Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms – Oct. 27, 2016
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.
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.
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