The world’s most watched broadcast has been losing viewers for years, and the 2017 edition didn’t win any back.
Year in year out, the Spring Festival Gala hosted by China’s state broadcaster CCTV is a chance for the country’s ruling Communist Party to stoke patriotic sentiment, praise ethnic unity, and flex military muscle. It’s also the subject of ridicule from the country’s younger generation, who see the unending supply of dated jokes and token celebrities as reminiscent of an elderly uncle trying just a bit too hard to be hip.
Anticipating the onslaught of criticism, a commentary published Friday afternoon by the Party’s mouthpiece newspaper The People’s Daily welcomed the prospect of constructive feedback. That people would criticize a show that was striving to be “fashionable and down to earth” was simply a sign that people’s aesthetic tastes were advancing along with the development of society, the commentary said.
But as hundreds of millions tuned in on Friday night, the eve of the Lunar New Year, for their yearly dose of disappointment and schadenfreude, the show started with a slick one-two-three punch that had viewers wondering if the Spring Festival Gala had become a true, modern media spectacle.
Teenage heartthrobs TFBOYS and the leading cast of China’s widely loved answer to “Sex and the City” kicked things off at 8 p.m. with a tasteful ode to the “Chinese Year.” A comedy skit followed where a woman found out her husband’s high-up job was not among the senior ranks of a company but hanging from skyscrapers cleaning windows. Third up was a duet between megastars Hu Ge and Wang Kai, one of China’s best-loved bromances.
Web users were at a loss. Where were the caodian — unintentionally laughable, embarrassing elements that are usually a staple of the annual show? “Looks like I’m watching a fake Spring Festival Gala,” lamented one microblog Weibo user, “Are there no caodian????”
Netizens needn’t have worried. Durex China — always up for stretching boundaries — drew a likeness between the beanie of one elderly character to the shape of a condom, much to the glee of Weibo users.
But a skit in which a woman suggests divorcing her husband out of fear that he will abandon her because she cannot conceive drew criticisms of a more serious note. “The sketches in the Spring Festival Gala are an annual climax of prejudice against women,” wrote columnist Lin Jian on his Weibo.
That the female protagonist — played by actor Yan Xuejing — felt the need to do such a thing reflects the burden to continue the man’s family name, Lin said. “In this day and age people actually still treat women like child bearing machines,” he said. “China used to be at the forefront of feminism. I don’t know why it feels like we’re going backwards.”
But as criticisms both serious and playful proliferated online, some viewers soon found that their avenues to vent were being blocked by China’s media regulators.
Users of popular knowledge sharing platform Zhihu were prohibited from searching for “Spring Festival Gala,” while those on messaging app WeChat found that they were unable to post certain words into group chats or onto their Moments — a function similar to Facebook’s newsfeed. Posting the sentence “Cherish life, stay away from the Spring Festival Gala” — a play on a similar expression referring to drugs — returned an error message saying: “Failed to send; your text contains inappropriate content.”
Users searching for the same expression on Weibo came up against the same brick wall — other users switched the word for “cherish” — zhen’ai — for an exact homonym meaning “true love,” before that expression, too, was promptly blocked.
Soon after the gala began, TV star, musician, and campaigner against plagiarism and lip-syncing Liang Huan said in a since-deleted Weibo: “Looking at the way things are going — fake enough to break your heart into pieces — I’ll just say which [performances] are real.”
An assistant to the 28-year-old said that Liang was unable to accept an interview due to the sensitivity of the subject, though they confirmed that he had been prohibited from posting following his previous Weibo regarding lip-syncing.
But it seemed that producers had taken on board the criticism leveled at the 2016 gala by some viewers, who ridiculed the show for its overdone political messages. The director of that show — Lü Yitao — became a meme in himself when he proudly proclaimed, “I’d give that Spring Festival Gala 100 points.”
Compared with last year’s streams of marching soldiers and songs praising the latest Party campaigns, this year’s political messages were arguably more subtle, with a visibly stronger focus on family life and children — a feature that some viewers read as implicit encouragement for couples to get on with making the most of the country’s relaxed family planning laws.
Ethnic and national unity underpinned many of the acts, as it always has. In one of the evening’s most high-profile performances, Hong Konger Jackie Chan sang “Nation,” a song celebrating the relationship between a strong country and a prosperous home. With Chan on stage were university students from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, as well as ethnic minorities: a royal flush in the country’s efforts to insist on unity across geographical, political, and ethnic lines.
That performance was applauded by many, not necessarily for its message, but for the use of sign language by the performers, with one Weibo user who described themselves as working in special education saying: “It looks like our special education is developing. This is our motherland showing itself in great ways.” They did add, however, that Chan had yet to master the sign for “nation.” “You have to tuck your thumbs in.”
That kind of criticism would have struck a chord with Friday’s People’s Daily commentary, which implored viewers to strive to applaud the good and be tolerant of the bad. “You shouldn’t look down on plain tea and simple food just because you’ve eaten fish and meat,” it said. “Neither should your choice of more freedom make you fail to see the unending efforts of the Spring Festival Gala production team to improve.”
— With contributions from Yin Yijun. This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.