The prob­lem with hang­ing out dirty laun­dry

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - REFLECT -

Bai Wan­qing got used to lis­ten­ing to the griev­ances of war­ring par­ties and try­ing to ap­pease them, but it must now be her who feels like the ag­grieved party after the author­i­ties took her TV pro­gram off the air. Her crime? Fronting an episode of the show on Oct 19 and 20 that, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial no­tice, ex­erted a bad in­flu­ence on the pub­lic by giv­ing un­due at­ten­tion to the seamier side of hu­man na­ture.

The for­mula for the pro­gram, New Old Un­cle, is fairly sim­ple: its pro­duc­ers gather mem­bers of a fam­ily or a group of peo­ple into a stu­dio where they talk openly about dis­putes they are hav­ing. The cen­tral fig­ure in the episode that so of­fended of­fi­cial­dom was a 22-yearold sin­gle mother in Shang­hai who has given birth to three chil­dren to three dif­fer­ent men over the past four years.

View­ers heard tales of ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs and al­leged rapes. The woman and her three chil­dren live with her mother and grand­mother. Her fa­ther, who has a fam­ily sep­a­rate to the woman’s mother, whom he never mar­ried, was said to have stopped sup­port­ing the fam­ily fi­nan­cially three years ago. The fam­ily of six live on the grand­mother’s pen­sion.

When the woman was 17 she had a short re­la­tion­ship with a hair­dresser in Fu­jian prov­ince to whom she be­came preg­nant, but he aban­doned her be­fore she gave birth. She al­leges that over the next two years she was raped twice, first by a taxi driver and then by two other men, and as a re­sult gave birth to two more chil­dren.

“Why didn’t you go to the po­lice?” Bai, the pre­sen­ter, de­manded of the woman at one point. In fact the mother and grand­mother so frus­trated Bai that she an­grily in­ter­rupted the mother and the grand­mother sev­eral times as they talked dur­ing the two-hour show.

The mother and the grand­mother said they thought that if they did as Bai sug­gested the po­lice would not have taken the case se­ri­ously be­cause the pair lacked firm ev­i­dence. They con­tacted the show’s pro­duc­ers, they said, hop­ing they could get some help in ob­tain­ing a hukou (res­i­dency per­mit) for the three chil­dren.

As the fam­ily hung out its filthy laun­dry in pub­lic, huge swathes of the au­di­ence were ob­vi­ously

The pro­gram was mis­lead­ing and some­times risked ru­in­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween par­ents and chil­dren.” In­ter­net user com­ment­ing on pro­grams like

NewOldUn­cle shocked, and there was wide­spread crit­i­cism of the pro­gram after the episode ap­peared on the in­ter­net. Some said it was in ex­tremely poor taste, and that it was wrong to use some­one’s pri­vate mis­ery to seek high rat­ings, and Bai was one of those in the fir­ing line.

“I’m so glad Aun­tie Bai has fin­ished her lessons,” my younger cousin in Shang­hai said sar­cas­ti­cally in a WeChat mes­sage. “I can now have din­ner qui­etly with­out ar­gu­ing with my mother about that TV pro­gram. I’m sick and tired of the show.”

The New Old Un­cle first went to air in 2012, a makeover of a pro­gram called Old Un­cle that ap­peared four years ear­lier. In Shang­hai and sur­round­ing ar­eas the term “old un­cle” refers to some­one who is adept at han­dling all kinds of is­sues in a big fam­ily.

True to its name, the pro­gram has helped many set­tle dis­putes, be they within fam­i­lies or be­tween neigh­bors and friends. It has at­tracted mil­lions of view­ers, most ap­par­ently in their late 50s and older. As one of the main pre­sen­ters, Bai had been the face of the Entertainment Chan­nel in Shang­hai al­most ev­ery night at 6:30 pm. With her sharp tongue and quick wit, this woman in her late 60s acted like a judge on the screen. She was also re­garded as a voice for older peo­ple but not for the young.

“The pro­gram was mis­lead­ing and some­times risked ru­in­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween par­ents and chil­dren,” one in­ter­net user says. “In the eyes of Aun­tie Bai we are all bad chil­dren with an eye on noth­ing but our par­ents’ prop­er­ties. There are cheats at all lev­els of so­ci­ety.”

In the pro­gram Bai of­ten ad­vised that older peo­ple should take good care of their wealth, in­sin­u­at­ing that their chil­dren were not to be trusted.

“This kind of pro­gram that of­fers me­di­a­tion is mis­lead­ing,” says Xu Jin, in her early 40s, who works for an ac­count­ing firm in Shang­hai.

“The pro­gram did not equip my mother-in-law with the kind of le­gal knowl­edge that the pro­gram claimed to give out. In fact since watch­ing the pro­gram she has be­come down­right cyn­i­cal and a lot worse.”

In fact many of those who have crit­i­cized the show have ar­gued that its pro­duc­ers were more in­ter­ested in gen­er­at­ing high rat­ings than in be­ing a pro bono dis­penser of le­gal ad­vice.

And if there was any in­ter­est in en­sur­ing that jus­tice took its full course there was scant ev­i­dence of that in the of­fend­ing episode, in which the pro­duc­ers man­aged to track down the al­leged rapists and sim­ply asked that they pay money to­ward the three chil­dren’s up­keep rather than treat­ing the is­sue as a se­ri­ous crim­i­nal mat­ter.

This kind of tele­vi­sion show, in which a cast con­sist­ing of a pre­sen­ter, a lawyer, a psy­chol­o­gist and a few mem­bers of the pub­lic who act like a jury, has popped up all over China. In fact it is hard to fathom out why any­one of a sound mind would want to have their pri­vate mat­ters aired so pub­licly, and in front of mil­lions of strangers.

Most of the par­tic­i­pants seem to be what you might call un­der­priv­i­leged, and the rea­son may be that it is these very peo­ple who can­not af­ford to ob­tain pro­fes­sional help. In fact Bai has es­sen­tially said that in this re­gard her show has per­formed an in­valu­able pub­lic ser­vice.

Well and good, but some­one has to draw the line some­where re­gard­ing the na­ture of these pro­grams, and on this oc­ca­sion I tend to think it is the Shang­hai author­i­ties that have per­formed an in­valu­able pub­lic ser­vice.

LIANG LUWEN / FOR CHINA DAILY

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