Coverage of China in Western media tilts toward the political and economic, so it might surprise some to learn that the top trending terms this summer on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, have mostly related to the season’s top television hit: The Voice of China. The show has topped charts nationwide every Friday that it has aired, with as much as 3.3% of nationwide viewership. The names of contestants and judges often comprise more than half of Weibo’s top 10 trending terms, even edging out the term “Bo Xilai” in the wake of his ouster.
Similar in many ways to its inspiration, The Voice of Holland, as well as its American counterpart The Voice, this version of the interactive singing competition also allows viewers to vote for their favorite contestants. Audience ballot results and coaches’ evaluations count equally in determining which contestants proceed to the next round and which are eliminated.
According to an article written for the web site of Chinese Central Television, singing coach Na Ying believes that the show’s popularity can be attributed to the integrity of its voting process. However, the official Weibo account of a popular online video portal recently raised doubts about the voting system following the series finale, where technical difficulties affected the results, and The Voice of China was not willing to publically display voting results. The post ended with a call to arms: “If you seek the truth, retweet!” Even English-language media outlets have speculated that the results may have been rigged, possibly for political reasons.
A spokesperson for The Voice of China has denied these accusations, saying that the original version of the show didn’t make voting results public either in order to protect the self-respect of contestants, who might be hurt if the results were revealed to be too unfavorable. “A record of the results is stored on the servers,” the production company’s publicity director Lu Wei stated. “Anyone who doesn’t trust [the results] can check it out.”
Perhaps the accusations were a case of sour grapes–it’s not unusual for fans of a particular contestant to cry foul when things don’t go their way. Yet dishonesty in China’s television industry is also far from unheard of. In China, where the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and other government bodies exercise close control over the entertainment industry, widespread suspicion of the government may lower public trust even in ostensibly apolitical arenas.
In August, allegations of a ratings-for-sale scandal was one of the most searched topics on Baidu, China’s largest search engine. Commented one netizen, “I’m used to this. That’s just what the entertainment world is like in China.” The producers of The Voice of China stated that the purpose of the show was, in part, to “restore the people’s cultural confidence,” yet suspicions of government interference have caused many fans of the show to lose exactly that.
And last year, Super Boy and Super Girl, American Idol-style singing competitions that first aired in 2003 and 2004, respectively, were discontinued by SARFT, supposedly for running over time. Critics have speculated that politicians who disapproved of the show had a hand in SARFT’s decision.
Netizens have noticed. Han Zhiguo, an economist with over four million followers on Weibo, remarked a few weeks ago that “people trust what they hear from others, but not the government; [they trust] Weibo but not Xinwen Lianbo [a state-run news broadcast]; [they trust] rumors, but not announcements; [they trust] personal judgments, but not mainstream media. China has entered the ‘I don’t believe it’ age.” Though scholars and critics have long speculated that interactive television competitions might promote democracy globally, China’s crisis of credibility renders even entertainment-sector democracy problematic.
None of this, however, negates the fact that tens of millions of people are voting for Voice contestants, despite their doubts and criticisms. Indeed, even accusations of dishonesty are arguably a good sign, as they show an expectation of and demand for transparency, honesty and accountability. What impact The Voice of China will have on Chinese society remains to be seen—but at the very least, it gets people watching, not to mention debating.