Why Ban Time Travel? Intentional Inscrutability and the Return of the Sage King

Just a few days before the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei 艾未未, the CCP issued a statement on popular culture that nearly escaped the eyes of the international press. The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television announced a decision to discourage Chinese television and film companies from producing more “time travel dramas” 穿越剧. Cinema and television shows set in classical China have been popular at least for several decades, but in the last year, numerous new series have shared a plot device in which characters from the modern era travel back in time. Generally, they initially have a difficult time adjusting, but soon fall in love and decide to stay in the past. The edict accuses producers of these dramas of distorting history, creating frivolous myths, and even promoting superstition and feudalism. Western media picked up the story a week or two later and enjoyed trumpeting the misleading headline, “China bans time travel!” but if one looks beyond the apparent absurdity of this decree, it can reveal something about the cunning strategy by which the Chinese Communist Party maintains a hold on sovereignty.

There’s little doubt that some CCP officials wince upon seeing their fictionalized subjects escaping into an idealized feudal past, but I doubt anyone believes these serials will inspire Chinese engineers to turn their backs on the Three Gorges and start wrenching on old DeLoreans. I’m sure the elders of the CCP are aware that China’s wistful TV time travelers threaten party hegemony just as much as the oversexed doctors on Grey’s Anatomy threaten to bring down the American health care system. But this is only the most recent such admonishment for Chinese broadcasters. When I was in China during 2002, the extremely popular Meteor Garden 流星花園 TV series starring Taiwan’s Flower Four boy band was banned for inciting materialism and frivolity in the nation’s youth (but unstated charges included taking too much market share from domestically produced series and being based on Japanese manga). In 2007, images of pigs were banned from CCTV’s airwaves in order to avoid offending Muslims during the Year of the Pig. So why does the party exert its power and influence through pronouncements on such apparently trivial issues, inciting begrudging compliance at home and derisive ridicule abroad?

The answer lays in the paternalism endemic in Chinese governance that, contrary to many Western expectations, is showing a strong continuity, if not resurgence, amidst economic liberalization. Just as the Great Wall historically protected China from marauding barbarians, the Ministry of Propaganda and its Great Firewall valiantly protect Chinese citizens from the barbarous excesses and foreign encroachments of free market capitalism. The fact that these dramas are produced domestically makes them all the more dangerous to the people’s morality. Anyone who believes that stability trumps freedom can perceive the threat in public protests or popular demonstrations, but it takes the expert tutelage of the party to recognize incipient moral decay being transmitted across the domestic airwaves. After all, the party is not criticizing the mere existence of time travel on the air, but its excessive promulgation and degeneration. Indeed, if not for the obvious constitutional implications, a moratorium on reality TV in the US (Sixteen and Pregnant? Really?) might seem tempting… Just as the US government justifies a broad array of actions as necessary to combat the shadowy force of terror, the Chinese government claims the need to protect its people from the amoral and omnipresent private interests. This moral critique of the market is virtually the only remnant of Communist ideology the CCP still puts into practice, but its perseverance is not surprising as the basic connection between sovereignty and moral guardianship it shares with Confucianism can be traced back through the imperial era to the mythical age of sage kings. This idea creates a thin string of rhetorical continuity connecting all Chinese sovereigns from Yao and Shun to Mao and Hu .

Time travel seems an odd place to make a moral stand, but the ability of the CCP to point out danger where most Westerners would never perceive it has become a useful strategy for asserting its relevance in the modern world. And the international media’s mockery and puzzlement at Chinese inscrutability, rather than shaming the CCP into an international dialogue on human rights issues, plays a crucial role in maintaining distance between the moral realm within China and the neoliberal rationality of outsiders. The Chinese people are immersed in a world of moral admonishments that most can blithely dismiss for themselves, while hoping less civilized countrymen take them to heart. But seeing such pronouncements mocked and misrepresented on a global stage only lends credence to xenophobic CCP rhetoric about Chinese historical particularism and the nefarious distortions of Western media. The party manages to portray international criticism of its actions, from banning time travel to imprisoning dissidents, as attacks on China, leading people to rationalize and even defend its government’s actions in the interest of saving face. Broadly glossing media maelstroms over obscure media guidelines and alleged criminals/media darlings as foreign attempts at meddling in domestic affairs renders the Western humanitarian critique inscrutable. 

To the outsider, the arrest of Ai Weiwei, the shutdown of the Internet in Xinjiang, and other apparently autocratic actions are indicative of a party clinging to questionable legitimacy, but bans on heterodox religion and other moral pronouncements just seem bizarre. However, when inordinate government attention to perceived problems such as TV time travel incites mockery in the international press, it allows the party to paint overt challenges to its authority as similarly trivial issues that have been blown out of proportion by ignorant or malicious foreigners. The befuddlement and criticism these latter interventions draw only reinforces the amorality of the West as opposed to the internal realm, which is focused on preserving a sense of virtue that no outsider can fully grasp because of its indefinable, but all-important, ‘Chinese characteristics.’ 


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