The Audience Is Not Stupid: The Backward Logic Of China's TV Censors

Essay: After a series of bans on game shows and dance contests, Chinese television now faces new restrictions on foreign programming. But even beyond its wariness of the outside world, Beijing doesn't understand that stifling popular culture can

 (Honza Soukup)
(Honza Soukup)
Ye Kuangzheng

BEIJING - Since last October, China's television stations have been behaving like frightened birds not knowing where to perch.

The State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) has come up with bans and prohibitions, one after another, in its efforts to control and censor cultural activities provided by these institutions. After the "Cutback on TV Entertainment" aimed at programs such as match-making game shows and dance broadcasts, and the "TV Commercials Ban," now there's a prime-time ban on airing foreign television series, including Taiwanese and Hong Kong productions. Furthermore, the air time devoted to foreign dramas must not exceed 25% of a channel's overall daily drama programming, and any series is limited to a maximum of 50 episodes.

It's hard to understand the logic of these bans. The choice of entertaining programs, foreign or home-made, or the decision of how many ads are shown has been already worked out by local television stations according to their own rules and broadcasting style. There's absolutely no need to manage an autonomous market which is capable of self-governance. The audience is not stupid. They can use their remote controls to cut off the lousy dramas or excessive advertising spots.

Such bans mean that the marketing experience and strategy acquired by the TV stations over the years has now become ineffective. Instead, they have to explore a new set of rules. This will negatively impact the growth and self-regulation mechanisms of the market.

At first glance, the ban on offshore drama seems to provide a monopoly to Chinese-made productions. But because of the earlier restrictions on commercial spots, a lot of local TV stations are now struggling to generate enough income to finance production of their own programs. This cuts into local TV's audience ratings.

Let cultural "ecology" flourish

It's so obvious what harm this monopoly can bring. Without the competition and comparison with offshore programs, coupled with the advertising restrictions, China's national TV production quality is bound to fall. Yet the SARFT doesn't seem to mind the constraints caused by these bans.

In this new century, with the expanding competition of Internet and video, TV has become increasingly vulnerable, attractive mainly to the middle-aged and elderly. Strangely enough, instead of taking initiatives to revitalize the market, the SARFT seems willing to suppress it through all kinds of prohibitions. From the ban on imperial dramas and comic series to the corruption plays and spy dramas, now it's the foreign series which have to go. Yet, the on-screen TV content has hardly stood out for its elegance. Programs are actually getting worse and worse, as China slides toward a moral degeneration.

Perhaps the real purpose of the SARFT is to reduce local TV's ratings and boost the interests of the CCTV, the predominant state television broadcaster. Although CCTV is also restricted by all these bans, it still functions as the state propaganda machine. The style as well as the content of the dramas it produces are relatively more restricted in attracting an audience. In the past few years, its ratings as well as its share of advertising income have been declining.

Still, the various bans have undoubtedly weakened local TV, and a part of the advertising revenue is naturally going to return to CCTV. This truth is confirmed by the total sum of advertising on CCTV for the year to come – a record-breaking total of 14 billion RMB ($2.2 billion), ending a progressive decline over the last 18 years.

The new ban's harm is not just limited to local television stations, but to culture as well. Since the opening of China in the 1980s, a lot of imported programs, including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, have greatly influenced the formation of spiritual, cultural and social ideology. The prosperity of culture comes from a broad vision and free thinking. To block cultural exchange channels is to suppress a nation's space to grow culturally.

Any closed-up society is bound to decline. If those foreign dramas are also reflecting the pursuit of freedom, love, life and beauty, what's the point of isolating the people from them? That can only encourage the speculation of a pseudo-culture, which, on appearance, seems to promote "harmony," but in reality is undermining the freedom of this country's cultural ecology to flourish.

Neil Postman, the American educator, pointed out a long time ago in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) that although television has weakened people's faculty for rational inquiry through reading, its emotional power is nevertheless a new rhetoric of truth.

Everybody knows that there's a lot of "trash" on TV, but the existence of trash is precisely the guarantee of virtue and spiritual freedom in an era. In all culture, good and evil, elegant and vulgar, are always entangled together. It is only through comparison that people perceive the difference.

If we are forced to exclude popular culture, people will lose their judgment of goodness and elegance at the same time. Multiculturalism seeks to create people with a differentiating consciousness of good and evil, refined and vulgar. An individual's virtues are exactly based on his judgment and choices. They won't be nourished in ignorant soil, nor rely on a mandatory exercise proposed by others.

A civilized and dignified nation will not depend on various prohibitions and restrictions to grow up.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Honza Soukup

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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