What I learned watching Beijing’s new self-criticism infotainment.
Last week, as part of the run-up to this week’s annual plenum of Communist Party leadership in Beijing, China’s state-run news broadcaster, CCTV, began beaming Always on the Road, an eight-part series on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ongoing drive against corruption, to an audience of 1.2 billion viewers. I was one of them.
The meeting of the Party’s top leadership aims to “strengthen and standardize intra-Party political life,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reported. High on the agenda is Xi’s push against the excess and bribery that have become a lifestyle for many participants. The meeting will aim to tighten “top-down organizational supervision,” the Xinhua report adds.
Always on the Road offers a window into this house-cleaning. One might expect that a collection of public self-criticisms would recall the era of Mao and its revolutionary excesses. But a certain type of Chinese propaganda has more in common with bad reality TV than Soviet-style self-criticism. The ham-fisted artifice masquerading as reality, lamentable production, and bad acting are all there, along with the voyeuristic intention and sensationalism of a reality show; the stakes are just much higher. It’s still propaganda; it still smothers you with its agenda like an overeager, fumbling lover. But watching Always on the Road, I found myself thinking of The Real Housewives of Everywhere as often as I did the Politburo.
The binary grammar of the Cultural Revolution remains: numbered foes like “the four winds” (formalism, bureaucracy, bacchanalia, and wastefulness) and perilously abstract goals that are vaguely positive, such as the realization of the “China Dream.” There are bold metaphors, but nothing like the spirited propaganda plays of Mao’s fabulous dramaturge and wife, Jiang Qing. No pitchfork and sword-wielding proletariats here.
Instead, there are overwrought and potentially scripted monologues that would do Bravo proud. Only these aren’t the Kardashians. These are just a lot of bloated, old men crying about how they did a bad, bad thing.
In the decades since the Cultural Revolution, stability has become paramount to the party’s leadership, rather than Mao’s call to maintain a revolutionary spirit. This series needs you to support Xi’s campaign to root out graft, yes. But it doesn’t want to drive viewers to the streets or stadiums for public purges. The Party, and more specifically, Xi, want a calm, calculated end for a selected few of its crooked comrades.
The fallen politicians are as melodramatic and contrite as you’d expect in a televised political confession. But this is a kinder, gentler public self-criticism. Before you begin to abhor these convicts, they’re humanized in almost Shakespearean speeches that are not unlike some of the more heart-rending things Teresa Giudice has said on Real Housewives of New Jersey this season.
Officials were barred from using state funds to buy traditional mooncake pastries.
Xi launched the anti-graft campaign when he took office in November 2012 at the behest of Chinese Communist Party elders, who worried that the Party would suffer and that the country’s development would be derailed if it didn’t tackle rampant corruption in the public sector. At the time, popular resentment had resulted in unprecedented numbers of protests against local officials across the country, and Shanghai-based independent economist Andy Xie Guozhong estimated corruption was costing the country at least 10 percent of its GDP annually.
What followed seemed at times like almost comically superficial responses: in one high-profile case, officials were barred from using state funds to buy traditional mooncake pastries for their constituents. But then came the lives ruined, the careers destroyed, the high officials removed from office. Among the most high-profile cases was the fall of one-time political rising star Bo Xilai, a local party chief widely seen as a former rival of the president. In 2013, Bo’s trial became one of the first to spellbind the People’s Republic. It was damn fine TV, replete with a bizarre love triangle between Bo’s wife and his right-hand man. The high-profile, televised trials are ongoing and are featured in the series.
In a way, these scenes are reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution-era public purges: the gawking, the law-enforcement-by-example, the sensationalism. But this is a softer, 21st-century version of the last century’s politicking. Xi is cribbing from Mao’s playbook quite openly and effectively: last week, amid the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Mao’s legendary Long March and the CCTV series’ release, a writer commented in a leading Communist Party publication that the nation needed a new Mao, and that Xi fit that profile. But can he Dear Leader his way into the hearts and minds of an attentive television audience?
The show’s opening sequence begins with the forging of what appears to be a hammer and sickle, followed by Xi Jinping addressing the nation in front of a painting of a red Great Wall draped by the flag.
In this opening scene, Xi presents the problem plaguing China: The existence of corrupt officials among the ranks of China’s leadership.
Unimpressive performance. Cut to b-roll of Chinese people and insert generic nationalistic ambient music from the 90s here.
We’re in this together, these shots of Chinese nobody-in-particulars tells us. A party analyst observes that much as Mao’s campaigns depended on the power of “mass-movement,” Xi’s anti-corruption campaign “depends greatly on public support.” Read: Xi is Mao’s successor. But not the scary Mao. The primetime Mao.
In the second episode, Xi lays a wreath at a statue of Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s modernizing successor who suffered from and undid the mistakes of Mao’s latter-day administration. NB: The narrator notes that on that trip to the southern city of Shenzhen, where the statue is located, Xi stayed in humble accommodations and ate at a self-service buffet. No extravagance or corruption here.
Moving right along to the confessions. Let’s start with former Hebei Party chief Zhou Benshun, ousted from the party last year on charges including the acceptance of bribes. He is one of the “tigers,” or top officials, targeted by Xi’s campaign, and his fall shocked many.
“From when I was little, we suffered a lot,” Zhou tells the camera, the face of a friendly old uncle. I imagine producers standing in the CCTV Tower (known as the “big underpants” for its shape), their fingers crossed that people will take the bait and feel for the once-great man brought low.
Zhou also sounds lightly scripted or at least heavily produced. “I came out of a poverty-stricken family. From when I was little, I abhorred corrupt officials! In the end, I myself became a corrupt official. I feel this is a great tragedy.”
I don’t think Zhou isn’t necessarily unwell or haggard, as the New York Times charged. To my mind, he’s plump and wearing decent clothes. His hair is a little greasy; my hair is also occasionally greasy. Maybe I’m just not ready to make a value judgment about how shitty he’s looking. But then, isn’t that one of the key pleasures of reality television? Perhaps I do want to judge his hair.
A Communist Party disciplinary authority, Wang Han, describes Zhou’s ill-gotten gains: a sprawling home and a staff that included two chefs from his native Hunan and a nanny for his pets. Ghastly. But the Party didn’t know!! Wang swears! Wang says the Party was surprised a high-ranking official could live so comfortably. “We never really thought that could happen,” he says. Whoops. I guess we let him abuse his authority, but that’s over now, although pollution and poverty continue to ravage Zhou’s province, one of China’s industrial capitals. It’s all rather light-hearted and friendly, considering.
Nothing to worry about here! says this new age of Chinese propaganda. It’s no Workers of the World, Unite! but oh, well.
Zhou says he wasn’t cognizant of what he was doing, another whoopsie daisy: “I committed crimes and didn’t realize I was a criminal,” he says. His bit ends with b-roll of a stark prison. But this wasn’t a public trial so much as a reality TV confessional. He was confused. He did wrong. Have a heart, fed-up Chinese people.
Then there’s Li Chuncheng, who was the Party chief for the southern city of Chengdu.
It was as though Li were reciting Hamlet or Bridgette Lin’s impossibly cool voiceover from Wong Kar-wai’s beloved film Chungking Express: “I should be punished by the party and by law. [Odd edit] Because… [awkward pause] life is always broadcast live from the scene. There’s no way to repeat it.”
Bitch, please, I thought.
Choking back tears, he continues, “In my teens, actually, [sigh] I hoped to be one of the party’s leaders.” In a whisper that truly tickles the ear, he adds, “I hoped to join the Chinese Communist Party”… “to help society advance and be happy.”
He explains that his crimes happened in the context of a “confused society” and engendered a change of revolutionary heart.
At this point, it’s a hot mic. You could—and perhaps the idea is that—hear a tear drop.
He removes his glasses and whispers, as if to a lover, “I really am so sorry to the Party!! And am sorry to the people.”
Yes, this is the remorseful prodigal son. I hear you, Beijing: These politicians aren’t assholes who sated their extravagant, oft-licentious appetites with ill-gotten gains, because that would mean the party breeds assholes. These are prodigal children, who lost their revolutionary spirit somewhere between Louis Vuitton and Hermés! Long live the international proletariat.
“What I’ve done?” he says, oddly inspecting his hand, as though these words were written on it. “What does it all mean?”
The scare-tactics in this self-criticism, once a key function of such affairs, are thrown in for good measure, but they’re deeply tame. There’s a shot of a drop of dew, like a tear, falling from the wall of a cold, stark prison after Li’s interview.
At the end of the first episode, Xi is back, standing in front of a mass of ruby-red cloth.
Big daddy will make sure “the corrupt elements of the party have no place to hide” Xi says to his government. I wonder how many of them fear for their lives. The subtitles on those words linger a little longer on screen, emphasizing his emphatic tone, which, ok, is maybe not emphatic per se, but is louder than his usual monotone.
In case you missed them hammering that one home: !!===>>***Xi is the helmsman of the New China and the Morning Sun, Long Live China’s Communist Party.*** <<===!! But now, just a touch softer and more free-market-friendly. People at home and abroad are uncertain about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign; many view it as a convenient way for Xi to purge his political foes and consolidate his own power. As Gordon B. Chang, prominent Sino-pessimist and author of The Coming Collapse of China, told me in 2014, “We haven’t seen any political ally of Xi Jinping be targeted in the anti-corruption campaign.” Meanwhile, many in China’s wealthy ruling class are rushing to hide their assets abroad; investor immigration applications to the U.S. and elsewhere have skyrocketed. But CCTV’s Always on the Road—with its avoidance of taboo topics such as sex in favor of scandalous recitations of champagne wishes and caviar dreams—is a gentle dose of lulling infotainment, self-criticism as celebrity spectacle, more public therapy than public purge. Or maybe it’s just bad TV.