China’s Anti-Corruption Drive Moves into Television Dramas

  • As President Xi’s anti-corruption drive heats up, regulators lift ban on dramas about graft
  • In the Name of the People is set to finish shooting in June with budget of $18.5 million
  • Government messaging to be laced into television dramas
Shanghai (Creative Commons / Pixabay)

Shanghai (Creative Commons / Pixabay)

In the midst of a nationwide anti-corruption drive led by President Xi Jinping, China’s media regulators have  lifted a long-standing ban on the production and primetime broadcast of television dramas featuring high-level corruption, clearing the way for harder-hitting content not seen since 2004.

In the Name of the People (人民的名义), a new television drama with a budget of over 120 million yuan ($18.5 million), is set to finish shooting in Nanjing in June and is expected to be broadcast the end of the year.

The 42-episode series is set to be the first major production with an anti-corruption theme since China’s media watchdog banished such programs from prime time 12 years ago. The show is expected to at least obliquely feature a top ranking government leader as a villain.

In 2004, the predecessor to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (known as SARFT at the time) made a recommendation that anti-corruption dramas not be shown in prime-time to “protect teenagers.”

Fan Ziwen, vice director of the Film and Television Center under the China’s prosecutor’s office and someone closely involved with the production of In the Name of the People, told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper that the rules against such plotlines in TV always been a recommendation and never an outright ban.

Li Jingsheng, head of SAPPRFT’s TV series unit, told Fan that the ban was on dramas which depicted corruption without a depiction of anti-corruption efforts.

“[Li] said that the dramas should be made with positive energy and should show anti-corruption efforts, rather than just corruption itself, and it should demonstrate the party’s firm determination to fight against corruption,” Fan told the state-controlled newspaper.

Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, and author of From Anticorruption to Officialdom: The Transformation of Chinese Dynasty TV Drama, said the new show In the Name of the People could lead to a resurgence of anti-corruption dramas.

“The approval of the show is a breath of relief to China’s TV drama practitioners who have been sitting on the fence watching the most racy material of the recent years go wasted,” Ying said.

Chinese TV industry professionals long have complained about onerous censorship that requires scripts be government approved by varying ministries, depending on a show’s storyline.

Stringent requirements on any drama that touches on real-life issues have forced more producers into creating historic costume dramas and fantasy shows rather than be slowed down by the censors.

Further irritating local producers is the fact that foreign TV dramas such as House of Cards, which includes Chinese cyberwar with the U.S. and a corrupt Chinese Communist Party insider, are available for legal streaming on SohuTV.

“We’d never be able to get a House of Cards past the censors,” well known producer and actor Zhang Guoli, complained to the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 2014.

However, Professor Zhu told CFI that even though In The Name Of The People will implicate fictionalized top government officials, it will not be a Chinese counterpart to House Of Cards.

“The Chinese show is to promote ‘positive energy’ and Xi’s anti-graft campaign,” Ying said. “It will not be a morally ambiguous officialdom drama but an upright anti-corruption drama.”

Ying said that any new anti-corruption dramas will have to adhere to directives by the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and SAPPRFT. According to The Beijing Youth Daily, SAPPRFT’s Li said his office now has to produce at least two films and two-to-three TV shows featuring bribery each year.

Recent hit film Mr. Six (老炮儿), a crime drama by director Guan Hu, drew plaudits from CCDI for including anti-corruption themes and displaying  “sensitivity to the country’s policies.”

Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, his anti-corruption campaign, led by the CCDI, has brought down thousands of corrupt officials, including several top officials such as Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, and military officers such as Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

Li Lu, a writer on In The Name of The People told the Youth Daily that the party’s anti-graft campaign had uncovered a lot of compelling stories.

“Why are the upper circles of the government once again promoting anti-corruption shows?” Li told the paper. “It’s because it has been two years since the current administration launched a sweeping crackdown on corruption among ‘both tigers and flies.’ There are a lot of good stories. But no heavyweight television show reflecting such stories has been produced.”

Additional reporting by Zoe Law