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Reality TV sweeps China as hungry millions switch on

At stake for the winning wise man is one million yuan (£68,000). Inspired by the hugely successful US show The Apprentice, in which contestants vie for the chance to work alongside the tycoon Mr Trump, the series will be screened in China this year.

Wise Man Takes All is the latest in a line of reality TV productions to have captured the imagination of the Chinese people, more used to a diet of historical soap operas, game shows and propaganda.

Each of the 10,000-plus applicants for Wise Man Takes All has had to submit a business plan outlining how they would spend the prize. The applicants, aged between 20 and 40, will be whittled down to 16 who will be on the show in preliminary interviews to be held in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Wuhan and Shenzhen. But unlike The Apprentice, the British version of which featured the grouchy Sir Alan Sugar, Wise Man Takes All will not humiliate its contestants, or dismiss them with Mr Trump's catchphrase, "You're fired!"

"Our rendition will be different," said Chen Lian, the chief executive of Dragon TV, the makers of the series. "It will reflect the special social and economic background of China." Instead of cut-throat competition between the participants, there will be an emphasis on the educational nature of the show.

"We're trying to sharpen the entrepreneurial spirit in young people," said Vincent Lo, the Hong Kong property tycoon whose company, Shui On Land, is sponsoring the show.

Nor is Mr Lo as flamboyant or brash a character as Mr Trump. Known as the "king of guanxi" (the Chinese word for "relationships"), 57-year-old Mr Lo is close to Shanghai's Mayor, Han Zheng, and financed the city's $170m Xintiandi development, a complex of bars and restaurants modelled on Covent Garden. Mr Lo will not appear on Wise Man Takes All, leaving the contestants to be judged by professors from China's leading business schools.

China's vast television audience has proved willing converts to the reality formats, with viewing figures that would boggle the minds of Western television executives. The most popular show at present is Super Girl, the Chinese version of Pop Idol, which reaches its climax tomorrow.

Most of China's 350 million households have televisions and 40 million sets are sold each year. There are now more than 3,000 television stations in China, most of which are local rather than national, and the government has outlined plans to expand the fledgling cable TV network. Advertisers are scrambling to take advantage of the huge audiences.

The producers of Wise Man Takes All do not want shy contestants. "We do appreciate outgoing personalities," the director, Zhang Zhipeng, said.