Continuing the theme of drawing your attention to events in far-flung corners of the world that are not widely reported in ours, it appears that there is a new phenomenon that is worrying the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. Money on table now: which of the following do you think that Hu Jintao and the Party Lads are most apprehensive about. The ecological catastrophe that accompanies China’s insane economic growth? The economic disparity between rural and urban China? The fact that a 100 million Chinese are now Internet users and that it’s really hard to keep tabs on exactly what they’re using it for? Wrong, wrong and wrong, sorry, you lose. China’s leaders are worried about the nefarious influence of the People’s Republic’s own version of Popstars or The X-Factor.
The Chinese version of the programme is called The Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Girl Contest (after its sponsor, a dairy product company), known as Super Girls for short, and that’s how I’ll refer to it from now on. It was broadcast by a regional satellite television channel in Hunan, and the contest’s finale was watched by 400 million Chinese viewers last weekend. Viewers were gripped by Super Girls fever, voting by SMS, finding ingenious ways of flaunting the rules limiting each person to a single vote. The winner of the three finalists was a 21-year-old student from Sichuan called Li Yuchun.
So who cares, you may ask? It’s just the same crappy reality television that we have in the West. Maybe the following comment from a Shanghai editor named Gu Yun, quoted by Shanghai News, will give you a clue: "This kind of contest can be considered a democracy apprenticeship for the 1980s generation". You can almost hear the reaction of the Party Nomenklatura from here, can’t you? "Great Chairman Mao Almighty! I thought we’d taught these snotty kids a lesson back in Tiananmen Square? I told you we shouldn’t allow that degenerate poppy-rocky music!"
Democracy apprenticeships are not something that the Chinese leadership want to hear about. Voting by text message to evict someone from the Big Brother house may be something that to us is at the least banal, to many crass and symbolic of a whole lot of stuff that we don’t like much (although it’s not uncommon for lazy thinkers to make the same claim as Gu Yun). But in China, this is the first example of direct democracy that they have ever witnessed. On Super Girls there was no Sharon Osbourne, no Simon Wossname, just the cumulated votes of the viewers. And what’s more, no-one overruled them, and Li Yuchun won fair and square. The viewers loved this, and they want more.
But there’s another problem: it’s not just the fact that 400 million people have now had a taste of direct democracy that worried the apparatchiks. They don’t like the result either. You may think that to the State, it’s pretty irrelevant who wins some tacky reality television talent show sponsored by a yoghurt manufacturer. But not so. Quite apart from the fact that generally, authoritarian governments tend to consider that nothing is irrelevant to the State, Li Yuchun is just not the sort of girl that they like very much.
In China Daily, the State-run English language newspaper, the chaps are trying really hard to pretend that they don’t mind. That they don’t mind that "rabid fans" elected "transgender looking Li Yuchun from Chengdu". They note with some dismay that "nearly all the beautiful and lovely Super Girls" were "kicked out in earlier rounds" (well you should have got your friends to vote for them then, shouldn’t you?). The style of writing is interesting, in that it always relates what "other commentators" in state-run media have said, inferring that China Daily is different, whereas it is no such thing. Heaven forbid that anyone at China Daily should be "concerned that the programme signalled the further erosion of traditional Chinese culture". And they certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think that they agreed with the unspecified commentators who "speculated that her fan base consisted of young girls who considered her to be their boyfriend because of her appearance". Or in other words, she may be lesbian, something that the People’s Republic prefers to draw a discrete red flag over.
Whereas China Daily doesn’t disapprove of these things, it would be failing in its duty to inform the public if it didn’t report the flipside of the Super Girls coin:
"But unfortunately not all the opportunities lead to happy endings, though the girls have sung to their hearts' content, some ended up with sadness, or even, tragedy. It is reported that a 15-year-old girl from central China's Hunan Province who dreamed of becoming Super Girl but dissatisfied with her figure died of organ failure caused by hunger."
It is reported by whom exactly? Of course, this may be true, there’s no way of telling. Anyway, it’s only sensible to warn young people with ideas of the sorts of nasty things that happen to people who fall in with the wrong crowd.
Maybe I’m being excessively cynical, so just to be fair, I’ll let China Daily have the last word, because even I acknowledge that the following is a valid question, based on my experience of reality talent shows: "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?". The paper also suggests that The Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Girl Contest 2006 may be cancelled.
But that’s only fair enough given that it causes girls’ organs to fail and results in the wrong decisions being made.