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Television programming is controlled entirely by the state. Decisions about what programs are shown and censorship are handled by The National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), formerly the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT, 1998–2013) and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT, 2013–2018), s a ministry-level executive agency controlled by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In May 2004, SARFT issued guidelines to local stations required TV anchors to refrain from dying their hair strange colors and wearing bizarre clothes, ordered celebrities to not wear trendy clothing and Western fashions and told television station to show less foreign programming that does not fit China’s ‘social system and national conditions.” In 2007, SARFT instructed CCTV and other networks to limit prime-time programming to “ethically inspiring TV series “that could “reflect the reality of China in a positive way.”For an eight month period preceding the National Party Congress meeting in the autumn of 2007 the Chinese broadcasting monitor call for only “ethical inspiring “television shows to be broadcast during prime time as part of the effort to promote national harmony and “ensure a better television environment.”

Regulation on Radio and Television Administration, which was first promulgated by the State Council in 1997 and has not been majorly revised since then, prohibits radio and television stations from producing or broadcasting programs containing the following content:; 1) that which endangers the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country; 2) that which endangers state security, honour and interests; 3) that which instigates nationality separation or disrupts nationality solidarity; 4) that which divulges state secrets; 5) that which slanders or insults others; 6) that which propagates obscenity, superstition or plays up violence; and; 7) other contents prohibited under provisions of laws and regulations. Those who produce, broadcast, or provide to overseas users programs containing such content may be criminally prosecuted or subject to administrative penalties, according to article 49 of the Regulation. [Source: Laney Zhang, Foreign Law Specialist, Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, June 2019]

Chinese Government Television Show Regulations

Matthias Niedenfuhr, wrote in Political Economy of Communication:‘Television drama production units’ have to obtain and renew ‘production licenses’ either for a single project or for several projects within a defined time period. The production project application then has to pass the provincial and central levels of examination before production can even begin. One important element not present in this figure is ad hoc intervention outside the normal regulatory process. The guidelines governing the review process of television production state that ‘other relevant government offices’ and ‘concerned individuals’ can intervene on a case-by-case basis. [Source:Matthias Niedenfuhr, Political Economy of Communication no. 1, 2013]

The regulations do not specify who these authorities and individuals actually are, suggesting that this may be a catch-all regulation to permit extra-regulatory intervention as and when desired by the authorities. SARFT’s decisions and internal guidelines for reviewing and censoring TV content are for the most part hidden from public view. The organization refers to a l ist of prohibited topics but they are only vaguely formulated. SARFT’s 1990 regulation contains a list of forbidden content. This includes obvious topics such as the glorification of murder, pornography, and racism, but it also refers to all con tent of an ‘anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-Chinese’ or ‘secessionist’ nature, as well as anything ‘supporting Western notions of human rights, democracy, freedom and equality’, ‘superstition’, ‘content that divulges state secrets’, and any content that violates the Chinese constitution and other laws.

This blacklist has been kept more or less the same with some notable additions. SARFT regulation 2004/40, for instance, prohibits content that ‘instigates hatred or discrimination among ethnic groups’ . This can be seen as a direct reference to Uyghur secessionist activities in Xinjiang province, the suppression of which has been justified by creating a link to Islam (the religion of most Uyghurs) and the September 11 th terrorist acts in New York in 2001.

Process of Regulation and Overseeing Chinese TV Shows

On the institutions involved in of television program regulation in China,Matthias Niedenfuhr, wrote in Political Economy of Communication: The three pillars of political power in China: party, state, and military each have dedicated departments which participate to some degree in the regulation of television program content. The ‘examination of content’ or ‘content management’ is a process in which guidelines are given from above within a three-tier system, operating at central, provincial, and local levels. [Source: Matthias Niedenfuhr, Political Economy of Communication no. 1, 2013]

Accordingly, producers have to obtain approval of their programs through this system, submitting their scripts first to provincial-level examination and re-examination committees, and then, after initial approval to dedicated committees in the main agency charged with the administration of media in China (formerly SARFT). This opaque institution plays the principal role in the regulation or censorship of television programs, working along broadly defined criteria. The detailed regulations it issues illustrates the overall importance to authorities of television, especially television drama.

A flurry of new guidelines in recent years has highlighted the growing tensions between ideological and market imperatives. Whenever the portrayal of leadership figures and events of ‘revolutionary history’ (i.e., the very sensitive topic of Communist Party history) is involved, the review process is especially complex. In these cases, a ‘Leading Working Group’ comprised of experts from the state agency SARFT and of party staff under the direct leadership of the Central Committee of the CPC, work to ensure that the portrayal is in line with the party’s vision of how these people and events are supposed to b e presented to Chinese audiences. Likewise, whenever military actions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are portrayed, the corresponding review bodies within the military are involved in the examination process. The three-tier structure and multiple layers of review” means there is a high “level of interconnection between state, party, and military institutions of content management, as well as th e central role of SARFT within this system.

A considerable number of television dramas submitted for pre-production approval are rejected. From this, it can also be surmised that the producers either have to redesign their television drama and then resubmit or abandon the project altogether — an expensive process whatever the outcome. In spite of the rigidity of the censorship process, there is nevertheless an overall upward trend in the productions of television dramas in China.

Since the media policies of SARFT are opaque, the analysis here ‘reverse engineers’ television censorship in China by connecting disputes over shows or trends in Chinese media with the introduction of relevant guidelines or changes in the institutions entrusted with television regulations. By doing so, it is possible to derive some insight into the focus and intentions of SARFT when it confronts trends in the Chinese television market. When such a dispute attracts the attention of the authorities, there is an immediate response in the form of bureaucratic intervention in the distribution or production of television programs. A disputed program or program format might undergo extra screening by ‘the review boards’ discussed above, and may result in episo des being shortened or cut altogether. The ultimate weapon of the censor, the outright banning of the program, might also be deployed, cutting off the production companies from all further revenue from advertisements during broadcast and re-broadcast and income from the secondary sources.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and his take on

Controls on Chinese Television Entertainment Introduced in 2011

In October 2011, SARFT ordered China's 34 satellite channels to limit themselves to two entertainment programs each week and a maximum of 90 minutes of entertainment content every day from 19:30 to 22:00. Broadcasters were also required to air at least two hours of state-approved news every evening between 6:00pm and midnight and show at least two 30-minute news programs between 18:00 and 23:30. The broadcasters were also told to disregard audience ratings in their programming decisions. The ministry said the measures were aimed at rooting out “excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, Michael Wines and Edward Wong, New York Times, October 26, 2011]

The rules applied to CCTV-1, the general programming channel of Central China Television, but not to CCTV-3, which specializes in arts and entertainment, according to a report in the English-language edition of Global Times, an official newspaper. Many people in the industry interpreted the decree and earlier measures by central officials as attempts to bolster the ratings of CCTV against the onslaught of entertainment shows produced by satellite stations, which have been wildly successful. In 2010 officials told producers of “If You Are the One,” a popular dating show on Jiangsu Satellite Television, to tone down the program. In 2011, authorities suspended Hunan Satellite Television idol show, “Super Girl,” for exceeding a broadcast time limit.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: The sweeping policy “effectively wipes out scores of entertainment shows on prime-time television. The authorities evidently determined that trends inspired by “If You Are the One” and “Super Girl,” had gone too far, and they responded with a policy to curb what they call “excessive entertainment.” That a dating show could help set off the toughest crackdown on television in years exposes the growing tension at the heart of the Communist Party’s control of the entertainment industry. For decades, the party has pushed television networks here to embrace the market, but conservative cadres have grown increasingly fearful of the kinds of programs that court audiences, draw advertising and project a global image not shaped by the state. Television, after all, occupies a singular position in the state’s media arsenal: with its 1.2 billion viewers and more than 3,000 channels, it is the party’s greatest vehicle for transmitting propaganda, whether through the evening news or staid historical dramas. “A conflict has arisen: On the one hand, they’re pushing for the building of a commercial industry, but on the other hand they wonder if this commercialization has led to an overall decline in cultural quality and moral cultivation,” said Yin Hong, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies television. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

The party’s definition of “entertainment shows” encompasses game shows, dating shows and celebrity talk shows. As in the West, they are cheap to produce but earn high ratings and advertising revenue, which is critical since stations get little or no government subsidies. Now, the new rules, which were announced in late October, are forcing television executives and producers at 34 satellite stations across China to cut many entertainment shows from their lineups to limit what regulators describe as “vulgar tendencies.”

Impact of the 2011 Rules on Television “Entertainment”

The order by SARFT to curb ''excessive entertainment'' went into effect on 1 January, 2012. After that satellite broadcasters in China cut entertainment TV by two-thirds with the number of entertainment shows aired during prime time each week has dropping from 126 to 38. "Satellite channels have started to broadcast programmes that promote traditional virtues and socialist core values," SARFT said in a statement. [Source: BBC, January 4, 2012]

The BBC reported: Talent shows and reality TV are among the biggest casualties of the cuts, the BBC said. The list of restricted programmes also included talk shows and emotional stories that were deemed to be of "low taste", said the Xinhua news report. However the SARFT statement also said that popular dating shows, such as If You Are The One, and soap operas, such as Li Yuan Chun, produced by Henan Satellite TV, will still be on air during prime time on weekends. In the piece published in a Communist Party magazine, President Hu Jintao also urged efforts to boost the country's own soft power, said Xinhua.

“The whole point here is that SARFT is trying to get TV station presidents back to the roots,” a person once involved with “If You Are the One,” who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times. “What are the roots? TV is supposed to be the mouthpiece of the party in the country. You’re supposed to broadcast propaganda instead of sensationalistic content.”

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: Reining in television is not just ideological, but is also tied to advertising money, people in the industry contend. Officials at Sarft are close to those at China Central Television, or CCTV, the state-run television network that is the largest in the country. CCTV still dominates the industry, but it has ceded market share to provincial satellite stations because they are producing the most popular entertainment shows. CCTV and Sarft have a revolving-door relationship: In November, a former vice minister of Sarft, Hu Zhanfan , took over as president of CCTV. The network also remits a fraction of its annual revenue to Sarft. From 2001 to 2005, it gave the agency $675 million, according to statistics from CCTV. By contrast, provincial stations remit revenue to local authorities, who have little incentive to censor successful shows. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

So SARFT’s crackdown on entertainment shows is partly aimed at enriching CCTV, industry observers argue. The announcement of the new order in October may already have yielded benefits for the network. On Nov. 7, at its annual auction for advertising spots in 2012, CCTV earned $2.2 billion, a 12.5 percent increase over the previous year. SARFT and CCTV officials did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Tightening the vise could backfire. Some analysts say that the more television is regulated, the more viewers will watch shows on the Internet, over which Sarft wields much less power.

Cracking Down on "Vulgar" Shows in China

In January 2007, the government began cracking down on “vulgar reality shows. The television talent show “The First Time I Was Touched” was banned because a bizarre stunt involving a contestant who insulted and then gave a present to a judge. "If You Are the One," a popular reality dating program, was forced to tone down and reinvent itself in the summer of 2010 after censors deemed it too sexy and materialistic. Online gaming and pornography have also come under renewed scrutiny.

In 2010 there were a number of high-profile casualties in a crackdown launched on what was calls the "three vulgarities": 1) sex-obsessed, 2) mindless and 3) tasteless culture. Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Communist Party has long viewed itself as a guardian of its own version of traditional, conservative Chinese values. But the declared battle against vulgarity also has a layer of political showmanship, stirring memories of the elaborately named campaigns extolled by Chairman Mao Tse-tung in a show of control, said Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese political blogger.” "It's not an ideological campaign," blogger Michael Anti said. "It's about social order. It's about obedience. It's to remind people, 'I'm your boss.'"

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Asian Times, “By the end of 2011, China's 34 satellite channels had cut the number of entertainment shows — largely spin-offs of Western hits such as American Idol and Top Gear — from 126 to just 38 during the prime-time hours, marking a 69 percent decrease. The ban came into effect officially on January 1. In the place of the rags to riches singing competitions and sassy dating shows which have proliferated under China's enterprising provincial television channels, SARFT stated that each channel must air "morality building" programs weekly. Talent contents will be limited to just 10 nationwide per year. [Source: Inter Press Service, February 23, 2012]

"SARFT does not want provincial TV to pose a threat to the national influence of CCTV. So they have stopped many programs," says Dr Grace Leung, a visiting scholar at Beijing's Tsinghua University who specializes in television regulation. Propaganda over profit remains a crucial concern for SARFT, which functions under the propaganda arm of the Communist Party. Pushing the party creed over the competitiveness of the television industry as a whole remains paramount. "With more than 96 or 97 percent of the total population [tuning in], TV is still the most influential vehicle for propaganda. One of SARFT's major tasks is ideological control," says Leung. "There is concern whether [satellite stations] are doing the correct job to educate their audience rather than provide entertainment alone. So profit making is not a primary concern for them — they would prefer to stick to their original task of educating and propaganda to prevent controversial issues arising," she adds.

"The cycle of tightening and loosening up is nothing new in China," says Ying Zhu, author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. "Obviously the tightening up cannot last long when the issue of bread and butter is at stake. The real clash is between the mandate of a Chinese cultural tradition dictated by morality and the demand of a market system dictated by profit."

The newest regulations, however, might backfire. Internet users in China now number over 500 million and many people are switching off their television sets in favor of finding entertainment on their smart phones and laptops, where censorship is less pervasive and the state has less hold. "Only people like my mother-in-law would watch [programs] on TV and now even she has switched to the Internet," says Raymond Zhou, 49, a Beijing-based newspaper columnist and social critic. "These regulations are going to drive more and more young people away from television, because they are leaving anyway. You are giving them the extra push — now they leave happily."

2018 Memo on Tighter Regulations on Film and TV Dramas

In 2018, a memo Chinese), obtained and shared by WeChat blogger Xiaode Zhang, allegedly from the government media regulator SAPPRFT, encouraged content that showcases “people’s happiness” and then provided a long list of what wasn’t acceptable. [Source: Jiayun Feng, Sup China, June 12, 2018]

SupChina reported: “Types of content that are discouraged or subject to extra scrutiny include history, the military, and revolution. Creators are forbidden from making “subversive adaptations” of historical events and content should be in line with the official narratives of historical figures. Creators are also advised to focus on lives of average people and avoid broad issues of social order and the national situation.

“Some other regulations include: 1) Don’t glorify the Republic of China, the Beiyang government, and its warlords.2) Coming-of-age stories should avoid romance, crime, and violence. 3) Crime stories need to get approved by the Ministry of Public Security and may not contain too many details about the crime. 4) Celebrities who have been caught in drug or sex scandals should not be featured. 5) Homosexuality is respected, but gay-themed content or gay characters are not allowed. 6) Don’t promote weapons or wars. Don’t depict Western countries as imaginary enemies. 7) Stories can be adapted from games, but game players cannot be main characters. 8) The memo also encourages self-censorship. “To avoid potential risks of being censored, ask friends to review your work first,” it says.

Image Sources: Wikicommons, Amazon Chinese DVD and video rental websites such as China Culture Network

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2022

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