The CCTV New Year’s gala broadcast, known in Mandarin as Chunwan, is probably the most massive media event you’ve never heard of: with an audience of 700 million, it has few rivals for sheer reach. A China Central Television institution since 1982, the show provides an annual bromide of light-hearted comedy, music, and choreographed patriotism on the eve of the country’s most important festival. In a nation reeling from frenetic development and riven by social tensions, it’s a reminder of the cultural ties that bind (most of) China together. This year, Chunwan rings in the Year of the Rabbit on the evening of 2 February.
But even in China, this throwback to a bygone era of modernist spectacle is not immune to larger shifts in the way we consume media. The show is losing its younger viewers: according to a recent online poll on Sina.com, 50 percent of respondents who saw the show called it ‘bad,’ while only 13 percent said it was ‘good’.
It seems that colourful ethnic minority maidens singing about social harmony just don’t cut it any more for the post-‘80s generation. Alarmed over declining ratings, broadcasters have turned to the internet for the first time this year to infuse new life into the old Chunwan beast, planning to draw several musical performers from the online ‘grassroots’.
CCTV and other Chinese media have long had a troubled relationship with the 380 million ‘netizens’ who comprise China’s online population. Of course, this comes as no surprise to those familiar with the overall status of internet speech in China. A small army of censors regularly scrub references to sensitive topics like Falun Gong, Tibet and Liu Xiaobo from bulletin boards. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, among other social networking platforms, are blocked: in this visualisation of global Facebook connections, there’s a conspicuous hole where China should be.
Historically, censors have also intervened to halt the careers of apparently harmless internet celebrities, which China produces in spades. With a massive online population isolated by the so-called Great Firewall and a notoriously difficult language, the Chinese internet is constantly spawning instant national icons. A Google search for ‘Chinese internet celebrity’ gets 52,100 hits; a search for ‘Indian internet celebrity’ gets two. Known to hundreds of millions in the PRC, these figures remain all but anonymous beyond its borders.
Sister Hibiscus often receives more searches on China’s most popular search engine than Hu Jintao
The most famous Chinese internet celebrity remains Shi Hengxia, better known as Sister Hibiscus, who rose to fame from 2003–05. Establishing a pattern among Chinese internet celebrities, she scandalised the public by wildly exaggerating her abilities and accomplishments. ‘My sensual appearance and ice-jade purity draw attention wherever I go,’ she said in one of many autobiographical posts. ‘My physique gives men nose-bleeds. This determined the tragedy of my early life.’
In response to the media sensation, government authorities directed relevant websites to sideline Sister Hibiscus–related content and cancelled a Sister Hibiscus television special. She often receives more searches on Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, than President Hu Jintao.
Six years on, it’s clear to both CCTV and the government that suppressing individual memes isn’t a long-term success strategy. Internet celebrity has gone mainstream: China’s wealthy now hire online promoters to make them famous. Clients pay promoters about £275 for comments in 3,000 forums, so with a large enough budget, notoriety is virtually guaranteed.
Today, Sister Hibiscus clones emerge each month, many as part of highly orchestrated viral marketing campaigns. Late last year, netizens wondered whether Xiao Yue Yue, a 30-something woman who became notorious for her plain looks and crass behaviour, was a fake. In fact, she was part of a deliberate strategy by Tianya, the internet forum where she first emerged, to raise the site’s profile ahead of its IPO.
Realising that it can no longer afford to alienate young internet-savvy viewers, CCTV hopes that this year’s Chunwan program will be a chance to use the online celebrity mill to reinforce its own credibility. The network has confirmed that Chunwan will feature Xuriyanggang, a rock band composed of former migrant workers Liu Gang and Wang Xu. Their video cover of ‘In the Spring’, a plaintive song of lost youth performed shirtless in a tiny rented room, brought the duo nationwide fame after it went viral last fall. The guardians of China’s old media must be anxious to find out whether the nation’s netizens find the televised version equally compelling.