- Staging Corruption: Chinese Television and Politics by Ruoyun Bai
Staging Corruption concerns the emergence of “corruption dramas” on Chinese television screens. Stories about corruption are bread and butter for Hollywood and have been so for many decades. In China corruption has reached epidemic proportions, as evident in the spate of anti-corruption campaigns since 2013.
Dramas dealing with themes of corrupt officials are hugely popular. As Ruoyun Bai shows in this excellent study of television drama, producers have to tread carefully. The backdrop in many of the narratives is events in real life, for instance, stories appearing in the evening news; this is where extreme caution is required. The downfall of Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (in early 2012) is well known. As Bai says in the introduction, “this is not a soap opera.” Yet this and other events inform the popularity of such dramas in the marketplace.
The book is founded on three sets of claims: first, China is representative of a “disjunctive media order,” or, more specifically, an order based on shifting articulations of interest; second, corruption dramas have significant cultural influence and for this reason are subject to considerable scrutiny by censors; and, third, corruption dramas have become entangled with “the depoliticized agenda of neoliberalism.”
These themes return throughout the book. The opening chapter provides an overview of television drama production and regulation. The chapter discusses the structure of the television industry, the history of television serial drama, its commercialization through advertising revenues, and the role of private companies.
Chapter two provides a case study of Heaven Above (Cangtian zaishang) (1995), often regarded as China’s first corruption drama. The script was commissioned in 1993 by China Central Television’s (CCTV) production unit. When the script was rejected on ideological grounds, it was published [End Page 555] as a novel. The success of the novel caused a change of heart at CCTV, especially as a rival network in Beijing had offered a much higher price to make the serial. The chapter also discusses official reception of the serial.
Chapter three looks at the popularity of these kinds of serials from 2000 to 2004, noting the synergy between television drama production and the book publishing industry. Bai says that another reason for the surge in popularity was an edict in 2000 from the state regulator (then the State Administration of Radio Film and Television) banning the broadcast of foreign dramas between 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., thus forcing the market to respond to competition. Stories about corruption filled the vacuum, and audiences clamoured for more. At the same time, the regulator launched a “clean up the screen” campaign, which ensured that the dramas maintained an appropriate moral positioning.
Chapter four deals with “anticorruption melodramas,” notably the theme of the “good official,” with its origins in Confucianism. The chapter shows how anti-corruption melodramas about good officials fell out of favour, suggesting that such good officials were out of step with the market economy and the policies of neo-liberalism.
Chapter five returns to a historical theme, introducing the guanchang novel, about the workings of bureaucratic politics and endemic court corruption in the Qing dynasty. By this time corruption dramas had incorporated historical themes, sometimes rich in satire, and often with references to contemporary political events. Bai points out that history provides an explanation for present-day government corruption, further justifying widespread cynicism about officialdom.
Chapter six provides an account of a serial that achieved massive popularity and online discussion. According to Bai, Snail House (woju) (2009) led to a redefinition of corruption in Chinese society. In this narrative the protagonist is both corrupt and charismatic. The consequence is that corruption “dropped out of the picture”; an official’s success is thereafter measured by how he or she manages guanchang and “makes things happen.”
For students and researchers interested in the commercialization of Chinese media this is an essential text, a fascinating and rich account of how China’s media producers are struggling with the vagaries of state regulation, on one hand, and...