Friday, March 19, 2010

The Life-and-Death Struggle for Chinese Home Owners: At Least in a TV Drama

Guo Haiping (right) and Guo Haizao, sisters experiencing the struggles for owning a home, in the TV drama Wo Ju.

To own a home could be a matter of life and death for Chinese people. This is one of the messages a popular yet controversial TV drama tries to send.

"Wo Ju" (蜗居, meaning living like a snail in a small place), a 33-part series adopted from a novel of the same title, was one of the most popular TV dramas in China in 2009. The show tells stories of conspiracy between corrupt officials and real estate developers, the disparity between haves and have-nots in urban China, and the tough life people have to live in order to save or make money for buying a home, among other things--all very familiar to Chinese people.

In the drama, which is set in contemporary China in a fictional Shanghai-like city of Jiangzhou (江州), a low-income family even lost a life in a stand-off against the demolishing of their ghetto. The developer offered the family a brand new apartment for free, something these people could never dream of owning, in exchange for the family dropping the charge against the developer for killing a family member during demolishing.

"A life exchanging for a home," a government official in the show said of the incident. And yet, this official is behind the demolishing effort and devotes himself to using his political power to make way for property developments, and then shares with the developers the huge profits.

Besides plots that vividly depict today's social reality in China, the censorship rumor around the show made it even hotter. The rumor started when the rerun of the show on a Beijing television channel stopped abruptly after 10 episodes. Words then spread on the Internet that China’s governing body of broadcast media ordered the show off the air, on the ground of sexual content.

Viewers also noticed that the TV version of "Wo Ju" had 33 episodes, while the web and DVD versions had 35 episodes. Beijing News said in a story that Beijing TV cut two episodes' length of sexually explicit content before showing it.

Wang Lizhi, a university professor in Beijing, said the show went through the first round of broadcast across China but is not up for reruns like many other popular TV dramas. As Prof. Wang saw it, the issue with the show was not obscene content, but sharp language.

"Wo Ju" is known for its stinging comments that reflect the reality only too candidly. For example, one character told his wife that he took a usurious loan in order to make down payment for their new home. “The interest is only a little bit higher than bank loans,” he says, trying to calm down his furious wife. This comment implies that mortgage in China are having interests almost as high as usury.

In another scene, the wife of the low-income family complains: “We are all proletariat, all working people. There is neither lowliness nor nobleness among labor divisions, but why in a place like Jiangzhou some people live in garden villas…while we live in such a place [a city ghetto]? We are working honestly, too!”

"Such extreme language will influence social mood,” Prof. Wang said. When such expressions gain currency among people, they might encourage extreme actions. “It is better to use rationality. There is no benefit if people are emotional,” he said. For him, stopping reruns of the show was more of a stability consideration.

Despite the controversy, the series is still available on various websites.

News reports about the controversy:

Watch the show:

Related story: