Yueran Zhang senior contributor

When Chinese State TV Asks, “Are You Happy?” Some Literally Cannot Believe It

China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned behemoth that dominates China’s airwaves, never misses an inadvertent chance to showcase its disconnect with the Chinese people. During the week-long holiday in early October, CCTV launched a new program titled “Holiday survey: are you happy?” In the program, television reporters conduct random street surveys, asking people whether they are happy. The surveys have harvested some unexpected answers, igniting heated discussions on China’s social media.

When asked the profound question, “Are you happy,” this man could only reply: My name is Zeng.

On September 30, when asked “do you feel happy?” (你幸福吗), an elderly migrant worker literally could not believe he was being asked about his well-being and answered instead, “My surname is Zeng,” apparently mistaking the question to mean, “Is your surname Fu?” (你姓福吗)

Other interviewees took the question as a joke and ran with it. When a CCTV reporter asked a young man about his life’s biggest regret, the man answered, “We still haven’t claimed sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands.” On the same day, at a railway ticket office, when asked “what’s the worst thing you’ve encountered,” a college student shot back, “As I was getting interviewed by you, someone cut in line right before me.”

In another episode, a CCTV reporter interviewed an elderly garbage collector with hearing problems:

Reporter: “How many bottles have you picked up today?”

Old man: “I’m 73 years old. I make one mao (US$0.02) per bottle.”

Reporter: “How many bottles have you picked up today?”

Old man: “My livelihood depends on the basic social care (低保), 630 yuan (US$100) per month.”

Reporter: “Do you feel happy?”

Old man: “I have hearing problems.”

With many of these interviews’ such hilarious failures, netizens have jokingly taken to calling them “magic responses” (神回复), which have gone viral online. On Sina’s Video Channel, the clips have been viewed more than 1.4 million times. The search term “CCTV; are you happy (央视 你幸福吗)” currently returns over 780,000 results on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.

There’s a larger context behind this sneering irreverence at a seemingly germane and innocent TV series. CCTV is notorious as a propaganda and brainwashing arm of the Chinese Communist Party. The “happiness” program is perceived by many as an attempt to depict a “harmonious and happy” society in order to “welcome” the opening of the 18th Party Congress to be held on November 8. Netizens instinctively view the unanticipated “magic responses” as an embarrassment to CCTV, and have seized the opportunity to mock the network.

@启行1948 ‘s comment is representative. “The motivation of CCTV is simple enough: using something that cannot be standardized and measured to draw the conclusion that Chinese people are happy, just to please the government.” @厦门的风1944 echoes these words: “I feel the same. The reporters are silly. Just ask yourself: If you have to make living by collecting garbage and rely on basic social care when you are seventy-three, could you be happy?”

@假装在纽约 points out that the program inadvertently mirrors the government’s lack of ability to make the people happy. “A person who often asks himself if he is happy can’t actually be happy. A country which needs to constantly ask her people whether they are happy is the country that cannot make her people happy.”Sharing the same sentiment, @点妈的小屋 banters, “why don’t they ask the people stuck in the [massively overcrowded] tourist sites and highways now?”

Yet, some argue that the fact that those “embarrassing” episodes have not been blocked or edited out suggests that CCTV has made progress in showing some fealty to the truth. @海中的沙粒 writes, “CCTV has made a positive change. At least it shows what people really said and the answers were not rehearsed.”

Nonetheless, most netizens sense that the program subtly pushes interviewees to declare they are indeed happy. As a result, the newly created word “be made happy” (被幸福) has become the latest meme. A poll conducted by Sina of over fifty thousand netizens shows that 70 percent of respondents feel unhappy. However, it’s likely that many of the negative responses are an intended rebuke against the government’s attempt to “make them” happy rather than a serious reflection of the respondents’ lives.

Despite this heaping helping of online snark, online discussions have inspired some to seriously engage the question of whether they lead a happy life. Of course, the answers are varied. @robin_hood’s answer is negative: ”If we don’t need to afford sky high housing prices, if it’s not a luxury to travel back home, if we could succeed in business without the need to bribe anyone, if people don’t flock to take the public servant exam just to secure a job, if people don’t measure the value of life by money, if we could say no to coercive pressure, if every one of us could exercise democratic rights, we will be happy then.”

Some netizens wondered whether the entire discussion of “happiness” was a canard. Via rednet.cn

On the flip side, @新民说乡村 tweets a Zen-like message: “It’s nothing really. Happiness is an emotion, a perspective from which to view the world. Do not compare yourself with others. I could feel happy if I have made progress compared to last year. Only a positive attitude can lead to a happy future.”

Some netizens wondered whether the entire discussion of “happiness” was a canard given the social injustice rampant in modern China. @孔琳琳uk– was quite explicit, “Those homeless people whose houses were demolished, those who, without health care insurance, have to wait for death, those children who cannot go to school……anyone dare to ask them if they are happy?”

Ultimately, the question, “are you happy?” is not as simple as it seems. As Yu Jiangrong (@于建嵘), a professor of sociology, wrote, the aggregate “happiness” of a society depends on the realization of equity and justice. ”What we can tell from the program is that the government wants to use ‘happy China’ as a new slogan. Many local governments have already done that. As I said again and again, slogans from ‘harmonious China’ to ‘happy China’ only reveal the absence of an appropriate political ideology: Equity, justice, democracy and rule of law.”

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.