Online Criticism of China's New Year State TV Gala Disappears

china-liu-yunshan-spring-gala-festival-rehearsal-jan25-2017.jpg Chinese Communist Party propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (R front) extends greetings to staff at a rehearsal for state-run television's Spring Festival Gala in Beijing, Jan. 25, 2017.

China's state-run television extravaganza has long been a fixture of New Year celebrations, or Spring Festival, while watching it with loved ones and ripping it to shreds on social media has fast become a more contemporary tradition.

Criticism is so much the norm now that Yang Dongsheng, who directed this year's Spring Festival Gala, pleaded with viewers not to slate it too harshly before it even aired.

"It is very natural that people should want to take it to pieces, but I hope they won't be too rude about it this year," he said in an interview last week.

Perhaps his words were a warning that the administration of President Xi Jinping is unlikely to tolerate even the slightest criticism of a centrally produced extravaganza that has been running since 1983.

Ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper The People's Daily followed up Yang's mild request with an editorial calling on the show's critics to back off.

"Those who are accustomed to roasting the Spring Festival Gala may wish to make their comments more constructive," the article said.

"Even if you don't appreciate [the show], you don't have to scoff and jeer ... You could use a rational tone, maintain an objective position, which is the mentality of a mature citizen," it said.

Now, an article rounding up the most widespread criticisms on the state-funded English-language news website Sixth Tone is no longer available.

While the article is still available elsewhere online, the original address yielded a 404 "Page Not Found" message on Thursday.

"As hundreds of millions tuned in on Friday night ... for their yearly dose of disappointment and schadenfreude," the article said, many were disappointed by high production values but sexist content.

It described the show as "the subject of ridicule from the country’s younger generation, who see the unending supply of dated jokes and token celebrities as reminiscent of an elderly uncle trying just a bit too hard to be hip."

And it quoted columnist Lin Jian as saying that the traditional comedy sketches in the Spring Festival Gala "are an annual climax of prejudice against women."

Sixth Tone has so far made no public statement about the decision to remove the article, which also reported that keyword searches for the gala now seemed to be banned on several social media platforms.

‘Lies are universal’

Viewers contacted by RFA after the show weren't complimentary about it.

"Lies are universal in China; we hear them everywhere," a resident of the northeastern province of Liaoning said. "The Spring Festival Gala show can be seen as obscuring real life by showing you only what is prosperous."

"In Beijing, some people are destitute, and there are a lot of homeless people wandering around."

A Beijing journalist who declined to be named described the show as "mind-numbing," while a resident of Xinjiang surnamed Song said the basic message of the show hasn't changed in decades.

"If you look at the show under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, it is basically the same," Song said. "The content is exactly the same; this isn't a people's festival, it's the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party's festival, and that sets the tone."

"It's a day of smoke and mirrors, and opium-smoking," he said.

Some comments appeared on social media in spite of reported blocks, but they appeared to have bypassed censors by using sarcastic praise.

"I was really moved by this year's Spring Festival Gala," wrote one commentator, while another said: "It was 100 times better than last year's."

Some said they have given up watching it altogether.

"I don't watch it now ... It has been boring for several decades now. We went out to eat at a bistro instead," a netizen from Ningxia surnamed Zhang commented.

Veteran political activist Zha Jianguo said the show takes no account of widening fault lines in Chinese society.

"It's there as propaganda for the ruling party, to sing its praises," Zha said. "In fact, there are such huge divisions in Chinese society these days, and hardship of every kind, that the political atmosphere is ever more tightly controlled."

"Anything that reflects the huge internal divisions in Chinese society is a no-go area, so they don't appear at all," he said. "That's why people can't stand to watch it anymore."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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