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CHINA: Image Makeover Timed for 2008 Olympics

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - With the symbolically important Beijing Olympics and other sensitive dates looming large on China’s political calendar, the propaganda czars have begun a new moral campaign that focuses on creating a positive public image.

The conservative initiative, which is believed to be backed by the top Chinese leadership, counters racy, violent TV shows and bans all sensitive historical texts in its goal of maintaining an image of stability.

The restrictions imposed on broadcasters and publishing houses come ahead of an important year for the country’s leadership. At the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or China’s Parliament, in March, the government is expected to enact new legislation, which offers less support for the wealthier coastal provinces and promotes more sustainable development.

In the fall, the ruling Communist party will meet for its five-yearly congress – bringing changes to the all-powerful Politburo, stacking the political deck with supporters of party chief Hu Jintao and providing an early glimpse of the next-generation leadership and Hu’s possible successor slated to take power in 2012.

This is also the final year of preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games which the image-obsessed country’s leadership see as all-important in affirming China’s status as an emerging world power.

As the regime takes anxiously on these challenges, the communist party censors have had their hands busy making sure nothing spoils the government’s scripted vision of national harmony. The new moral campaign combines bans of the offensive with quiet fostering of traditional Chinese values and communist virtues.

“They (propaganda officials) have become more deft in these things,” observes elderly party cadre Li Ruogang. “They still go about banning what they decide oversteps the line but when they try to advocate things, nowadays it is usually classical virtues, like honest and clean living, that traditionally resonate with Chinese people and not just ideology like in the past”.

While patriotic moral campaigns have a long history in communist China, never before have their purifying efforts encountered audiences less susceptible to propaganda. Three decades of unbridled economic reforms that promoted the materialistic gist of “getting rich is glorious” have weakened, if not done away, with orthodox communist ideology.

“These ideological campaigns come and go, no one really pays any attention” shrugs Wang Hongjun, a young employee of a South Korean trading company. Despite being named after the country’s Red Army (Hongjun) by his parents – both communist party members – Wang says he is more concerned with the effects of the government’s new housing policies than with its patriotic communist messages.

The current moral offensive started last September when authorities – worried about the youth’s increasingly individualistic and mercantile spirit, banned foreign cartoons from early evening slots between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. During these “golden hours” Chinese children can only watch domestically produced cartoons.

Last week brought a new set of restrictions on TV programmes. Calling for only “ethically inspiring” television shows during prime time, the Chinese broadcaster regulator said that beginning February all mainland television series would require vetting by the publicity department of the communist party.

“The country’s satellite TV stations should only screen ethically inspiring TV series during prime time,” Shanghai Daily quoted Wang Weiping, an official from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Officially, Chinese media are all state-owned because the communist party regards the media as its primary tool for propaganda. But while Beijing has kept a tight grip over the news content, it has in recent years allowed more leeway to broadcasters in hopes of promoting the industry’s growth.

In an attempt to woo audiences many broadcasters have allowed reality TV shows, crime series, featuring heavy dose of violence, as well as shows with explicit sex scenes to feature prominently on Chinese television.

While the broadcasting monitor rarely elaborates on what kind of TV shows may constitute reason for bans more could be glimpsed from the watchdog’s recent decisions to refuse entry to particular Western and Asian blockbusters. China passes only 20 foreign films each year for cinematic viewing.

Last year the U.S. box office hit ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: the Dead Man’s Chest’ fell foul of censors reportedly because of its scenes of human cannibalism. The South Korean drama ‘The King and the Clown’, the country’s highest-grossing film ever, was also banned for its gay themes and mockery of political authority.

Written works form another area where censors have proven over-zealous. This month saw a ban on half a dozen books discussing sensitive historical events and the government’s highly restrictive media policies.

According to reports in the Hong Kong press, the General Administration of Press and Publications demanded that eight books written by Chinese intellectuals be removed from the shelves and threatened the publishing houses with severe punishment.

Among the writings that have fallen prey are books delving into communist China’s censored past, the man-inflicted great famine of the late 1950s and the prosecution of Chinese intellectuals and artists during the anti-rights campaigns of the same period.

Others, like “The Press” and “The Other Stories of History: My Days at the Supplement Division of the People’s Daily” deal with the more modern topic of Chinese press manipulation.

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