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Entertainment and enlightenment for the masses: reality television in China

In the state-controlled, censored, and taboo-ridden media landscape of communist China, one would not expect seeing a television show featuring real people having actual conflicts. Yet reality programmes about conflict mediation are mushrooming in the People’s Republic. Both the public and the authorities love shows like ‘True Feelings Mediation’ and ‘New Elder Uncle’, observes political scientist Zheng Li in her PhD dissertation.

‘Promoting Harmony with Conflicts’

Li’s study, entitled ‘Promoting Harmony with Conflicts’, focuses on the production and consumption of ‘New Elder Uncle’, a mediation show in China that collaborates with the Shanghai Justice Bureau and broadcasts on a local entertainment channel. The show was first aired in 2008 and has since then gained a large share of viewers. The format is quite simple: people who have a dispute are invited to talk about their contentious issues, and these are then discussed live and ideally solved with the help of a mediator—usually a judge, a lawyer, or an official People’s Mediator, who has good knowledge civil laws and/or the regulations and policies applying to the dispute.

The authorities, Li found out, regard ‘New Elder Uncle’ and similar shows as a means for promoting social harmony. The Communist Party has committed itself to ‘People’s Mediation’, in both its propaganda and its official policies. Recognising that social discontent and conflicts do occur in modern Chinese society, the Party brings social organisations—such as mediation committees or neighbourhood committees—into play to ease conflicts and tensions and prevent the deterioration of disputes. The ‘good examples’ on television reinforce the message that problems can be solved without going to court. Furthermore, the programme offers opportunities to educate a broad audience about government policies and legislation.

Complicated and sometimes extraordinary plots

The explanation for the popularity of mediation shows with the spectators is two-fold. ‘In the first place,’ Li argues, ‘people watch to pass time.’ The truth can be highly entertaining, resulting in ‘complicated and sometimes extraordinary plots.’ The fans perceive ‘New Elder Uncle’ as real, as a true display of their personal lives. Li: ‘In some cases, the presenters are as famous as Dr. Phil or Judge Judy here in the West.’

Another, and perhaps more important, reason for watching mediation shows is their educational funtion. They inform the public about about government policy and legislation pertaining to everyday life. Moreover, the conflicts often provide ‘lessons of life’. Li herself has learned quite a lot about communication skills and interpersonal relations by watching ‘New Elder Uncle’. And her survey and focus group research indicates that this is true for many viewers.

But what about the participants appearing in the show? Doesn’t going public with one’s private affairs and risking to lose face run counter to Chinese culture and morality? ‘I have found that most respondents do not see themselves appearing on “New Elder Uncle”. At the same time, watching others do so—a bit of voyeurism if you will—is not considered to be problematic’, Li says. In her talks with the producers of the show, she was told that reality mediation offers ‘cheap and often efficient solutions to people who have nothing to lose.’

Avoiding political sensitivity

The disputes addressed in Chinese reality television shows are always in the personal sphere: the distribution of real estate property, financial issues, and in-family relations. Issues that could be poltically sensitive are filtered out beforehand. Mostly through self-censorship by the producers. Li: ‘I have watched the making of several ‘New Elder Uncle’ episodes; never was an intervention by the censor necessary.’

PhD Defence

Zheng Li, Promoting Harmony with Conflicts?, 29 June 2016, 15:00

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