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TV matchmaking show runs afoul of China's morality campaign

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; A01

BEIJING -- "If You Are the One" is a Chinese television phenomenon, one of many popular matchmaking shows on which young people seek mates amid ribald jokes from the host and occasional racy comments from guests.

Audiences loved all the titillation, until last month -- when Chinese government censors came down hard. After a contestant indicated she was angling for a wealthy man with a flashy car, government nannies ordered all matchmaking shows to cut the sexual innuendo, uphold traditional values and ban any talk of women "gold digging."

The censorship is the latest and most public example of the government's new crackdown on vice and perceived immorality. It comes even as China becomes more freewheeling and open, with people increasingly pushing the boundaries in matters involving taste, sex and money -- and the intersection of the three.

In April, public security police in Beijing launched a "hard strike" campaign against prostitution, shutting down 33 entertainment venues -- karaoke bars, massage parlors and nightclubs -- said to be fronts for sex workers. The goal of the ongoing campaign is to "eradicate all social evils" and "advocate a healthy, civilized and high-minded lifestyle," a police spokesman said.

An Internet white paper published last month called online pornography "a prominent issue of public concern" because it was "seriously damaging the physical and psychological health of young people."

And a spate of recent articles in officially sanctioned newspapers and magazines have been advocating a return to traditional moral values and a shift away from the country's expanding get-rich-quick ethos -- including the commercialization of sex.

In an article in the Communist Party Central Committee's official magazine, Li Changchun, a senior member of the ruling Politburo, said the leadership must "resolutely clear out the bawdy pornography." And a commentary in the Beijing Youth Daily said young women who chase after rich men "show they have already knelt down before money."

Two Chinas, two views

The new morality crusade will clearly find some resonance, particularly among older people and the more conservative sections of society -- especially in rural areas -- that remember a more traditional China, where marriages were more often arranged and open talk about sex was largely taboo.

But in today's modern, urban China -- a China of ubiquitous hostess bars, karaoke clubs, pole dancing, suggestive ads, sex shops and intimate radio call-in shows -- the talk of "social evil" risks making the Chinese leadership look old, stodgy and simply out of touch, some say. It's as if the rulers don't realize that for a new generation of Chinese, "party" is a verb.

"Over the past 30 years, with the opening up and the reforms, Chinese society's attitudes toward sex have changed a lot," said Li Datong, a commentator. "Society is more tolerant talking about sex than the government."

Li said that the campaign against vice would fizzle out because of public pressure and that Chinese urbanites will soon enjoy their freewheeling ways unimpeded. Various analysts said the crackdown may also be the government's way of diverting popular attention from other pressing problems -- including corruption in its ranks.

"The more the people think the government is morally bankrupt, what they do is have one of these campaigns to crack down on the public's morality," said Hung Huang, a magazine publisher. "For ages, the government has condoned a materialistic value system, and now they are reaping the fruits of it. To put the blame on the public is just lame."

Public cynicism about the morality campaign has been fed by repeated reports of top Communist Party officials caught in embarrassing situations -- stories widely circulated on the Internet.

In March, for example, a popular Chinese online forum published the secret diary of the top official for the state tobacco company in Laibin, in Guangxi province. The diary recounted his exploits with six mistresses, some of whom worked in his office, and the official was quickly arrested.

"Publicly, they want to build themselves this high moral image," Li said. "But behind the scenes is a different story."

TV show controversy

The campaign against TV matchmaking shows began in May and was aimed largely at "If You Are the One," on Jiangsu Television, where a bachelor confronts 24 single women who pepper him with questions. The young women have lights placed in front of them, and they switch the lights on or off to indicate whether the contestant should remain on the show.

In the most controversial segment, a 24-year-old fashion model told a poor and unemployed bachelor who offered her a bicycle ride that she would "rather cry in a BMW than ride a bicycle while laughing."

The comment incurred the wrath of the censors, who said it indicated a materialistic, "gold-digging" attitude that was the equivalent of prostitution. Government authorities also told TV stations to bar the woman from future shows.

Her comment ignited a fierce debate in China, with the model's defenders saying she was merely stating openly what many others feel privately.

"I really don't think it was necessary for the government to get involved and try to tone down the show," said Li Xiao, 27, who was a contestant on another segment of the show and met his girlfriend there. "Even if the show is censored, these kind of thoughts exist in real life." He added, "She just asked for a BMW; she didn't ask for a Benz or a Ferrari."

"I think this kind of opinion is very common. And not wrong," said Yang Yijia, 25, who has twice been a contestant but is still waiting to meet her match. "But it should not be said on television. China is still a traditional country."

Another contestant, Alex Tian Li, who was born in China and moved to California as a child, said the show "is not that overboard," particularly compared with what's on American television. The problem, he said, may be simply that Chinese authorities aren't used to the genre.

"Reality TV is still very new in China," he said. "It's a very strong dose of reality for a lot of people."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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