incredible piece of work: American television can be addictive!” one viewer commented on the bulletin board of the popular Beijing-based portal The mainstream Chinese media was quick to catch on. Major newspapers, especially the youth-oriented and urban evening papers, devoted considerable space to the show, with topics ranging from Tom Hanks’ serendipitous discovery of the Ambrose book to CCTV’s hard-nosed negotiation with Warner Bros. over the deal.

Beijing Youth Daily ran a long feature on the show in its Oct. 27 edition, under the headline, “Band of Brothers has finally landed in China.” After admiring Band of Brothers’ “thorough” and “realistic” portrayal of the war, the article offered a relentless critique of Chinese war-themed television specials. “All we see [in Chinese film and television] is the good guys—that’s us—winning all the battles with little bloodshed and our heroes martyring themselves with no sadness but only hope and triumph in their eyes. That is not realistic. It doesn’t help those who have never spent a day on the battlefield to realize the viciousness and brutality of war.”

The Oct. 13 edition of the International Herald Leader, a weekly newspaper published by the official Xinhua News Agency, lamented that Chinese war movies and TV shows “lack masculinity and depth” and often end up being either clichéd love stories with a war background or dry lectures on patriotism and peace. The weekly postulated that what made Band of Brothers particularly appealing to a Chinese audience was its narrative technique. Like many other American war movies, Band of Brothers tells the story through the eyes of individual soldiers, while Chinese movies often focus on generals, commanders, and the miracle-making strategy sessions. “The ordinary soldier is the real core of a war story,” The International Herald Leader wrote, “and that is something our filmmakers should always keep in mind.”

While the media rave about the artistic merits of Band of Brothers, some in China are concerned by all the blood and gore. Viewers called up local newspapers to complain about the show’s excessive violence and “unhealthy scenes” depicting looting and rape. “I don’t understand why CCTV decided not to censor the program,” a parent reportedly said in a phone call to Chengdu Business News. “Such bloody scenes will likely influence children and teenagers in a negative way....These [scenes] are unacceptable.”

Criticisms that the show is excessively violent and “slightly glorifies the Nazis” aside, the popularity of Band of Brothers in China is overwhelming. But it is not surprising. China has always had a fascination with American television. Whether it’s the light-hearted sitcom Growing Pains, the heavily censored soap opera ER, or the completely uncensored war epic, Band of Brothers, American television is rapidly finding more space on China’s small screen.

To the horror of many Hollywood studios, their popular TV shows have long made their way to China in the form of pirated DVDs. As in the United States, Sex and the City is Chinese urban women’s favorite, while 24 hours is a hit among men. Neither show has been officially imported.

Now that the CCTV version of Band of Brothers has further whetted people’s appetite for American television, the Chinese are clamoring for more. An Oct. 30 story in Business Times/Shidai Shangbao reported that early orders for the official Band of Brothers DVD, to be released by Warner Bros. in partnership with CCTV, have reached a record high. Shidai Shangbao saw this as “an indication that pirated DVDs wouldn’t have been so popular in China if the Chinese film and television market had been more open.”

Importing foreign television series might be pretty straightforward business practice in many countries. But in China, where the entertainment market is still comparatively closed, it involves a complicated process to obtain bureaucratic approval. The Chinese Communist Party has made a clear distinction between television and film in terms of their role as propaganda organs. Viewing film as a largely non-threatening cultural medium, Beijing is often willing to import crowd-pleasing Hollywood blockbusters to “enrich the masses’ cultural life.” All the same, censorship in China is notorious among Western film studios. Typically, sex scenes, excessive violence, and “politically sensitive” material are banned. The rules can be murky. The recent American blockbuster Tomb Raider II was banned because the censors believed “the film portrayed China as a country of chaos.”

The same rules apply to television programming, although the Chinese government has been more anxious to avoid a foreign invasion of the small screen. Beijing views television as a critical “mass medium” that could be politically dangerous and disruptive if it falls out of government hands. In a way, television has a more critical role in propaganda than newspapers do because Chinese literacy rates are comparatively low.

CCTV, the one and only national network, falls under the dual supervision of the Propaganda Department, which is ultimately responsible for all media content, and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, which oversees operations. CCTV reaches more than 84 percent of the total population of China, a figure that probably would make network executives in the United States gasp in envy and disbelief. In fact, CCTV boasts the world’s largest viewership, with the number of regular viewers exceeding 900 million.

Although officially still a state-run organization, CCTV no longer gets any financial assistance from the government and is solely dependent on advertising revenue. To counter competition from local television stations and foreign satellite broadcasts, the network has been forced to go through a complete overhaul over the past decade. Importing popular foreign television shows is one of many CCTV strategies to boost ratings among younger audiences.

Heartened by the enormous success of Band of Brothers, CCTV is hunting for its next import. So far, the network has reviewed three American TV series: Friends, 24 Hours, and The West Wing, a senior CCTV executive told Beijing Youth Daily on Nov. 2. According to the executive, CCTV will most likely drop The West Wing and 24 Hours because they are perceived as politically sensitive. The innocuous series “Friends is being considered,” the executive told Beijing Youth Daily.

“I confess that I love American television,” media critic Du Yufeng wrote in the Oct. 29 Huangshang Times, “But let me make it clear: Loving American television has nothing to do with loving America, just as hating Chinese television doesn’t mean hating China.” In the early 1990s, Chinese people loved to talk about how imported Japanese idol dramas had changed a generation’s sense of fashion and style. “For better or for worse, the current wave of American television,” Du wrote, “is changing a generation’s view of individuality and of life.”