Chinese censors target short dramas that don’t adhere to family values

Tales about evil mothers-in-law have landed China’s wildly popular ultrashort dramas in trouble with official censors.

Bossy matriarchs who baby their adult sons are a staple of the latest entertainment craze among Gen Z in the country. They harangue daughters-in-law, the heroines of the shows, for subpar cooking and high electricity bills.

Sometimes, it gets weird. In one series, the older woman even helps her son shower and brush his teeth. Wronged and disgusted, the young wife plots revenge. In a dramatic finale, she reveals her mother-in-law’s bullying to her husband — or she dumps him and strikes out alone.

Over-the-top dramas about family bust-ups like these helped turn bite-sized soaps into a $5 billion industry for Chinese streaming giants. Now, Beijing is cracking down on the format’s allegedly “inappropriate” plots about marital strife for fear they will hurt the government’s campaign encouraging families to stay together and have more children.

Rising official concern about the corrupting influence of micro-dramas will probably slow the meteoric rise of the industry in China, experts say, and may accelerate studios’ efforts to go global.

After two years in which production companies have sprung up across the country to take advantage of an emerging trend — sometimes relying on ChatGPT to churn out scripts — the industry has reached a turning point, said Huang Zhongjun, a scholar at Zhejiang Normal University who has studied micro-dramas.

For Huang, the format has proven harmful to society in part because viewers are fed unrealistic plots that “vilify people and amplify conflicts” within families. Young people, who spend more time with their screens than real people, are becoming “emotionally deficient” and “unwilling to get married or have children,” he added.

Censors this month called out mother-in-law dramas for straying from “mainstream values” approved by the Chinese Communist Party. State media have since reported that the National Radio and Television Administration is conducting a nationwide review and will remove unapproved titles by June 1.

Since 2020, Chinese streaming giants and television studios have bet big on dramas that unfold in minutes overtaking slow-burn television among young viewers. In the format’s widespread appeal they also see an opportunity for to dominate global markets, much as ByteDance-owned TikTok did for short videos.

Writers and creators, many already attuned to the “invisible hand” of censorship, are beginning to jump to international production teams, said Oscar Zhou, a media studies lecturer at the University of Kent who is researching the industry.

“Conventional family values is something the government cares about a lot,” Zhou said. “They are trying to use short dramas to promote their own ideological agenda.”

That agenda involves more marriages and many more children as the country faces a demographic crisis that is fast becoming existential.

Since China’s population began to shrink in 2022, officials have stepped up controls on “unhealthy” portrayals of love and marriage in popular culture. At the same time, they have dialed up propaganda to encourage young couples to settle down and get busy having children.

But that effort to spread “positive energy” around marriage and childbearing has repeatedly clashed with the shifting ideals of young Chinese — particularly women — who are tired of government lectures about filial piety and familial responsibility.

The battle over lifestyle choices often plays out in popular culture, leaving officials scrambling to take control of content targeting young audiences using new mediums.

Ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations in February, young people, souring on the annual pilgrimage home for the holiday, flocked to an online game that mimicked “nosy aunts” asking prying questions about your love life. It was a hit — until it was taken down.

A brief window of relative freedom for ultrashort dramas is now closing, too.

The industry’s early days were a freewheeling bonanza of content, as big tech firms poured investment into cheesy and schmaltzy shows in a bid to lure subscribers. Streaming platforms would churn out dramas at such a pace that even China’s well-practiced censors struggled to keep up.

Now, the country’s streaming giants will need to voluntarily censor themselves if they want to keep a slice of the $5 billion industry, analysts said.

After censors warned that the plots of series like “My Husband is a Mama’s Boy” were too “exaggerated” and negative, major Chinese short video platforms like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, promised to self-police content.

Bilibili, a rival service, announced it had taken down hundreds of shows that “deviated from the mainstream societal values.”

The crackdown is just the latest example of China’s censorship machine evolving to ensure new forms of popular culture remain on Communist Party…

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