It's Cowell v Mao as Pop Idol brings 'democracy' to China

I'm so with the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China on this one

I'm so with the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China on this one. Due to the enormous amount of people tuning into bourgeois and decadent Pop Idol-style TV shows, the Chinese government has issued a number of "health and safety" guidelines to programme makers, writes Brian Boyd.

The good citizens of the People's Republic are apparently being led astray by these imported formats and there have long been mutterings in the National People's Congress about "erosion of values" and all that sort of stuff.

Things came to a head when China's Pop Idol show, called Super Voice Girls, pulled in a record 400 million viewers for the final show in one of its series. The government sternly announced that this was more people than tuned in to watch the official China Central Television New Year's Gala. A gala which features riveting performances of ethnic song and dance and acrobatics.

Without getting into a propaganda cross-fire over this, it is worth noting that a number of pro-Super Voice Girls supporters say the reason the authorities have now cancelled the series is because its popularity was predicated on the fact that it allowed individual democratic expression. Which is fine, if you believe that texting in for some tuneless 17-year-old howling their way through a Mariah Carey song constitutes democratic expression.


To be fair to the Chinese government though, Pop Idol-style shows would bring out the inner Maoist in all of us. You can't help wondering that if these fame-hungry wannabes were packed off to the provinces to work in the rice fields it might be better for their all-round development than making a holy show of themselves in front of 400 million people.

Surprisingly, there's nothing specific about Pop Idol-style shows in Mao's Little Red Book, but in Chapter 22 we find the following advice: "Marxist dialectical materialism, which connotes the constant struggle between opposites in an empirical setting, is the best method toward constant improvement. Objective analysis of problems based on empirical results is at a premium."

Somehow I doubt this quote is hanging on the wall of Ant and Dec's dressing room. It's not that the Chinese have banished all of these types of show to a metaphorical gulag, it's just that the measures they have now introduced to regulate these programmes are quite stringent. There is now a ban on public voting via the internet or mobile phone and there's a new edict that participants in these shows must be "healthy and mature". Decoded this means "no nutters please".

Furthermore, the hosts of these shows must not exhibit strong personalities and "they should not flirt with each other or be nasty or make inflammatory or sensational remarks". That regulation, in itself, would do for all the Western Pop Idol-style shows. To further reduce the hype, these programmes have now been taken out of primetime viewing slots.

The main problem for the Chinese is that the participants in these shows are not healthy role models. "TV stations must select qualified candidates who show characteristics such as perseverance, maturity, confidence, and health," say the government-approved media service. This would be in contrast to the characteristics exhibited in the West: exhibitionism and self- debasement.

With respect, I think the authorities have got it arseways here. There is no better way to show that these shows are "vulgar and manipulative" than by aping the Western model. If the Chinese were allowed to see the 80-year-old woman in a bikini singing Like a Virgin and the contrived and scripted "clashes" between the judges, they would soon find out how irredeemably corrupt, decadent and lacking in moral guidance we are in the West. Democracy or Pop Idol? You decide.

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment