The problem with hanging out dirty laundry
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.