For decades, the Spring Festival Gala, produced by China’s state-owned Central Television (CCTV), has been must-watch programming for Chinese on Lunar New Year. Being such a high-profile media event, the program's producers usually manage to strike a balance between entertainment and political propaganda.
Not so this year. The gala in 2016, which is the year of the monkey, was arguably the most politicized in the show's history, and is now facing unprecedented criticism from the public.
The gala began with a rap, accompanied by an extravaganza, lauding last year’s achievements that Chinese gained under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
The rest of the program fell in line with Xi’s ideological theories and policies: singing about the Chinese Dream; emphasizing the need to make the People's Liberation Army strong; promoting the 13th Five-Year Plan, or roadmap for the country's development; stressing the patriotism of overseas homesick Chinese; and educating viewers on the core values of socialism.
In one segment, singers standing in front of a backdrop of a bright red Communist Party flag belted “No Communist Party, No New China” — a line from the 1943 political propaganda song “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China”. Another performance took the form of a revolutionary opera, in which a throng of dancers in red army dress reenacted how hard the red army trudged through a quagmire to build a communist nation.
The gala ended with a presenter saying, “Let us gather around the central Communist Party with the core principles of Xi.”
‘Why not make literature and art pure?’
“Is this probably the gala with the strongest political climate ever?” one netizen remarked on Twitter-like Weibo.
This ideology-heavy gala is no accident. It's a result of President Xi’s political ambition: the consolidation of the Communist Party’s leadership under his set of political beliefs and policies.
Since stepping into the presidency in 2012, Xi has pushed the so-called Chinese Dream of revitalizing the nation—by invoking patriotism with an emphasis on the historic humiliation Chinese have suffered.
To purify the communist cadres, the ongoing anti-graft movement under Xi’s lead has put hundreds of corrupt officials into prison since 2012.
To cope with China’s slow economy, Xi’s tactics include promotion of domestic consumption, the “One Belt, One Road” plan to revive the ancient Silk Road as a modern Eurasian business corridor, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an initiative to support the construction of infrastructure throughout the region.
But all this growth and development comes at a high price at home. Authorities have also increased Internet censorship, suppressed press freedom and hit at rights lawyers and activists. Fiery patriotism and nationalism is also on the rise—as seen in this year's meticulously designed gala.
The situation reminds some of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who established a highly concentrated system that almost controlled every aspect of the country as well as a political culture of personality cult that led to 10 turbulent years of Cultural Revolution in which those deemed undesirable were purged from the Communist Party.
On Weibo, user YanxiaowuBOBO thought the gala should be recreational rather than political:
今年的春晚非常难看，感觉像看了一遍晚会版的新闻联播。 为什么不让文学和艺术纯粹一些？ 前几年的春晚本来做得很好，已经在刻意减少这些泛政治化的成分，今年的每个节目无意中又被冠以 政治上积极向上的内涵，而不再接地气。 春晚如果成为一种太过意识形态的宣传工具，而不是快乐的来源，未免令人遗憾。
The New Year's gala this year is awful, I feel like I’ve just watched a daily news broadcast but in gala form. Why not make literature and art pure? Galas in previous years are good and had played down the political elements. Every segment in this year's gala was purposefully injected with politically positive themes, and not welcomed by audience. It is regrettable to see the gala not being a source of joy, that it has been utilized as a tool for promulgating ideology.
Art should serve politics (or so says Xi)
In the meeting, Xi emphasized the “enhancement and improvement of literature and art under the Party’s leadership”:
The Party’s leadership is the basic assurance for the development of socialist literature and art. The Party’s aim is to serve people with all its heart, and the aim of literature and art is to create works for the people. Seizing on this idea, the relationship between the Party and literature and art can be resolved in the right way; both the relationship between the Party’s principles and people’s character, political positions and freedom to create can be grasped accurately.
Both historical meetings implied that art should serve politics.
Lv Yitao, the general director of this gala, claimed in an interview that he was satisfied with how the Spring Festival Gala and “earned full marks on this test.” Still, netizens’ critical remarks have dominated on Weibo, to the extent that Lv has to close the comment option on his Weibo account, as did CCTV.
Chinese portal Sina took a poll on “How would you rate this year's gala?” Approximately 115,000 or 75 percent of voters gave the gala one star out of 10.
Many netizens thought the gala felt more like a mixture of stage performance and daily news broadcast on CCTV and quoted a mocking saying about what the network presents in its day-to-day coverage: “Leaders are always busy, people are forever blessed, and foreign countries are chaotic as ever.”
Weibo user “God blesses Yanming” remarked that the gala's swerve toward the overly political is a sign of a decline in art development:
The 2016 Spring Festival Gala became a downright platform for explaining policies. Form does not make up for a serious lack of human connotation; the continuous strengthening of ideology produces only simpering and lip-syncing. I cannot help but be reminded of what Zhao Dan [an artist promoted by the government] said in 1980: “With too much control and too concrete of guidelines, [the development of] art will be hopeless.” Thirty years have passed, and the issue on how to develop art has not yet been resolved.
“Which one [among the 39 segments] do you like best so far?” asked the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, on Weibo an hour before the end of the gala.
“It is too hard to make a choice, none of them can be watched,” responded one netizen, Aj_Fu Butucao Huisixingren, summing up what many were probably thinking.