American reality shows like “Wife Swap,” where two families swap mothers for a predetermined time, have already found notoriety. But did you know that one Chinese reality show swaps children?
On X-change (变形计), a program on Hunan Satellite Television, two children swap families for seven days. One child hails from a low-income rural household, the other from a relatively well-off urban household in one of China’s booming metropolises. Over the course of six or seven episodes per swap, viewers learn about the background of both families – their jobs, income, work history, reasons for entering the program, and other interesting tidbits. The show recently returned after a three-year hiatus.
Two destinies collide, as millions watch
Western viewers familiar with reality television may find the narration preachy and the portrayal of the children a bit heavy-handed. Invariably, the “city kid” is portrayed as spoiled beyond belief, lazy, disobedient, and materialistic; the kid from the first swap owned five cell phones, and his father promised him an iPhone 4S if he participated in X-change. Meanwhile, the “poor kid” has high morals, a strong work ethic, innate dignity or goodness, and ineluctable charm.
Discerning viewers can sense that the producers made great efforts to edit the most heart-rending narrative possible. But once viewers become invested in the stories of both kids, even the blatant juxtaposition cannot prevent viewers from shedding a few tears and sympathizing with both.
Millions of viewers have tuned in on television or via web portals such as Youku, China’s Youtube, where statistics show people of all ages drawn to the story, particularly college students。Viewers younger than 29 years old make up 78% of the audience on Youku, where the show has been viewed 78 million times. Thousands of comments have poured in from netizens via Youku and Weibo, China’s Twitter. In February, it was the third most-watched “Arts” program on Youku, garnering over 17 million views. In March, it was the most watched Arts program with 21.7 million views, beating out fan favorites like “Happy Camp”（快乐大本营) and “Day Day Up”（天天向上).
Netizens: It’s better than nothing
Netizens have praised X-change for showing the adversity facing rural children while also having a tangible impact on those children’s lives. In the final episode of the first swap, the urban student’s teachers and classmates donated a large sum of money to the rural child’s school. Attention from the show also prompted local government officials to build new dormitories for rural students.
But attacking the root causes of these inequalities is a different task altogether. The Youku comments section overflows with lamentations about education and opportunity, poor rural infrastructure and governance, the growing urban-rural income gap, and the rampant materialism among China’s urban youth. Viewers find the subject matter touching, but lament that such programming can only show one isolated situation while millions of rural Chinese children face hardship.
Indeed, when publicity from the show inspired local leaders to renovate the lice-ridden, rat-infested student dormitories, it simply reminded viewers that corrupt local officials have been siphoning off resources that should already have been gone to rural children. Writing on Youku, Wyl1994 argues that “nowadays government officials say things more beautiful than any song, but don’t actually do anything about it [the quality of education for poor kids].”
Some are hopeful, if only cautiously so. Zoaldyeck writes, “At least it has drawn attention to their problem and provided a sliver of hope to change their futures. It is clearly not enough to rely on themselves, they also need help from outside.” 街头的菜 believes the show won’t help most rural children, but hopes that the development of public welfare organizations will improve the lives of children in rural mountain areas.
Viewers like Weibo user @Lost Girl are also concerned that such a program could harm its young participants, especially the rural child who spends a week in a city but is then forced to return to a village with infinitely fewer resources and opportunities. HeNrYtYf insists it is like going “from hell to heaven and then back to hell, this sort of gap will have what sort of impact on the rural child’s psychology?” Lucylijia recommended a follow-up with the kids from previous shows, as well as a psychologist to debrief with the families afterwards.
Despite the criticisms, X-change has the distinction of being the only program in Youku’s Top 25 “reality” shows that is not a talent contest, competition, or dating program. For that fact alone, it is highly recommended for anyone seeking a glimpse into the lives of rural Chinese children. For its part, netizen reaction to X-change shows how today’s young urban population perceives its own place of privilege within Chinese society, and the responsibility they feel for the social welfare of others.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article said X-change aired on Henan Satellite Television. It airs on Hunan Satellite Television. Thanks to reader averagechineseguy for pointing out the error.]