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China plucks popular 'Snail House' TV show off the air

Some say the crackdown signals a troubling new trend in censorship.

December 22, 2009|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Beijing — For avid fans, the hit series is a rare taste of urban realism: must-see TV, Chinese-style.

The weekly show "Wo Ju," or "Snail House," has wowed young audiences with its racy dialogue and themes that lampoon China's skyrocketing home prices, sleazy developers and corrupt party officials.

Set in a fictional city resembling Shanghai, the drama focuses on two sisters who become fangnu, or mortgage slaves, desperately struggling to pay their bills in a country where 85% of the population is priced out of the housing market.

But when one sister is driven to become the mistress of a corrupt Communist Party cadre, the show perhaps became too realistic for nervous officials. "Snail House" was recently yanked from the airwaves in some areas, another victim of candor in a country where mass communication is tightly controlled.

The fate of the show remains unclear. One recent government website posting said some TV stations that air the series may continue, but that no others may start it or show reruns. Internet rumor has it that the show will continue with the offensive scenes whitewashed.

Analysts and Web commentators say the crackdown signals a troubling new trend here in the censorship of film, television and the Internet.

Censors have recently set new standards that block access to online entertainment services offering free TV, movie and music downloads. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, seen as threats to public stability, are already blocked.

The government has also stifled broadcasts of a Hong Kong-based cable talk show whose guests have openly promoted political reform. The show can still be seen in the former British colony, where such prohibitions are less pronounced.

As for "Snail House," one popular Beijing blogger who goes by the name Beifeng noted: "The show is famous because it shows a lot of things from real life like being a mortgage slave or mistress. These problems are the problems that people voice. So the government will definitely be sensitive to a show that touches on them."

Party leaders appear to be in no mood for outside intervention over their policies.

When President Obama criticized Internet censorship during a forum with students in Shanghai last month, party officials scrambled the broadcast and redacted Web-posted transcripts of the event.

But few government clampdowns have triggered more anger than the cancellation of "Snail House," which one high-ranking official criticized for creating a "vulgar and negative social impact by hyping porn jokes, corrupt officials and sex to woo viewers."

Since the show was pulled this month, irate Internet users have flooded chat rooms with often vitriolic protests. Many say the show captures the hard reality facing today's college graduates, many of whom can barely afford rent, let alone a mortgage.

"My situation is exactly the same as the TV series Snail House," one man wrote. "From the time I wake up, every breath I take, I have to make at least [$70] per day. That's the cost for me to live in this city. All those numbers make me suffocate!"

In Beijing, the gap between property values and income is increasing faster than anywhere else in China -- by some estimates more than 50% in the last year.

Some Internet users have struck back, attacking the official who referred to the show as vulgar by posting pictures they claimed showed his recent extravagant property purchases.

"Do you know why the Snail House is being criticized?" wrote another Internet user.

"That's because all those officials who always talk about morality and righteousness are scared! The more they denounce it, the more corrupted they are!"

But some newspapers have come to the aid of party officials.

"If someone is to blame, it's maybe the TV series' fault to present ordinary people's lives too vividly and truly," said a recent editorial in the Shenyang Evening News. "The white collars' inability to afford homes, official corruption and mistresses are just aspects of life."

Others believe that the controversy shows that the government is less about political censorship than the fact that officials are not ready for such sexual content on TV.

"I would not be surprised if [all] TV channels are asked to stop broadcasting the drama, given the criticism over its bed scenes," said Fan Shiminga, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University. "The Chinese government has been strict with erotic things."

"Snail House" has become so popular that more than 1,000 websites have sprung up, allowing people to download illegal copies in provinces where the show isn't broadcast. And the controversy has only added to the demand.

Selina Liu, 27, a teacher and former freelance writer, has seen all the episodes of "Snail House."

"It's a reflection of our real life," she said.

"In the show, the people work so hard but still can't buy a house. The government doesn't like the show because young people watch it and become even more depressed."

Zhang Han, a 31-year-old homemaker, said she developed such an appetite for the canceled show that she is reading the book of the same name on which the television series is based.

"Compared to what I'm reading, the TV was clean," she whispered. "The book is very dirty."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau and special correspondent Lily Kuo contributed to this report.

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