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Media : Sitcom Milks China's Sacred Cows : * Radical Maoism, bureaucracy and graft are fair game for a hugely popular Beijing TV show. But no names, please.

February 25, 1992|NICK DRIVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — Chinese television viewers, riveted to their seats, watch breathlessly as the latest succession struggle unfolds before their eyes--an unprecedented public display of high-stakes political wrangling that predictably ends with no clear winner.

No, this is not the behind-the-scenes power struggle raging over Deng Xiaoping's succession. But for intrigue-loving Chinese viewers it's the next best thing--a politically titillating and highly allusive fictional equivalent called "Stories from the Newsroom."

The hugely popular and controversial situation comedy airing across much of China is redefining the rules of entertainment in a socialist society where television has long been wielded as a blunt weapon of propaganda. "Stories From the Newsroom," a 24-part series peppered with witticisms in the Beijing dialect, boldly satirizes the corruption and mutual back-scratching that pervade Chinese society.

First broadcast on Beijing television over a three-week span beginning in mid-January--it has yet to be approved for showing on China's nationwide channel--"Newsroom" has been snatched up by many local stations, potentially bringing the series to one-seventh of China's estimated 600 million viewers.

Prospects for "Newsroom" may also have been helped by Communist Party reformers working to loosen ideological controls. Indeed, Communist Party ideology chief Li Ruihuan even gave "Newsroom" a backhanded compliment, telling producers they had created "a very successful work of art"--even though he'd rather be watching traditional Beijing opera.

The show fires well-aimed barbs at nepotism, radical Maoism, Communist party favoritism, graft, the state's bumbling bureaucracy and its heavy-handed use of the media to force citizens into obedience. The scripts even poke fun at top Chinese officials, although never by name.

Once-banned lead writer Wang Shuo and five co-writers weave subtle political allusions into every episode, making sure to keep their criticisms vague enough to preserve them from the censor's knife. In one episode analogous to the Communist party's ongoing succession struggle, all five sub-editors in the newsroom shamelessly vie to succeed the retiring editor-in-chief, but descend into such bickering and back-stabbing that only one solution is possible: The boss must stay on.

"It is just like Deng Xiaoping," one critic marveled, referring to China's supreme leader, who at 87 still dictates government and party policies despite retiring from public office two years ago.

The assault by local stations on the once-omnipresent influence of China Central Television, or CCTV, the Communist Party's primary national propaganda organ, has given an unexpected bonus to their viewers, who are raving over "Newsroom's" startling departure from a CCTV wooden diet of agricultural statistics, heavy moralizing and sanitized entertainment.

Local newspapers have received an avalanche of letters about the program. "I never imagined that a TV program would become the highlight of my Lunar New Year vacation. I was addicted," wrote one viewer, who pronounced "Newsroom" the best program on television.

The writers use a setting familiar to many U.S. viewers--a newsroom--to lampoon Chinese society. Despite their good intentions, the six editors at the show's fictitious "Guide To Life" magazine inevitably fall into farcical misunderstandings.

What makes their predicaments compelling is the way they mirror daily life in China, where even a government campaign to get rid of surplus cabbage can become a sensitive political problem.

One episode follows the main character, Li Dongbao, on an assignment helping a policeman direct traffic. Li fits right in with his new job, enthusiastically stopping bicyclists for minor infractions. But his enthusiasm for police work gets him in trouble when he stops a refrigerator-delivery man for driving with no license.

To his horror, Li discovers he has impounded a new refrigerator that was to be delivered to his magazine. And in a farcical ending, he and the other editors must bribe and cajole a policeman into letting the trucker go free.

In another episode, a robot taken into the magazine offices turns out to be more human than the editors themselves, who appear stiff and rigid by comparison.

"I wish I had taped it," a young public relations worker said after the series' first run. "Many times I couldn't catch the (hidden) meaning of a certain scene, so I would love to go back and listen again."

This man and millions of others will get another chance when Beijing television reruns the series next month. In addition "Newsroom" has already started to spawn spinoffs--televised stage skits using the same characters and similar sharp writing.

Crafting subliminally charged scripts comes naturally to the show's writers, who grew up during the disastrous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution--a decade-long ideological rally in which political attacks and reprisals were a way of life.

"Scoundrels," a 1987 book by head "Newsroom" writer Wang, for example, set the Chinese literary world on its head with its tale of three men engaged in the cynical pursuit of sex and money. Two other books that mixed dark humor with themes such as blackmail, suicide or murder were made into movies that authorities banned before they were released.

Wang's critics, who include most of the politicized literary establishment, consider him a social evil and call his writing "trash."

But the writers, in comments quoted recently by the Beijing Youth News, carefully acknowledged--and defended--the razor-sharp social commentary in "Newsroom."

"A funny sitcom must have some sarcasm," co-writer Ge Xiaogang said. "We've written a series about contemporary themes, but we can't merely touch on current fads. Audiences don't want to see that anymore. We have to go deeper."

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