On 9 February, SARFT released new regulations concerning imported TV dramas. This is the latest in a range of new regulatory documents imposing stronger control over the television sector. I had a very interesting e-mail exchange about this with Dr. Han Xiaoning, a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School of Communication at U. Penn, lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China, who kindly allowed me to edit it into a guest post.
The basic reason SARFT regulates these specific fields lies with the programmatic documents released by the National Peoples Congress and the CCP Central committee. These documents outline the policymaking direction and ideological source until the next generation of documents replace them. So we can find there are enough predictions in those documents about all new SARFT regulatory documents.
The current programmatic documents are the “Central Committee Decision Concerning Deepening Cultural Structural Reform“, reviewed and approved by the 6th Plenum of the 17th Central Committee, from October 2011 and the 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development of PRC(2011-2015), reviewed and approved by the 4th Plenary Session of the 11th National People’s Congress in March 2011.
Especially the 12th Five-Year Plan is a programmatic document for all administrative bureaus to plan their policy-making. Based on it, the Central Propaganda Department has also drafted a five-year plan for cultural structural reform and development. More detailed directions concerning media are addressed in this document, and most regulations from administrations like SARFT and GAPP in the following years are all based on those programmatic documents.
I participated in policymaking processes in GAPP [the General Administration of Press and Publications, ed.], and I noticed that they actually follow those programmatic documents in everyday work, and regard them as a measurable standard or basis for their work.
Now, how does SARFT make policy according to The 12th Five-Year Plan? First, Chapter 43, “Promoting Cultural Innovation” of the 12thFive Year Plan mentions “promotion of mainstream values”, which is the policy basis for the SARFT “decree limiting entertainment”, because the Western-style entertainment shows they target do not belong to mainstream values as defined in the Plan. Second, Chapter 43 mentions that cultural content should be “based on the practice of contemporary China, reflect the People’s dominant position and real life, and improve the quality of cultural products”. This is the policy basis for limiting the proportion of historical themes in television drama and limiting imported television dramas. Third, Chapter 44 mentions media must “always put social interest first”, which is the policy basis for limiting advertising.
That brings us to the question why SARFT has been so active in new regulations, as opposed to GAPP or the Ministry of Culture. First, SARFT has a conservative tradition at the Central level, and follows the Central Committee closely. Second, SARFT is under the most pressures from Party elders and conservatives. Many former senior cadres and officials watch TV frequently and will telephone SARFT if and when they see something they don’t like. This is why SARFT is under more pressure than other cultural administrations. Third, a new Five-Year Plan has just been released, which always causes a wave of new regulation. Last, the upcoming leadership transition may be an opportunity for administration leaders to gain political influence.
Many of the regulations have primarily been aimed at local television stations, which raises other questions. Can these bargain with SARFT? Are exceptions made? Can we say something about implementation?
In the policymaking process, bargaining is usually present. Normally, before releasing new regulatory documents, SARFT will negotiate with television stations and organizations that will be affected by them, and will ask them for advice. There is no bargaining room for documents coming from the NPC or the Central Committee. There is also bargaining when deciding on sanctions, but the outcome of that depends on what the violation at issue was, and who is involved. Because the new batch of regulations are all based on the new directions coming from the State Council and the Central Committee, provincial television stations cannot bargain with SARFT about whether or not these new documents should be made, but there are different issues at the implementation stage. SARFT always doubts whether they can effectively implement their overdetailed regulations, as supervising every TV channels is costly for them. Hence, they always ask local radio, film and television bureaus to supervise local television channels and then report to SARFT. In some cases, directors of local television stations have a higher administrative level than the director of the local administrative bureau, so those stations often dare to “hit line balls”, and the local department often “keeps one eye open, and one eye close”, which means that there are things they won’t report to SARFT. Of course, television stations with less power have to obey the regulations carefully.