It’s dinnertime in China, the evening news has just aired, and primetime TV-watchers are settling down for the real entertainment of the night.
“Let’s listen to President Xi’s speeches and comprehend his thought,” enthusiastically declares the host of a game show called, yes, “Studying Xi in the New Era”, report agencies.
The ‘Xi’ – in this instance – is a reference to China’s leader Xi Jinping who has steadily tightened his grip over the state. Just one year ago “Xi Jinping thought” – an articulation of his political philosophy – was enshrined in the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. Nothing like that has happened in a very long time.
Now it’s moved onto Hunan TV, China’s most popular entertainment channel aimed at young people, which means that it’s clearly time to ensure China’s Generation Z and millennials are on board.
It takes the form of two rounds of quizzes and a short speech about Communist Party theories and Xi’s thought, as well as a few questions thrown in about Mr Xi’s personal experiences on his way to the top.
“President Xi, at the age of 15, was sent from Beijing to Liangjiahe in Shaanxi province to become a farmer. During that period of time, he was eager to acquire knowledge. He even walked 15km (9 miles) to borrow a book. What’s the name of it?” fired off the host. One contestant fired back with ‘Faustus’ – no hesitation whatsoever. “Congratulations. That’s correct,” said the host to polite applause from the studio audience.
The host then read a poem Xi wrote when he was the secretary of Fuzhou city’s Communist Party in the 1990s, and asked: “Who does this poem commemorate?”
‘Jiao Yulu’ shot back the answer. Correct. Once again the contestant immediately knew Xi had once penned an ode to commemorate a dedicated party cadre in China.
“What theory is great theory?” was a question asked by Ai Silin, who is president of the School of Marxism at Tsinghua University and invited onto the show as an expert.
“It must be a scientific theory for the people. Nowadays, it must be Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” said another contestant who won praise for his perfect answer.
The game show also plays excerpts of Xi Jinping’s speeches or interviews, which are regarded as ‘golden quotes’, and the participants need to finish Xi’s sentences or answer related questions.
Xi Jinping said in a speech, “Marxism is very profound, but essentially it can be summarised by one sentence…”
“Striving for the liberation of humanity,” a contestant finished.
But there is a twist for the game show participants. There is no prize at the end of this spectacle – the reward is in soaking up and displaying expertise and knowledge of Xi Jinping. There could be a prize for the audience, or so the organisers must be calculating, which is that they too will get a chance to memorise party theory and enhance their knowledge of Xi.
The message is clear which is that in this day and age in China that is only going to lubricate your path to success, particularly in any public or governmental sphere.
It might feel like a crude and thinly-disguised tool for propaganda but in one sense it is no different to the standard Q&A of any indoctrination process. It’s a gamified extension of the slogan-chanting and praise of leaders on television – and a clear demonstration of how Mr Xi’s personality cult works.
The series has five episodes covering issues from the origin of Xi’s thought to what’s new in it and what kind of future it is likely to create. But four days after its debut, it has failed to ignite the social imagination of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
“This show will definitely become highest-rated TV show,” one Weibo user mocked.
“Anyone who had wrong answer should be re-educated to meet the requirement in the new era,” another joked.
A couple in their 60s, who wanted to remain anonymous, spoke to a news agency after watching the show.
“I can’t carry on watching. You can tell those participants are so staged. They’re like reciting textbooks,” said the husband who was giggling when the show started.
But his wife, a seasoned Communist Party member, had a different view: “It’s boring but meaningful. Nowadays young people barely learn any basic political knowledge. It’s necessary to instil them with something valuable”.
In some senses it is simply a logical extension of the industry that has emerged around Xi Thought. The show features guest speakers from the Xi Thought institutes that have sprung up across China since the end of 2017 specifically targeted at students.
“In the wake of Mao’s reign, Deng Xiaoping made a decision to dissolve the rule by charismatic leader and establish a rule of bureaucratic elites, constrained by term limits. Xi has upended this decision. Since he took power, there has been a marked return to the ‘cult of personality’… of the pre-reform era,” said David Moser, an Academic Director for CET Chinese Studies.
Nowadays there are plenty of tools to help leaders who want to establish a cult of personality, such as apps, mobile games and cartoons – this TV game show is just another one.
“This new cult of Xi has altered the fundamental separation of politics and entertainment in Chinese media, ” Mr Moser says.