Archie Bland: At least China’s X Factor struck a blow for freedom

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The Independent Online

If it had been the Chinese version of Red or Black, you could understand it.

A year-long suspension from the screens of the world’s most populous nations would seem about right, just as a punishment for being really terrible television. That’s the sort of censorship I could definitely get on board with.

But that’s not the show that has been cancelled. Instead, in the most creeping terms imaginable, the production company behind the closest thing Beijing has to the X Factor – a Friday night song-and-dance spectacular known as Super Girl – has pulled the plug on one of its biggest popular successes.

After some faceless government types referred to the show as “vulgar”, “manipulative” and “poison for our youth” the company apologised for exceeding a 90-minute limit for talent contests. Next year, a spokesman explained, the show would be replaced with programmes featuring “practical information about housework”. It would be interesting to see what Simon Cowell would do in the same situation. Not for him, you feel, such an easy capitulation. If he was obliged tomake a show featuring practical information about housework, he would presumably enlist Ant and Dec to fill a house with rubbish, and then ask over-excited members of the public to live there and clean it.

Someone from the Saturdays would occasionally drop in to advise on the use of alternative cleaning products. I mean, I would definitely watch that. But actually, if Cowell did pursue such a project in China, it might not end well, however educative the side-effects. For the Super Girl saga is not just about prudery, but about a government terrified at the enlivening effects of popular culture.

Among the features that unnerved state censors, for example, was that democratically inclined viewers could vote for their favourites by text. (More than 800 million such messages were sent one year, so the logic behind this decision is more instantly obvious than last year’s ruling that barred film-makers from producing stories about time travel.)

Telling, too, that the producers behind the show really are a team of Chinese Cowells, having produced a series of such reality shows that are tearing viewers away from the official state broadcaster. As the country changes, such censorship will become less and less feasible: however you resist it, popular culture always finds a way to seep in.

So while the ban is troubling, it’s at least good to see televisual tripe striking a blow for freedom – rather than for the immediate exile of Louis Walsh. If Super Girl does return at the end of the year, might they be persuaded to find room for a cloyingly sentimental boyband impresario?