China 2.0

The Reality TV Show Reviving The Chinese Countryside

A successful TV series is making Chinese people nostalgic for their rural roots, from which so many have fled. And the villages where the show has filmed are enjoying massive benefits.

"Where Are We Going, Dad?" screenshot
"Where Are We Going, Dad?" screenshot
Gabriel Grésillon

BEIJING — Who is going to sleep in the spider-infested room? The drawing of straws is merciless, and in the end it's Jimmy Lin Chih-ying and his 4-year-old son who will spend the night there. This Taiwanese actor and his son are among the guinea pigs for reality TV show Where Are We Going, Dad?, first released in China in late 2013.

The concept is simple: Young fathers, all of whom are well-known actors, spend some time with their kids in a totally strange place, usually in rural areas to which they aren't accustomed. The objective is to test their tolerance of different living conditions and their capacity to remain good role models for their kids, no matter the situation.

This popular series has attracted audiences from all over China, in large part because of the touching ways in which the relationships between father and child are demonstrated.

The first episode was filmed in Lingshuicun, a village 120 kilometers west of Beijing. Since then, it has been virtually impossible to find spaces in the local parking lots. To meet the growing demand of tourists flocking from the capital, villagers began this summer to mobilize in every way they could.

Tan Qingmei, 42, is ready to seize the opportunity to make some money. She has set up a food stand to sell soup, fresh fish and incense products. She is thankful to the crew who brought visitors here and changed her economic prospects. "In the past, we earned less than 20,000 yuan $3,300 each year, and lots of people left for the big cities to get jobs," she says. "The village was almost empty."

Village renaissance

Liu Hai, one of Tan's neighbors, is also happy about this change. Along with his brother, he runs a hostel that is now successfuly despite a lot of competition in the area. "Before, there were only four hostels, and now there are more than 30," he says, noting that demand is so strong that he's still able to make a good living. "My older brother used to look after this hostel when I had to go to Beijing for some temporary work, just like my son did," he says. "Now, it's no longer necessary. We can come back to the village knowing that there is enough food to eat at home."

In the hostel's ground-floor restaurant, he shows us the photos he took of the film crew. During the May 1 holiday, there were so many tourists in the town that some guests had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant.

Almost everywhere in the village, old buildings are being restored. Wang Huiyuan, 71, is having his bathroom renovated. "I want to be able to host tourists in my place," he says, his eyes shining. "I've already invested 30,000 yuan $4,900 in this. At the moment, my wife and I only make 700 yuan $115 per month."

Another village, Chuandixia, also plays host to masses of weekend tourists. Apart from the TV show's influence, urban youth also come to find out what the real countryside is like. Ironically, it's the same countryside from which their parents fled to build new lives in the cities.

But this younger generation is returning to look for an easier way of life — and clean air too. Lin Jia, a tourist visiting with her family, says that she wanted to show her son what "tough life" is, but also how to barbecue.

Several meters away from them, a man in his forties explains how he grew up in the countryside and now wants to find some fragments of his childhood here. "City life is so stressful, so intense," he says. "It's not as calm and natural as it is here."

Xiao Shui, 24, totally agrees. "Look at those big cities in China! They're all very much alike. The traditional mansions have all been pulled down, or rented to foreigners." What she likes here is to "smell the grass, enjoy the view, breathe clean air, and eat vegetables that are much tastier than in the city."

A return to roots

People are setting up electric cables and replacing their roofs so that they can put traditional tiles on them. It's the same all across the country, as people try to rebuild authenticity. Central authorities have chosen about 1,500 villages steeped in history, and allocated over a billion yuan ($1.6 million) to restore them. But, they'd better hurry up, because according to the official numbers, more than 900,000 hamlets disappeared between 2000 and 2010.

Still, not everything has disappeared. Xiao shows us a photo that she has taken off a wall, and it bears the following inscription: "Arm our brains with Mao Tse-tung"s thoughts." There's neither nostalgia nor regret here. "I just wanted to remind myself of the old China where I came from," she says.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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