Super Girl and Democracy
The televised event Super Girls from Hunan Satellite Television is finally over after many weeks. The final show garnered a rating of better than 10%, which is astonishing for a regional television channel. The tremendous interest is this event is no doubt related to the fact that the selection process was conducted by citizens voting through SMS messages. Inevitably, the discussion has moved to the implications for democracy in China. This post collects a number of these political discussions. Please note that this is a haphazard collection, and there is no implication that any of these are right, wrong or compelling. Personally, I certain think some of this stuff is "simple" and "naïve." But the purpose of this post is to showcase the variety of responses about democracy in China as a result of a particular 'vulgar' television program at a certain moment in Chinese history. We will move on eventually, but this is one historical moment.
(China Daily) Secret behind idol-making Super Girl contest. By Raymond Zhou. August 27, 2005.
The second season of Super Girls, a TV pop star contest, came to a close on Friday night, but, after generating massive ratings and similarly huge earnings, organizers could be forgiven for not paying too much attention to who actually won. The Hunan Satellite Television show's ratings have reportedly overtaken the benchmark CCTV Spring Festival Eve gala performance the first time a local channel has achieved such a feat. By Friday afternoon, so many people were babbling about the phenomenon that, on Sina.com alone, they left a trail of 2.4 million postings.
Pundits have been furiously reading tea leaves to decipher the secret formula for the runaway hit.
Yu Guoming, a media expert at the Renmin University of China, sees the craze as part of the free market trend in China's media industry. By dividing the contest into multiple steps, he writes, the show is able to "accumulate word of mouth and loyalty as if the audience were watching a serial drama."
Audience participation has been cited as the most crucial factor in its success. As winners were determined by cellphone short messaging votes - with each phone number able to vote a maximum of 15 times - the show "blazed a trail for cultural democracy," said Zhu Dake, a renowned critic of cultural matters. "It's like a gigantic game that has swept so many people into a euphoria of voting and selecting, which is testament of a society opening up," Zhu argued.
Experts like Yu and Zhu view the show as a triumph of the mass public breaking loose from the "elitist aesthetics" that had been strangling the country's entertainment business. "It deviates from the norm, and therefore has created such powerful reactions from the public," Yu averred.
Criticism of the show has come from various quarters. "If anything, the show reflects the superficiality of our society," commented Li Yidong, a photographer in Suzhou. The maddening pursuit of quick short-term profit, be it real estate bubbles or pop culture sensations, is propelled by behind-the-scenes manipulation and state-of-the-art pomp and circumstance.
But a more fundamental question is: How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?
Li Yuchun, the androgynous girl with the weakest voice of the top five, has been leading in popular votes by a huge margin throughout the season. Justifications for her appeal abound: Some say her appearance fits the ubiquitous cartoon images beloved by the younger generation. Others say that since the show does not include male contestants, women voters are naturally drawn to the most "male-looking" of the crowd. Feminists take her victory as a sign that men are no longer in a position to dictate how women should dress and look.
Li Yinhe, China's top expert on gender issues, maintains that many singers, such as Boy George and Michael Jackson, use the "transgender appeal" to lure both male and female fans. "Every demographic group has the right to tout its own standard of beauty, but not impose it on others. Often it's men who monopolize aesthetics, but that could actually hurt women."
In this jubilation to create pop idols, it seems the only people who will be "hurt" are the so-called "elitists" who doggedly adhere to the old ways of "idol making."
(South China Morning Post) More to democracy than a reality show. August 28, 2005.
Proving that no matter what our race, religion or circumstances, deep down we all think alike, television reality shows have been as massive a hit in China as elsewhere in the world. The untold millions who tuned into the final of the American Idol spinoff, Super Girl, last week and the growing interest in rival versions of The Apprentice mirror audience enthusiasm for the shows in western countries.
There is another dimension to China's embracing of such programmes, though: audience participation. The winner of Super Girl was chosen by viewers casting ballots via text messages from their mobile phones. Never have mainlanders been so freely given the right to make such a choice.
They embraced the opportunity with gusto - 3.5 million votes were cast across the nation on Friday night for the winner, Li Yuchun, 21, and 3.2 million for the runner-up, 20-year-old Zhou Bichang. There was even an election-like atmosphere in the days leading up to the final, with fans in shopping malls, at schools and universities and on the internet canvassing for their favourites.
The sense of occasion was not lost on the state-run media. China Daily cultural critic Zhu Dake said the "euphoria of voting and selecting" was "a testament of a society opening up". But elsewhere in the newspaper, the process was also questioned: "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?" Whether the lanky, shaggy-haired Ms Li was truly vocally superior to the petite Ms Zhou is a matter of personal opinion, which the audience certainly exercised through the voting process. Besides, the China Daily missed the point about Super Girl - it was not about democracy, but audience participation.
Super Girl contestants were taking part in a reality show. Whether they could sing was immaterial because such television programmes are about entertainment. Hype, drama and audience-pulling stunts are a staple of the genre to ensure viewers do not change channels.
As in the American version of The Apprentice, those will be core aspects of its mainland edition when the series is launched. Viewers well know that there is nothing democratic about US property tycoon Donald Trump's declaration of "You're fired!" when he eliminates contestants based on his judgment and the recommendations of advisers. China's embracing of reality shows is not a reflection of society opening up nor of democracy in action. Rather, it is an indication that given a choice of television shows, audiences will opt for the one that gives them the most enjoyment.
Democracy is not about the sending of a text message or reaching for the remote control to change channels - it is about people having the right to rule themselves and determine their own government. Television shows do not provide that.
(Times Online) TV talent contest 'too democratic' for China's censors. By Jane MacCartney. August 29, 2005.
Sources said that censors were concerned that the democratic methods used to select the winner from 120,000 entrants could stir trouble. For weeks fans have been crowding shopping centres across the country, carrying posters of their favorite contestants in an attempt to rally votes for them. On Friday the streets of Changsha, the capital of Hunan, were swamped with thousands of fans who celebrated until dawn. Security guards were called in last week at two shopping centres after Super Girl fans became unruly.
(Anti) August 26, 2005.
[in translation] I wanted to write an opinion column about how the Super Girls has lifted the democratic tendency, but right now I feel that a netfriend's sentence is truest to my heart: "CTMD, I don't think that I will ever get to vote a president in this lifetime, so I'll choose a girl that I like." Super Girls is obviously not the same as democracy, but it is the fantasy for the 1.3 billion Chinese people who do not have democracy. When I think about this, I feel sad for China.
(Xici Hutong) August 26, 2005
[in translation] ... Behind the wild celebrations, there is something that the observant person will notice -- the Party and the Government have vanished from sight. Historically, the Party and the Government had been at the center of everything, but they have been cast aside during the Super Girls. The media, which are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Party, had also brushed the Party aside for the moment in order to provide entertainment information for the people. If there were government propaganda programs broadcast at the same time period, it would be easy to imagine how they might be received by the people who only want to know about the Super Girls. The absolute masters for several decades had been subjected to unprecedented omission and embarrassment.
This phenomenon cannot be ignored, just like the master seeing their servants enjoying themselves while oblivious his existence. Even when the master came up to ask, those whom he had totally dominated before just said offhandedly: "My happiness is none of your business."
When the servants celebrate, they did not use any of the themes designated by the master, they did not ask for official representatives, there was no -ism, there was no something-or-the-other-spirit or someone-or-the-other-said-this. Those shopworn clichés that had been repeated day in and day out had no place in this celebration. Without any guidance from the group 'leaders', the people formed their own groups, enjoyed themselves and derived pleasure, while forgetting the existence of the vast political apparatus that is present in their real lives. There was an obvious chasm between the nation and society, as if to say that even if the nation and government no longer exist, people can still realize certain things.
Feuerbach once characterized the Renaissance as the primary driving force that ended the rule of religion in politics: the human spirit that was clamped down by rigid religious rules and commandments found a breath of fresh air in the artful buildings for a temporary moment of freedom. This notion cannot be applied immediately to contemporary China, but it does more or less explain the function of art and entertainment. Within entertainment, people can temporarily forget about the existence of authority. Within the arts, people can expand their freedom. At least in Italy, the spirit of freedom was born anew.
Prior to the Super Girls, among all the television entertainment programs, only the annual CCTV Spring Festival Evening program seems to qualify as being "universally" watched. But obviously, the Spring Festival Evening program was produced under government supervision, and it is an official version of celebration. The organizers were all television workers from the official government channel. The themes were all defined by the government (such as "prosperity") and the developments were based upon official demands. On the front row, the guests are officials with connections. The common people can only watch from home. "This is the entertainment that I give you -- you can watch, but you can't participate," or so the people are told. So it is a stretch to say that the Spring Festival Evening program is 'universal.' It was the only choice that people have. It is like the master giving the servants some money, and the servants must cheer, "Long live the master!" Conversely, if the master does not give out any money, then there is no celebration.
The existence of Super Girls shows two things. The people's happiness does not have to depend on the government, for the people can create their own source of happiness. When society no longer depends totally on the government, when society has gone ahead to form its own self-perfected, self-reliant, self-operated and self-maintained system (and this was formed during the practical experience of Super Girls by the television station, the program participants, the viewers and the advertisers) and when the system can continue without needing the government to do anything, then it won't be too long before a civil society emerges. Thus, the Super Girls is a glimpse of the future Chinese civil society.
An even more noteworthy thing is that the Super Girls have stimulated the will to participate.
The SMS voting seems to have introduced a new form for direct election. It is direct, it is convenient, it is fast and it works. It can simplify the voting process. It can be done in a few minutes' time. It seems to be just a technical problem to make it become the main means of voting. It would seem that the American presidential vote or the Taiwan election vote would seem ancient and primitive by comparison.
SMS voting also enabled people to participate more conveniently in something that they are interested it. It decreases the cost of participation, and therefore it immediately raises up the desire to participate. People discover that it is so easy and approachable to express their choices. It was so easy to exercise that power, and there was nothing like the complexity and requirements that some people have said. After this, people will continue to participate in other activities and express their opinions through this easy method. And when they find out that their participation influenced the outcome, then they will have a sense of accomplishment that is no different from those citizens in democratic countries who have elected their own leaders. The meaning should be clear.
Even USA TODAY analyzed this point: "The Super Girls is surprisingly participatory. For a China that does not have direct elections, it is naturally more attractive than a similar program within the United States." The accomplishments from participation will stimulate the will to participate. Even if people have to pay a fairly expensive SMS fee, they will not easily abandon this rare right to choose. They are like drowning people who have raised their heads out of the water and they will take in as much air as possible, even if there is carbon dioxide in the air.
The Chinese people who do not have civil rights in real politics were able to be their own masters during the Super Girls. Although there has been rumors that the Super Girls will cease production, they will remember that experience of being their own masters and that once upon a time in China, such a program existed even if it only offered a mirage of being their own masters.
(USA TODAY) China under spell of mighty 'Super Girl' By David J. Lynch. May 26, 2005.
Super Girl is surprisingly participatory. This remains a country where people can't elect their leaders. But they can vote for their favorite singers.
Like American Idol, the program features a panel of judges drawn from the entertainment industry. In Changsha, the four arbiters were an agent, a composer, a TV producer and a folk singer. (To date, there have been no Paula Abdul-type scandals.)
But the expert judges' influence is dwarfed by that of 31 other judges drawn from the ranks of laobaixing, or common people. During a series of dizzyingly complex showdowns that eliminated two of the five contestants, the amateur judges cast their votes by walking across the stage to single out their favorites as the studio band banged out up-tempo rock.
(Yannan via Boxun) August 4, 2005.
[in translation] What does China lack right now? I think it is the voting ballot. What does the common Chinese person miss most in personal experience? I think that they know plenty about food, prostitution and gambling, but they have not cast their own ballots. As a world-class nation marching in the process of modernization and as a permanent member of the United National Security Council, it is a tragedy that it does not have a ballot. How often does a common Chinese person get into contact with voting? A person may be able to vote for a so-called National People's Congress representative within the system. But I have basically never ever seen a ballot even though I have a decent diploma and a high level of education. Around the world, there are not many countries which have never seen a ballot like China. Recently, Iran has elected its own president. Even in Iraq during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who was always elected with more than 90% of the votes, people have still seen what a ballot looks like.
Could the common Chinese citizen be not strong enough to pick up a ballot? Could the common Chinese citizen have no ability to case a ballot? In looking at the enthusiasm among the Super Girl audience, we know that people are active and capable. Right now, we are only selecting a person based upon our personal preference as opposed to electing a person who represents our interests. Although this individual have nothing to do with our interests, we are still investing so much enthusiasm. If we get the chance to vote for someone to represent our interests, the voting rate will probably invoke the jealousy of the Americans.
This is the information society. The level of information development in China is not very different from the United States. Information development has been closely linked with the development of democratization. The first computer in the United States was a massive monster, but the direct cause of the development of that computer was the American presidential election, because it was responsible for tallying the election ballots. The rapid tabulation of the ballot counting showcased its power and brought people into the information age. Right now, the computers, networks, communications, television channels and radio stations are comparable to international standards. But people still hope that these information technologies more than the same voices; when common citizens speak up, they are subject to harassment. How many other countries in the world have the same gap between information technology and democratization?
This is age of globalization, the age of high technology, the age of media, the age of entertainment and the age of democracy. Nobody is stupid and nobody is smarter than everyone else. Nobody thinks that he is the savior any more. The age of Hitlerian idolatry is over. If politicians today want to become idols, they can only be entertainment idols, like Li Yuchun of the Super Girls and be only the idols of one segment of the people.
When the political figures put down their disguise for serving the country and the people, it is popularization and entertainment, and that is the first step of political democratization. Presently, the democratization of Taiwan is at this stage. Although things appear to be very chaotic there, there is a reason for the chaos. The only thing that matters is the vote. In order to gather more votes, the conservative Lian Chan shows up on programs like "Kongshi Is Coming" and "Little S" to talk about his underpants and other personal issues. During the dictatorship era, there was no way for Chiang Kai-shek to show up on television to talk about his underpants; on the contrary, he was always well-dressed in his military uniform or Chinese dress. By the same reasoning, Lian Chan may give a great speech at Beijing University during his visit to mainland China, but the voter under the democratic system regards that as a political show no different from him appearing on "Little S" to talk about his underwear.
(China Democracy) Liu Xiaobo. August 27, 2005.
[in translation] The voting system based upon SMS messages from the audience contains the democratic spirit that all citizens ought to have. Journalism scholar Yu Guoming believes: on one hand, the people of China have now accepted the popular values in the rules of the game (democracy and equality). On the other hand, in real life, the people of China had very few opportunities to make their choices based upon voting. Therefore, the Super Girls game rules offer the citizens to see the possibility of practicing these common values, and a participatory democracy may evolve out of how the Super Girls are selected.
Even Zhu Dake, a commentator who is famously critical of popular culture, said: "The Super Girls was voted by the 'thumb' (meaning, by using mobile telephones) and opened the way for 'cultural democratic vote.' During the selection of Super Girl, the people of China were engrossed in the ecstasy of the selection and voting. The enthusiasm was unprecedented, like an huge game." "You hold the remote control device in your hand. If you want to, you can watch it. If you don't want to, you can hit the remote control button and leave. This is the 'democracy of vieweship', and it reflects the will of the people."
The Super Girls phenomenon symbolizes the awakening of civil society and its general will. In one Internet essay, the people's celebration of Super Girls shows the alienation from the mainstream ideology. The people are saying, "My happiness is none of your business." Zhu Dake also believes: China was used to a society with uniform values, "with all thought being unified under a sole standard of truth." Yet, since the 1990's, society and social values have been split into strata with increasing divisions and separations. Meanwhile, the Internet has opened up the paths to express opinions. In the 21st century, we will hear different types of public opinions. The diversity of public opinions is not a bad thing, and foretells the 'civilian society' (a society led by free citizens)." He even said, "The Super Girls let us see that when the media can grasp public opinion, it can generate a powerful force. I feel that public opinion will be the most productive force in 21st century China."
The selection system based upon the expert judges, the citizen judges and the viewers' votes contains the spirit of pragmatic politics. It made the Super Girls selection process democratic and equal, but it is balanced among different forces and nurtured the democratic quality of China. Some netizens have described the Super Girls as "apolitical politics."
The Super Girls program is strictly commercial entertainment. That it could generate such serious commentary by observers is perhaps an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of mainland Chinese entertainment programs.
Nevertheless, I agree to a certain extent with the social implications and meaning of the above critics, especially with respect to the breaking down of the CCTV monopoly and the social meaning of having more diverse and common people being involved. But one has to also see that the high-minded commentary about the Super Girls is over-rating the program whereas the phenomenon was more likely due to just disgust and anger with the CCTV monopoly. Therefore, any expectations about how the Super Girls with respect to democracy and civil society are most likely just good wishful thinking. The greater likelihood is that the many dissatisfactions inside the people can only be allowed to be expressed in a virtual entertainment world but not in any critical fashion within the system of dictatorship. In that case, the Super Girls is only a River of Forgetting that let people release their dissatisfactions through the joy of entertainment.
In truth, deep within the structure of popular culture in China, there is a spiritual crisis for society: serious public issues are banned from discussion, but vulgar entertainment programs are allowed, and the Super Girls is a public manifestation of that crisis. As the media compete to come up with programs like Super Girls to offer unreal entertainment that fit within the boundaries defined by dictatorship, this is eviscerating people's sense of social responsibility and individual dignity.
(Boxun) August 29, 2005.
Watching Super Girls reminded me of elections that are prevalent in modern democratic countries. There are many similarities between the two. The elections in democratic countries go through the same phases. Primary elections, second round, and then the final round, using all one's abilities to compete while the people participate and decide.
It can be said that Super Girls is a commercial and artisitic election. In china, such types of elections started very early, but the Super Girls phenomenon is national in scope and an election with so many participants has not been seen before.
It is regrettable that modern China does not have a democratic political election, which is the result of a democratic political system.
The highly competitive Super Girls contest yielded a final best winner. By similar reasoning, a competitive political contest will yield the most strongest political leader.
Why don't we have a political election? Since an election will give us the strongest political leader (of course, the strongest is in the relative and not the absolute sense), why can't have an election? Why can't we develop a new political system in order to get the strongest political leader for our country? Could it be that we don't want the strongest political leader? Should China continue to use the old political system of non-competitive appointment system as our permanent system of government?
Super Girls' revelation should make us reflect that the people of China cannot forever exclude itself from the contemporary civilized systems and principles. We must have material political reforms and we must develop a competitive political election system to destroy the current appointment system that is responsible for countless mistakes and faults by virtue of its backwardness and corrupt nature.
(Tianfu Forum via MediaChina)
[in translation] I went to get a haircut yesterday. The young shampoo girl said that she was a fan of Zhang Liangying. During the final, she sent a total of 15 SMS messages! She also told me that her younger cousin spent 600 RMB of his own on mobile phone cards just to vote. This 600 RMB was hard-earned money from his family to pay for his tuition. I don't know how many fervent fans like him are out there. But will these kids who have no appreciation of the hardship that their parents faced ever develop any civic commonsense? I am very dubious about whether a commercial entertainment television program that was planned to life audience ratings could increase civic awareness and foster democratic spirit. Does going around on the street lobbying people to send SMS messages on behave of the dreams of some girl constitute any democratic meaning for popular elections? Is it the expression of public opinion to see whose supporters have more money and are crazy enough to spend. To say that lobbying for Super Girl votes is an empirical practice of elections and a test trial of exercising one's civic rights is stretching it too far. I think this is sensationalistic and quite nonsensical.
For me, I treat watching Super Girl as an end in itself. It is an entertainment program. If the elites want to read "public consciousness" and "democratic spirit" from this, then they are just as impractical as all the young men and women who are think that they can get rich and famous overnight by singing.
(Jiangsu City Forum via Xici Hutong) Reporters' Home. August 27, 2005.
[in translation] I have no intention of evaluating the quality of singing on Super Girls. Since this program is titled Super Girls, the singing should be the most important factor. Yet the pressure from the fans as well as the personal preferences of the people's judges have led to unexpected outcomes. The grand final was unrelated to singing, because the outcome was completely determined by SMS votes. For this reason, two professional music experts had to withdraw as judges, and professionalism lost out to public opinion. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: "There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences." In this case, the so-called public opinion in the Super Girls is what Rousseau calls the will of all and it also includes abnormal factors such as financial competition. This kind of will may be neither rational nor professional, and it is still a long way from the pursuit of democratic ideals.
The Super Girls has a set of rules. But if there are problems in coming up with the rules, then the resulting rules will be problematic and rendered some of the choices made under those rules meaningless. In this case, Super Girls degenerated into SMS mania in the grand final while the professional opinions and rational thinking were shut out of the decision-making process.
While researching the rules of democracy, Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan wrote the book "Fiscal Theory and Political Economy." In Buchanan's view, the main problems of modern democracy are: most of the rules may lead to the "tyranny of the majority" which ends up being unfavorable to everybody. The solution is to emphasize that the majority rule is not always automatically right and must therefore be restricted. More than 80 years ago, the new cultural movement in China brought in democracy and science. They came 'hand in hand' with each other. Democracy and science were like the two wheels of a bicycle, neither one of which could be missing. This was the basic spirit of the May 4 movement, and the basic experience of the May 4 movement. ...
Ultimately, the Super Girls is only an entertainment program and should not be the subject of such high-minded discussion. But at a time when the media are praising the "democratic voting", I must add pour some "rational" cold water on it. "Democracy by voting" must be restricted by "science", in order to prevent the "tyranny of the majority."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract
It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.
There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.
If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular.
(Boxun) Poking a hole in the myth of Super Girl democracy. By Xu Jilin.
In the minds of many Chinese people, the so-called democracy is government by voting. It is as if the people has the right to vote, then the will of the people and the ideals of democracy will be fulfilled. Thus, when Super Girl offered SMS voting, it was immediately accorded the highest values of "entertainment democracy."
I say that this type of democracy with voting at its core is just a populist democracy. Behind it, there is an invisible hand that uses the public opinion to realize the organizers' hidden will to power and commercial desires.
If you don't believe me, let us analyze several doubts about Super Girls.
First, democracy is not just voting by the public. There has to be a set of open, transparent and pre-defined set of legal procedures. The judging of Super Girls is supposed to have a set of rules: the worst two singers are selected by the panel of expert judges and SMS voting; on the PK phase, the people's panel then voted one of the two out. Within these rules, we can see that the popular vote accounted for only one-third. More importantly, the final judge was this ambiguously defined people's panel of judges. Since this panel holds the core power, they should be public known as the representatives of the people, preferably elected by the people. Yet, these 35 people were obviously privately selected. According to some Super Girls who were eliminated in the earlier rounds, there were some workers inserted into the panels and they will follow the orders of the organizers to vote. Thus, the democracy of millions of SMS votes was ultimately concentrated in the hands of the 'people's panels' which reflect the will of the organizers. What a lovely centralized democracy system!
Next, according to democratic principles, the rules should be defined in innocence. Once the rules are made, they cannot be changed midway. This is like playing a card game. The rules have to defined before the cards are distributed. Once people hold the cards in their hands, they cannot change the rules because that will favor the powerful over the weak. But the rules of Super Girls were changed in the grand final. Previously, the very shy 'semi-democracy' is now changed to 'full democracy' by which the SMS votes decide the top three positions. Superficially, this appeared to be an improvement as if it gives full authority to the people. Procedurally, this was completely undemocratic and unjust. Yet, in a time of aroused public opinion, nobody stood up to question how the rules can be changed at will. This proves the popular Schmidt theory: the organizers are the power structure which can supercede the rules and override public opinion; under "emergency conditions", he has the decision-making power to re-define the rules.
Next, according to the Habermas' theory, legitimation has to occur not only in public voting but also within the public discourse. The only public discourse in Super Girls is the scores given by the panel of expert judges. During the initial rounds, the judges can still freely express their opinions. Later on, due to the high pressure from the public, the judges were silenced except to offer praises. In the grand final, the expert judges had no say. As a form of democracy, this one does not permit critical voices or dissent. It is tyranny when people are allowed only to cheer and praise under the name of democracy. This is the "tyranny of the majority" as described by John Mills to Tocqueville. A democracy that has no public discussion and allows no dissent is an illegitimate democracy, and it is the kind of plaza democracy that we have come across many times before.
Finally, there should not be any barriers in a people's democracy. A person cannot be stripped of the right to vote on account of poverty. What is the barrier to voting in the Super Girls. The SMS messages usually cost ten cents, but it was raised to one yuan! Superficially, the voting for Super Girls is equal. Actually, there are monetary factors involved as the poor masses have to consider the cost of participation. For rich people, they can afford to buy cards and tickets and use their money to influence the outcome. Wasn't there a report that a rich person spent 500,000 RMB to buy mobile phone cards? The penetration of money into the voting is a subversion of the democratic spirit. It does not represent the will of the people; the represents the will of money.
Behind the Super Girls, there is an invisible hand -- it is the hand of money, it is the hand of power and it is hand of the joint conspiracy of power and money. The naïve fans believe that they are creating history, but they are in fact being manipulated unknowingly. When the results are revealed as expected and people are cheering for the "victory by the common people", the really happy one is that invisible hand behind the curtain -- the hand that stole, toyed and manipulated public opinion to realize its quick commercial profits.
By itself, voting is not democracy. It is only one phase of democracy. Apart from voting, true democracy requires a fair process, equal rights, free discussion and laws to protect minorities and supercede individual will. All these were missing in Super Girls.
The so-called Super Girl democracy is a populist form of democracy. History has proven and will continue to show that populist democracy is the best cover for authoritarian will.
Today's entertainment is tomorrow's politics. Good people, you must beware!
(Yannan) Looking at the Shape of Democracy from Super Girl. By Cui Weiping.
[translation] In Profession Xu Jilin's article, he listed various democratic notions -- "Apart from voting, democracy includes a transparent process, equal rights, free discussion, self-respect and a fair procedure that supercedes all private interests." Some of these notions can be combined. Simply put: there are two democracies -- the democracy in voting and the democracy in debate. The latter was developed more recently, and augments democracy in voting. This point is broadly accepted, because democracy in voting is not sufficient in itself.
Professer Xu believes that in the Super Girl competition, 'democracy in debating' is missing. At first, I felt that way. I even felt that fans who used the most simple slogans are reminiscent of those who only know how to say "Four legs are better than two legs" in Animal Farm.
But very quickly, a knowledgeable person told me that at the large websites such as Sina.com, baidu that there had been a vast amount of free and vigorous debate among the voters. Professor Xu said that the "only public debate is the expert judges' ratings" but he perhaps did not understand the situation. It was not only the fans, but popular music fans, professionals as well as 'experts' who joined the discussion. The hot discussion subjects include singing technique (such as Zhang Liangying's dolphin sound), gender identity (such as Li Chunyu's androgynous looks) and behind-the-scene manipulation (such as how the number of judges changed).
The next question is whether Super Girl has democracy by voting. Undoubtedly, there are problems with the rules for Super Girl. The biggest question is to whether there is an employer-employee relationship between the organizers and the expert and people's judges. Are there special interests? This is just not unfounded speculation, as this the precondition for any events: in the face of the huge temptations, anyone can betray their fairness. Among the three parties that can decide the PK, at least two parties are suspicious. While one may say that the expert panel must consider their own professional reputation in front of so many people, it cannot be guaranteed that the people's panel will really fulfill their personal responsibilities.
Under these circumstances, it is key to know if the popular vote will mean anything.
That depends on what they do. If I did not misunderstand, there are two people on the PK podium: one of them may have the lower popular vote while the other may have just sung poorly. The latter was selected by the expert judges while the former had more popular SMS votes. That is to say, if one has a huge lead in SMS votes, then one does not have to be put on the PK podium; and if one is not on the PK podium, one is safe and cannot be eliminated.
Of course, it is also likely that the highest SMS vote-getter was also the worse live performer and then the expert judges sent her on the PK podium. Thankfully, in the finals, this did not happen. For one thing, the singers performed well. For another thing, the expert judges may be wary of public opinon. Therefore, you must admit that the selection process for Super Girl contains some element of popular opinoin. Therefore, the various fans know that their votes made a difference.
Voting is just the quantification of popular opinion. There is also the pressure due to public opinion, and that is not quantifiable. The number of votes is an indicator of the popularity of a certain singer, but public opinion puts pressure on the organizers so that they must consider fairness and justice. Even if they can play tricks during the process or even tamper with the votes, they must be concerned about the consequences as to what public opinion might be.
Professor Xu spoke about how "populism" is equal to the "tyranny of the majority" but I disagree. Between the two, one must be mainly concerned about irrational and violent tendencies. The latter concerns the protection of the lives and properties of many and is not related to an entertainment event. A mature rational mind would have distinguished between a political event and a non-political event. "Populist democracy" relates to certain practical political areas and certain policies and their consequences, and is not relevant to entertainment. The winners of Super Girl do not assume any public office and they do not formulate any public policy. In fact, they don't even know what they are going to be next.
So is it appropriate to link this entertainment event with "democracy"? This is what I want to address most of all.
That is because it pertains to an understanding of democracy. "Democracy is a lifestyle." That is to say, it is not a lofty ideal. For the people who fight for democracy, it is an ideal but that does not mean that it is so fantastic, nor does it mean that only exceptional people can fight fro democracy. What it means is that demcoracy does not belong only to the elites and it does not the specialty or exclusive domain of the expert scholars. Anyone who thinks that the road to democracy is built only by the elite and the experts and then only idealists can be involved in democracy is necessarily undemocratic.
Although the Super Girl democracy has created much controversy, the organizers of Super Girl obviously had no intention of wanting to do anything that is related to democracy. Actually, the current Super Girl is no big deal, as it is only entertainment democracy and it has nothing to do with any form of political democracy. At the same time, those people who spend a lot of time studying democracy are not big deal either, because we cannot use a headful of democratic blueprint with some articles and clauses and expect it to be brought into existence.
In this sense, one should change the idea that democracy is always linked to lofty elitist activities. Of course, the fact that democratic ideas are so popular were due to the efforts by those elites.
(EastSouthWestNorth) August 28, 2005.
People seemed to be in love with how easy it was to cast votes via SMS. But let us remember that about 1 billion Chinese people do not have mobile phones, so this would be a small-circle election. The bigger problem with SMS voting is vote-buying.
At one time, Taiwan had a huge problem with vote-buying. But today, the voting procedure has been changed so that it is economically unwise to try to buy votes. In Taiwan, you have to go down to the voting station. Your vote must be a secret ballot. When movie star Bridget Lin waved her ballot to the press in the 2004 presidential election, she was referred for prosecution. Why was this significant? Someone can pay you NT$2,000 for your vote, you can take the money but only you will know whom you actually voted for. And the common advice was this, "If someone offers to buy your vote, take their money and vote your conscience." And your conscience would be to vote against whosoever needs to pay for your vote.
If now you want to try SMS voting, then I will set up shop somewhere. I will pay 100 RMB for anyone who walks through the front door with a mobile phone. I will personally cast the vote via that mobile phone before I pay up. All this will happen away from the purview of election officials. This cannot be what you want.
Why hold an election? It could not just be for emotional catharsis, as much of the above celebration over Super Girl was about. You do not hold an election just to feel good. There has to be a higher purpose.
What was the purpose of Super Girl? It was to let the voters chose their favorites among a short list of competitors, on the basis of singing, dancing, appearance, personality or whatever. There are no real consequences afterwards. Li Yuchun, the girl with the weakest voice among the final five, won this singing competition. So what? No big deal.
Now what about the election of a future president of China? It could not just be for emotional catharsis. It will be to elect the leader for the next four years. Hopefully, it will be the person whose priorities are acceptable to the people and who has the qualifications to implement the campaign promises. There can be plenty of consequences, though. And it will be big deal.
Who wins presidential elections? You may hope that this is the person whose priorities are acceptable to the people and who can implement campaign promises. But that is the wrong answer. Presidential elections are won by people who are good at winning presidential elections. This is tautologically true and not subject to debate.
What are the qualifications for winning presidential elections? Here are some important qualities:- good looks; name recognition; interesting personal history; clean family record; personal wealth; political connections; big campaign donors; public speaking and debate skills, thus favoring those with acting backgrounds; speechwriter teams; consultant team; public relations team; campaign finance management; opposition research; friendly media relations; pathological lying (as in staring at someone in the eyes and saying something that one knows to be totally false). I don't think anyone believes that this is incorrect. However, these qualities may and may not lead to the election of the person whose priorities are acceptable to the people and who can implement campaign promises. Instead, this is what might happen.
The first problem is that the winner may have a set of real priorities that may be quite the opposite to the campaign promises. He may promise to reduce the socio-economic inequality but his first action may be a tax cut for the rich (see George W. Bush, USA); he may promise to rid the country of corruption but his first action is to set up a special office to collect payoffs more efficiently (Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil); he may promise to fight against the WTO reforms, but immediately introduce structural shocks when elected (Alberto Fujimori, Peru); he may promise to defend the currency, but immediately devalue it when elected (Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico); he may promise to clean up the environment but he will in fact do nothing at all because there is no personal benefit (George W. Bush again); and so on. The eventual winner said what he had to say in order to win, but he may have a different set of agenda in mind.
The second problem is the winner may not have the ability to implement campaign promises. He may have been sincere about wanting to get rid of corruption, but he is sitting on top of a corrupt bureaucracy of millions of officials (Vicente Fox, Mexico; Alfredo Torrero, Peru). He can't fire all of them, because the country would grind to a halt. He can't be a gradualist because he has only got four (or six) years; in fact, he is DOA (dead on arrival) because he is incapable of making it happen. Usually, the reformer is an outsider and he can't make everything happen by fiat.
The people in China seemed to think that the priority is get to vote first, and then they can worry about those other issues. No, the sum total of the last 20 to 30 years of wasted time in so many Latin American countries after the military dictatorship era was that once you let some of these people in, they will change the system in their favor and it will be hell to pay afterwards. You need to design a system up front that leads to your stated purposes instead of favoring those who exploit the characteristics of a system. This is not just a set of laws and rules etched in stone, and it is obviously far too premature to do so in China. Instead, it is about building a social environment in which people learn to be critical and look underneath the veneer. You can start by listening to what any public figure (whether this is a national leader, scholar, writer, dissident, or blogger) say or write, and check against the facts. And then you won't get fooled again ...
(Asia Times) Liu YaLi. August 29, 2005.
As for certain overseas persons thinking that the SMS voting on Super Girl is an alternate rehearsal for Chinese democracy, that kind of talk is like saying that underground lottery betting or Hong Kong racehorse gambling is useful for opening up the country for development. Other than amazing people with the fervid imagination, those comments have no value beyond bringing unnecessary political terror onto Super Girl.
(Xici Hutong) Super Girl vs. Democracy. September 1, 2005.
The vastly popular Super Girl has finally ended, so we can now calmly talk about the subject of Super Girl. The original purpose of this entertainment program was to let the masses enjoy themselves. But because its voting process contains some implications for democratic election, it has attracted the attention of elite intellectuals discussing whether Super Girl has democratic meaning on the Internet.
The most noticeable thing about Super Girl is the enthusiasm of the fans: every weekend, the flights into Changsha is also packed with fans from everywhere. Outside the building of Hunan Satellite Televisions, thousands of fans congregate on both sides of the street. When the Super Girl competitors moved out of their hotels into villas, a group of fans reserved the hotel, ordered the cleaning staff not to remove anything and promptly searched for what the Super Girls left behind ...
This is certainly unprecedented fan behavior. Why did Super Girl receive so much adulation? From the entertainment field, why should some newcomers receive levels of enthusiasm that even super stars don't get? Obviously, the answer does not lie with the girls. The answer must be with the fans. The stars are still the same stars, but the fans are different. The Super Girl fans have unprecedented power and this stimulated their unprecedented enthusiasm to participate.
Idols and fans have a symbiotic relationship, but it was asymmetrical. The idols could dictate the emotional moods of the fans, but the fans could only offer some support in return. Suddenly, the fans own the power and they directly and indirectly determine the fate of their idols. This is the dream come true for the fans. With this power in hand, they now have enthusiasm and a sense of responsibility. So all sorts of fan alliances emerge everywhere to form a structure that has all the components. Under this purposeful and organized force, the enthusiasm for the Super Girls surpass those for established stars.
This is the attraction of democracy, and this is the reason why democracy became a universal value and why democratic rights are popularly supported and yearned for! Who doesn't want to possess this power? Who wants to put their fates into hands of others and obey their commands? From this viewpoint, the democratic system is the system that really meets human needs. From the day that it came out, it has the ability to expand itself. Not too many reasons need to be given to choose democracy, because democracy itself is a good reason whereas it requires many reasons to explain why democracy should be rejected.
From the viewpoint of abstract values and common interests, the advantages of democracy are obvious. But democracy also happens to be a higher level need in human society. Like high-level consumption, its realization depends on certain socio-economic conditions. For this reason, as a popular political right and as a continuing political tradition, modern democratic systems did not appear in Europe until after 1870. In the developed western countries, it did not appear until after the second world war. After the cold war ended in the 1990's, democracy was able to expand more widely around the world.
In those countries without the requisite social and economic conditions, the democratic system was distorted into many types of minority rules. Of course, even these minority rules are better than dictatorships although they are still far from meeting expectations.
From the international experience, the superiority of democracy in economically developed countries with a large middle-class is obvious. But in economically underdeveloped countries with a small middle-class, the superiority of democracy remains to be proven and requires detailed analyses of the specific circumstances. This author is opposed to "instantaneous democracy" in China, not based upon any assertion that democratic systems are inferior to totalitarian rule. Rather, to transit from China's present authoritarian system under the constraints of the current conditions into a different model immediately can trigger crises and cause unbearable chaos and disasters in China.
Democracy via universal suffrage by itself is no doubt worthy of pursuit, but it is not the only human need. In the world of ideas, people can affirm it without any hesitation. In the world of experience, people must compare it against other needs and consider the trade-offs. The practical conditions may impose conflicts among various different goals and people can only choose the most important goals.
In analyzing the gains and losses of the breakup of eastern Europe, people like Qin Hui affirmed this path based upon these facts: the people of the former Soviet Republics all support the reforms, because public opinion polls shows that they do not want to return to the former political system. This is the typical straw man! The issue with this route is not that it completed the political transformation, but because it paid an excessive price for this transformation (the breakup of the country, the retrogression of the economy by fifty years and the devaluate of the currency by a factor of 60,000). This is a price that a China which does not have the natural resources cannot afford to pay. The really valuable question should be: compared to before the political reform, which kind of living condition do you prefer?
The elite intellectuals will not ask that question. Their procedure is as follows: they will tell people that their medicine prescription is beneficial and cheap, and when people pay a high price to buy the medicine, they found out that the effect was not as good as advertised. Then the elite intellectuals say: "If you are not satisfied, you can return the goods; but you won't get any cash back and you have to pay a high processing fee." Of course, people won't do that. Thus, the elite intellectuals say, "Nobody is returning any goods, and this proves that our medicine is satisfying everyone."
Although the ranking of the Super Girl competitors were determined by the number of SMS messages and this has some resemblance to democratic elections, there are also some differences. The most important key difference is that the voting fans have the power, but they do not experience any consequences.
In direct elections, the voters cast a vote for someone and that implies making a choice for certain policies as well as the governing style of the individual. During that term of office, you must bear the consequences of everything that this individual do, whether good or bad, satisfactory or not. The responsibility for all the consequences will therefore rein in their emotions as well as motivate them to participate. Because there are consequences, people will vote rationally and not emotionally. Because they are concerned that bad things could happen, more people are forced to participate.
The Super Girl voters have no responsibility for anything after the vote, so they will never have any regrets and they can let their emotions run. Their only concern is not getting enough votes, so they try to lobby or buy more votes. This feeling of having the power to affect the outcome without worrying about any consequences must be very cool, and probably the greatest enjoyment in life. Therefore, the enthusiasm of the fans never waned and in fact increased as the competition continued. It was a great success for the media to bring so much enjoyment to the people.
Some people criticized that the enthusiasm of the fans changed the nature of the program and reduced its cultural content. One of the expert judges Hei Nan said: "The fans are the people most unconcerned about the singing. They only need to see their idol on stage. As long as the idol stands there, it does not matter how she sings, they will cheer. Therefore, success does not depend only on singing, but it depends more on personal charm and other complex reasons. The winner of the most recent round Lee Yichun is unimpressive with her singing. But so what? The demands on the Super Girls are the same as for singing stars, for whom singing skill is not the sole criterion either. As undistinguished as the singing of Andy Lau or Gigi Leung is, they can still be popular and enduring. So why should we have a single dimension for judging Super Girl? If customer satisfaction is the ultimate standard to rate products, then the acceptance by the audience is the most convincing standard to rate singers. There is no single formula that will satisfy everybody, but compared to the black-box operations of so many other music competitions, the Super Girl voting by SMS messages is so much more open and transparent.
In direct elections, the election result is not the end of the game. Rather, it is the start of a new game. People will pay attention, they will personally experience and they will repeatedly reflect on their own choices. Although concern about their personal interests compels people to participate, the complexity of public affairs may cause enthusiasm to wane. In the complicated public sphere, many people do not know enough to make independent judgment. Therefore, their choices are largely based upon the hollow promises from politicians and the interpretation of opinion leaders who hold speaking rights. As because there will be a gap between reality and ideal, empty promises will also win over objective analysis and get more votes. The people will usually be disappointed afterwards, and how can they not be disappointed? It is usual for the voters to be disappointed. It would be unusual for them not to be disappointed. When the people see through the phoniness of the politicians and had enough of the interpretation from the opinion leaders, they will have less expectations from elections and their desire to vote will wane. In democratic country, unless there is something unusual happening, it is a popular phenomenon to see voting ratings decline gradually.
But the fans do not face these complexities when the vote. They only have to vote the idol of their hears. When they are done with voting, the game is over and there are no consequences or more endings to worry about. The fans will simply move on to follow the next dream and start a new game.
Although the enthusiasm of Super Girl was most impressive, the cumulative votes in the final round was still less than 10 million. If each mobile phone cast 15 vote and a single person can have multiple mobile phones, then the total number of voters is in the order of several hundred thousand. This number would be astonishing for any other television program. But Super Girl was the center of attention for the entire country and its audience exceeded even that of the CCTV Spring Festival special. There were supposedly four hundred million views. If several hundred thousand people voted, then the voting rate is about 0.2%. In a direct election, this result will probably be invalidated.
Therefore, the high viewership for Super Girl was not connected to the SMS voting method and the reason must be something else. But things are not so simple. In the final analysis, Super Girl is a commercial operation in the entertainment industry. Its success must have commercial and entertainment factors. But the design of the SMS voting method is certainly one reason why this show broke out from other similar shows.
Since the SMS voting allows singers to win on the basis of the number of fans, this stirred the enthusiasm of the fans. The extraordinary enthusiasm of the fans and frequent interaction with the singers created interesting gimmicky ideas for the media. Some newspapers produce 32-page or even 40-page reports on the Super Girls. The media barrage brought public attention, and led more people to become fans. The market determined media action, and the media had no choice but to chase the Super Girl stories.
Within the media industry, there is even this talk: if any newspaper has no Super Girl story, then wages will be held back starting from the department heads; if any newspaper has Super Girl news, it is guaranteed to sell out! Under this repeated process, Super Girl achieved its great success. From this viewpoint, Zhang Liangying generated more discussion and her contributions to the success of Super Girl were more than the top vote-getter Li Yichun.
Not only that, the fans follows the Super Girls in ways that are different from singing stars. Before this, the Super Girls were just common people. Their fame were due to the SMS votes by the fans. The fans and the media combined to make the Super Girls into stars. The fans witness it with their own eyes and they caused their idols to rise. From the anonymity of the initial rounds to the starry grand final, Super Girl showed how the contestants grew and gave the fans a sense of psychological accomplishment. For the Super Girls and their fans, this may be their greatest moment of pure beauty in their lives, even if it is so brief.
If pure beauty can touch people, it naturally captured the hearts of millions. As a viewing spectacle, Super Girl also had a style that is a fresh breath of air compared to the standard fare in the entertainment world. Although the success of Super Girl was obvious, there was also an element of luck. Special quality people like Zhang Liangying and Li Yichun are those lucky factors for the extraordinary success of Super Girl. A few people even believed that the Chengdu regional competition was a better show than the grand final.
Super Girl was not only a commercial success. It also realized the largest known general civil mobilization known in terms of numbers. It has provided plenty of rich material in terms of operational procedure, information transmission and public opinion movements. This article attempted to take a look at this from the viewpoint of democratic politics. But the democratic system is just a historical moment, whereas entertainment is eternal. Entertainment's implications for people and society is much more deeper and broader than democracy. From the viewpoint of social psychology, we can see how this program touched the inner desires of people. From the viewpoint of economics, we can see how media can generate effective demand. From the viewpoint of political science, we can see how to get people together, lead public opinion and so on.
Super Girl was a glorious success. It created new lifestyles for young people, it created new game rules for entertainment, and it created a common dream in an era of diverse interests to attract people from all ages and sectors and give people hope and goals. It let dreams become reality and it let the unthinkable become the obvious.
(Xici Hutong) Democratic Elections and Super Girl: Will Li Yuchun become the president? By Hui Tong.
I agree that the American presidential election works like this: you choose between the apple on the left of the capitalist or the one in his right hand. It does not matter whether it was Bush I or Bush II, Clinton or Gore, it makes no difference to the ordinary American citizens. If if there were judicial disputes leading to a presidential vacuum, the people continue to live calmly. That would be impossible in Third World countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Korea or China. This has less to do with the quality of the American voters or citizens, and more to do with the high quality of their establishments.
... In answer to the question, "Can democratic elections lead to Li Yuchun being elected?" it is certainly possible that Li Yuchun may be elected, or even an Adolf Hitler. But that is not the important thing; after all, we ended up with the Ten Years of Chaos without going through any elections.
Some people admired American elections, but I think that ill-informed and pointless American elections are unimportant. Even people like Schwarzenegger can be a state governor. If the minor actor Ronald Reagan can be a two-term president, Schwarzenegger can probably be a president too. Their performances during the elections were unimportant. Did you think that the people can make proper choices on the basis of a few election posters, some televised debates and a tremendous deluge of negative news? Will the people be able to perceive the real "person"? Not unless the American people are God-like.
In China, things are different. Free elections can lead to utter chaos. No matter whether before or after the election, the majority will have no idea who they are voting for! Some people are naive enough to think that if you run some advertisements, make some statements and hold some debates, then that is democracy. Actually, all those thinks were prepared by thinktanks and typed by by secretaries. You have no idea about the true measure of the candidates.
The allure and core of democratic elections has less to do with who to select than who to reject. Demcoratic elections are less about "selecting the good" than "eliminating the bad."
When the right to "eliminate the bad" is in the hands of the people, the "public servants" will be more wary. They won't just look towards their bosses, but they will know that they are working for the people and looking after their interests.
Democractic election is a process for the people to "eliminate the bad." The people do not know how to "select the good" due to not having the right to know or having unequal access to information, and even the American people do not have real choices. But the people can use their personal experience to "eliminate the bad." This is why I say that the so-called "democratic quality of the people" is unimportant.
Are the ordinary citizens of the United States all "experts" and "elites"? No. But they know that this is a lifestyle, and this can be achievable in China with twenty years of education.