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Special Report

Anti-Graft Drama

Has Spring Come?

Is the anti-corruption television series, after a decade of silence, enjoying a revival?

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

The turn of the 21st century saw a blossoming of anti-corruption novels and television series and a growing list of authors considered masters of the genre. Novelists and scriptwriters stepped into the field of public discourse on corruption, filling the void left by the media as it shied away.  

Three writers of the genre – Lu Tianming, Zhou Meisen and Zhang Ping – are dubbed the “Golden Triad of the Chinese anti-corruption television series.” Their famous anti-corruption works, such as Fatal Decision (2000), Traceless Snow (2001) and Absolute Power (2003), became national hits with huge audiences.  

Anti-graft dramas, along with crime dramas, dominated both the television industry as well as the public’s discourse in the early 2000s, to the extent that it was hard to dissociate the public’s consciousness of corruption issues from the representations of the issue via TV shows. Despite its popularity, nonetheless, the genre was suddenly banished by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) from primetime slots for 10 years starting in 2004.  

As In the Name of the People has swept the country (see page 43), media exclaimed that the revival of anti-graft drama has come. However, when questioned about the prospect of anti-graft dramas, writers such as Lu Tianming and Zhou Meisen remain only “cautiously optimistic” about the genre’s future.  

Treading on Eggshells 

Lu Tianming was the first to dip his toes in the water.  

As a prolific author famous for his political writing, Lu wrote the first anti-graft TV series in China in 1995, which also became one of the decade’s most influential contemporary TV shows, Heaven Above.  

The nation seemed riveted to the seventeen-episode China Central Television (CCTV) drama. The show gathered audiences of nearly 40 percent of the entire population at its peak. It introduced audiences to a corrupt high-ranking government official and Party cadre (vice provincial governor). 

When Lu wrote the script of Heaven Above, he was already a television scriptwriter for the China Television Production Center (CTPC) under CCTV. Established in 1983, the center produced a series of outstanding period TV dramas in the 1980s, such as Journey to the West (1986), Dream of the Red Chamber (1987) and Romance of Three Kingdoms (1994).  

In the early 1990s, Lu was asked to write a series focusing on social reality to remedy CCTV’s excessive reliance on historical dramas. Corruption was the most hotly-discussed social phenomenon of the time.  

In August 1993, China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, launched an anti-corruption drive, warning that “corruption is a virus that is invading the healthy flesh of the Party and state institutions.” Jiang told the Central Discipline Inspection Committee that “if we lapse into soft-heartedness, if we allow it to run rampant, it could spell an end to our party.”  

Lu told NewsChina that writers at that time, who had experienced the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), would “shiver with fear” when it came to writing about official corruption within the Party and government.  

Lu finished writing the script in early 1994, but filming was delayed for a year. Within the Television Production Center, opinions were divided on whether the project should go ahead.  
One of the leaders in the Center, after reading the script, asked for a major revision with 13 recommendations for change. The leader’s first concern was that provincial-ministerial level officials should not be portrayed as corrupt: “What if audiences relate the character to a vice provincial governor in real life?” The second concern was the ending: the anti-corruption hero eventually faces tragedy, which defies the “happy-ending tradition” in CCTV productions that should give viewers a sense of hope.  

The most “fatal” advice, Lu told NewsChina, was to replace the name “Heaven Above.” 

“Heaven,” in Chinese philosophy and traditional religion, indicates the supreme authority and ultimate justice, a higher authority than any organization. “In socialist China, how can you appeal to Heaven? What’s the message you want to give?” the leader challenged. 

Revising the script to meet the leader’s requirement would mean no less than a rewrite. As Lu refused to do this, the project appeared to have been turned down. 

Nevertheless, the work was eventually saved after the writer appealed to a chief in charge of television series supervision under the SAPPRFT. Lu justified his depiction of high-level corruption by reasoning that CCTV had the responsibility of telling the public that the Party’s anti-corruption struggle was serious business. The official, who had grave concerns over Heaven Above, eventually approved the filming of the series, based on the original script.  

Throughout the process of filming, the show’s producers and cast remained in a state of apprehension. Every leader who ever gingerly signed the permission documents of the series still could not help fearing that the show might mess up China.  

The crew was so unsure about the fate of the show that they felt incredulous when CCTV informed them one day that the show was to be aired that evening. When the hand of the clock pointed to 8pm, as the opening song of Heaven Above started playing, Lu Tianming and other staff burst into tears.  

“We never had any expectation whether the series would be popular or not. The only hope we had was that the show could survive,” Lu told NewsChina.  

To the surprise of everyone, nevertheless, Heaven Above, without any initial publicity, immediately received a mass audience and very positive reviews. The highest viewership reached 39 percent, that is to say, four out of 10 Chinese were watching the show that night.  

Some joked that Lu had lowered the crime rate that year, as thieves were at home, glued to the screen. 

As historian Jeffrey C. Kinkley indicates in his book Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China: The Return of the Political Novel, Lu’s Heaven Above was a “trendsetter” that laid down many of the genre’s conventions, including several key limits to its realism imposed by various unwritten rules. For example, the highest-level official who can be depicted as corrupt is a vice governor or deputy provincial Party secretary; there must be “good officials” who help ensure that corruption is defeated in the end.  

Decade of Silence 

The anti-graft television series proliferated and even shaped prime-time viewing near the end of the 20th century. By 2003, crime drama had become the most prominent drama genre in China, and roughly 30 percent of such dramas had plots featuring official corruption. In the meantime, anti-corruption novels flooded the book market, reaching both fans of anti-corruption dramas and new audiences. 

Having revealed much of the dark side of China, crime dramas and anti-graft dramas went too far in the view of SAPPRFT regulators, and in April 2004 they were all banned from prime-time slots.  
In the wake of the harsh ban, dramas that explicitly dealt with corruption among Party officials dwindled. Anti-corruption writers, apprehensive of the undocumented ban, began to regard the genre as taboo and avoided touching on the subject. Television production companies no longer attempted to buy any anti-graft scripts. “No one was willing to throw his money into water,” Lu Tianming said.  

Fan Ziwen, deputy director of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate’s Film and Television Center, told NewsChina that it was crime dramas that the SAPPRFT aimed to punish. As crime dramas dominated the television industry, many scriptwriters sought to grab viewers’ attention by excessively exposing too much of the darkness and violence in their shows. Anti-graft dramas, as a branch of crime dramas, had unfortunately become involved. 

Writers such as Lu Tianming and Zhou Meisen publicly expressed strong disapproval of the ban.  
“The rigid rule has aborted a series of outstanding anti-graft dramas in the past decade,” Zhou told NewsChina. 

Lu Tianming insisted on differentiating “anti-corruption dramas” from “corruption dramas.” He argued that the latter focus on demonstrating corruption, while the former highlight the “action against corruption,” which promotes the positive energy and social justice at play. Thus it was unfair to banish anti-corruption shows from the screen.  

Lu became a bold rule-breaker as he wrote another anti-corruption novel High-Latitude Trembling (2006) and sought to adapt it for screen. Backed by private sponsors, High-Latitude Trembling was approved for broadcast on four municipal satellite channels. As Lu recalled, it was the only anti-graft drama ever allowed to be broadcast on the nation’s satellite channels during the decade of silence.  

Loosening Up 

In 2014, a few industry players sensed the situation was beginning to loosen up.  

The CPC Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s primary anti-corruption body, questioned the SAPPRFT in 2015 about the bleak reality of anti-corruption television production – the anti-corruption campaign had been vigorously carried out since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, so why wasn’t there a single TV drama with a related theme?  

“We’ve already received the task of creating at least two anti-corruption films and three television series per year, and these works must be finely produced,” Li Jingsheng, then director of the Television Series Administration Bureau under SAPPRFT, disclosed to media in mid-2015. 

In October 2015, Fan Yugang, director of the Supervision Bureau under SAPPRFT, clearly defined the principles of anti-corruption writing at a television production seminar.  

“[The anti-graft series] need to show the determination to fight against corruption and highlight the honesty and responsibility of the government; do not stereotype characters, making them either fully black or white; bear in mind the work’s social impact and do not overly expose the darkness,” Fan emphasized. 

Li Jingsheng later summarized Fan’s speech in three soundbites: anti-corruption, pro-clean government and positive energy.  

In March 2016, the SAPPRFT approved seven anti-graft TV shows, of which In the Name of the People has already been broadcast, starting on March 28, 2017.  

In the Name of the People has rekindled people’s long-suppressed passion for political works. Media have been claiming that the “spring of anti-corruption has come,” believing a new wave of anti-graft-themed shows will hit the screen soon.  

From the perspective of the deputy director of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate’s Film and Television Center, Fan Ziwen, such expectations need to be cooled a little.  

Fan indicated that anti-corruption series, considering the sensitivity and difficulty of the subject, cannot be mass-produced like other more lighthearted genres. “This genre is too difficult to be handled by ordinary scriptwriters. There aren’t many writers in China capable enough to deal with it well,” he said.  

Thus, Fan stressed that producers of anti-graft dramas need to pursue quality instead of quantity, follow the idea of “fewer but finer,” and stick to the three-slogan principle of “anti-corruption, pro-clean government and positive energy.” Otherwise, the genre might be still at risk of being axed in future.  

As far as Lu Tianming is concerned, it is certainly fair to say that the spring of anti-graft drama has arrived, compared to the past wintry decade. But Lu also warns “Do not be too optimistic about it.”  

“Writers [of anti-corruption dramas] should be both cautious and brave. They are supposed to faithfully depict the reality instead of twisting it. Meanwhile, they should be brave enough to face pressures, discard distractions and insistently carry on,” Lu said. 

Lu has not written an anti-corruption series for nearly 10 years, since High-Latitude Trembling. Now, after being constantly asked by institutions and production companies, Lu is determined to pick up his pen to write a new anti-graft drama.  

“This time, I will devote my whole life to it,” said the 74-year-old writer to our reporter, knowing it would probably be his last work.