The front page of today’s New York Times carries an article on one of the most popular television shows in China, “If You Are the One” (online version, with video, here). In this Chinese version of “The Dating Game,” “the men boasted of their bank accounts, houses and fancy cars. The women were svelte and sassy, dousing suitors with acid putdowns.” If that sounds shallow, this type of entertainment does, according to the paper, contain what we in the United States would call redeeming social value, since “mixed into the banter were trenchant social issues that urban Chinese from their 20s to 40s grapple with, if not always so publicly: living together before marriage, the unabashed pursuit of wealth or the government’s one-child policy. “
We might console ourselves by reflecting that if this kind of cultural junk food doesn’t reach of the heights of the Confucian classics, at least it doesn’t also plummet to the psychotic depths of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Still, this kind of vulgarity apparently troubles the Chinese authorities enough that the regulators and censors have tried to rein in “excessive entertainment.” “A conflict has arisen: On the one hand, they’re [the Chinese authorities] pushing for the building of a commercial industry, but on the other hand they wonder if this commercialization has led to an overall decline in cultural quality and moral cultivation,” said one Chinese professor quoted in the article.
I confess that as much as I oppose censorship and regulation of communication, I have a certain amount of sympathy with the inclinations of the Chinese Communist Party on this issue. After all, “cultural quality and moral cultivation” are now in pretty short supply in our own share of global popular culture. But I don’t think the Chinese state is going to be able to raise the quality of people’s thoughts and lives by command and control. There, as here, individuals and small social groups will have to make their own decisions about whether they will be swept along in the polluted stream of popular culture or swim to the shore and walk away.