Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mongolian Cow Sour Milk Supergirls VS Blair Waldorf

The Chinese government is a little bit like The Bitchy Popular Girl in high school - her status secured not so much because everyone loves her, but because everyone is aware of the unpleasant consequences of going up against her. (At least that's what it's like on Gossip Girl. Not that I've ever watched Gossip Girl, of course. I swear.) What I'm trying to say with this shaky analogy is that political dissent is not tolerated here. It is actually illegal to contradict or undermine the Communist party and its current policies.

So. I've been thinking about instigating a democracy movement. Can't leave Asia without causing at least one international incident, right?

It will all be below the radar, of course, beginning with the mobilization of my first, second and third grade students.  Their oblivion to perpetual post-nasal drip indicates that they're not quite alert enough to catch on to my plan, and with semi-developed malleable brains to boot, they will make the ideal base of supporters.

My re-education program will have to be clandestine at first, at least until we are strong enough to defend ourselves (which could be a while, given that my most senior members are eight year olds). Fortunately, Kitty and Alices #1-5 are deceptively innocent looking, and you'd never guess that little Willy is thinking anything at all. And, luckily, censorship works in my favour here: since blogger is already blocked in China, I can openly share our progress here without any fear of reprisal.

Now, where did I get the idea that my 35-minute "class", which usually opens with a rousing rendition of "If You're Happy And You Know It" and takes it's cues from there, could develop in to a social force to be reckoned with? The short answer - reality TV.  The long answer -The Mongolian Cow Sour Milk Supergirls Contest.

Supergirls was China's first American Idol-type show, sponsored by a dairy company, hence the full length title. Now, you probably never thought that vapid and shallow reality tv programming could have any deeper meaning, or become a force for social change beyond opening the doors of celebrity to any narcissistic extrovert willing to loll around a tropical island in a bikini. (Sorry, I've been out of touch with tv since Michael passed out in the fire on Survivor, so that's the best example I can come up with.) The Chinese government, on the other hand, saw something else there, and come to think of it, they were right.

Think about it: the Idol winner is chosen by a democratic process. Sure, the judges put in their elite expert two cents, but the final decision is made by a popular vote. In a country where the general public has never participated in electing their leaders, where they are told that this is not a good way for decisions to be made, it is quite something to have a television program that proclaims to select the nation's next big star by a popular vote.

And, as the authorities feared, the show was wildly popular, seemingly largely because of the voting process. The first season finale had about 400 million viewers (as compared to about 12 million for the UK version), with votes pouring in, and had the public so stirred up that fans actually formed booster clubs and canvassed shopping malls to rally up votes for their favourite contestants. Some say that it was the largest-scale voting exercise that China had ever seen. The public was drawn to the idea of having a say, of being able to make a difference, and the winner became a sensation overnight.

The implications were not lost on the government, and in China everything must pass through their censors before it makes it on to the public stage. The authorities voiced their disapproval, saying that the show was vulgar, manipulative, and undermined socialist values. They said it encouraged youth to be overly competitive and to strive for instant celebrity (rather than that communisty focus on conformity, and on valuing collectivity over individuality). Attempting to point out the failure of democratic decision making, state media commented, "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?"

The show continued for another season, but with new restrictions. To begin with (even in the first series), the broadcasters never actually used the word "vote", having deemed it too inflammatory from the get go. Instead, viewers were asked to send in "messages of support". In the subsequent season, new rules were applied to clothes, hair, and performances so that they would not be "vulgar", and the judges were instructed to be courteous, and not to embarrass contestants. Contestants were not to be overly competitive, everything was to remain "happy and friendly." Discouraging the appropriation of American culture, Chinese ballads and folk songs took the spotlight over hip hop/pop music (which had initially taken centre stage). Soon, the show was cancelled altogether.

In 2009, the show was brought back again, in its watered down version with even more restrictions, most notably, a new selection process. In addition to the four "expert" judges, a handful of judges (maybe five) are chosen from an audience of "common people" to submit a vote for the winner. The deluge of SMS and online voting is no longer. This is eerily similar to the Chinese political system, where there is only one party and a small group within it elects the leaders behind closed doors.

As for Supergirls, now that the viewers don't have a say, they don't seem to be particularly interested. When I googled the show, almost all of the information that came up was from the initial 2005 season. Without a voice, the public stopped paying attention, and it is my guess that that is exactly why the people are not given a voice in politics.

Point being - social change can come about through sneaky and unexpected places, which is what the Chinese Powers That Be realized when they saw the Supergirls phenomenon. If the authorities thought that this was an influence worth worrying about, than it probably was. People will get new ideas in all kinds of ways.

So, from now on, my kiddies are voting on EVERYTHING: which class activity to do next, which song to sing today, who the team leader should be, whatever.

P.S. I've also started making all the games boys against girls, and then subtly skewing it so that the girls always win.

All in the name of building a better future.


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