‘Secrets of China’ on BBC Three/Part One – Fit in or Fail?

At the moment, it seems like China, or Asia, is a hot topic (hate that phrase) on TV in the UK. Fine with me as it feeds my specialism! There are documentaries, shows and segments left, right and centre stage…especially on the BBC. The most recent being ‘Secrets of China’ on BBC Three, presented by the up-and-coming Billie J D Porter (great interview with her in Marie Claire here), who I must say is pretty instinctive and real, urban and grounded in terms of her reporting. She seems a city girl renegade yet at the same time emotionally humanistic, ebbing and flowing between the two. Brutal honesty in part, which makes me smile. Always needed in the world…though I felt she might have held back in this programme. Her background is as a music journalist for NME, Vice and Dazed and Confused, making online shows for Vice TV on subjects including beauty pageants, prostitution and superfans. They’re even calling her the female Louis Theroux (tenuous), but I can’t see it…she’s much too pop-culture and fashion conscious for that comparison.

“I try to avoid moralising…I think that a lot of ‘yoof’ programming can be patronising or has to have a  ‘lesson’ at the bed – but life isn’t like that.” – Billie J D Porter

The first in the series of ‘Secrets of China’ is called ‘Fit In or Fail’. Remind you of something? It definitely reminds me of the other BBC series recently aired – ‘Are our kids tough enough? Chinese School’. Read my blog posts about it here. Having lived in China for a few years, and constantly working with the younger Chinese generation internationally, I was intrigued to see what “secrets” Billie would find out…I had a feeling it wouldn’t be new to me.

The show aims to introduce viewers to a China never seen before…with a population 1.3 billion, 1 in 5 of the world’s people live in China…a place where young people are under pressure and you have to obey the rules, but not everyone can be the best. Billie reveals what happens when you push to the extremes, finding out how China tries to fix the children who have crossed the line…discovering why online gaming is becoming increasingly popular as a way to escape the system. She asks whether the Chinese can really keep the young in line and in happy or is the whole country heading for an explosive stand-off?

Secrets of China 2

Secrets of China 1

She starts her journey in Hebei province at a bootcamp school for problem teenagers to experience extreme discipline, “China style”. She was not allowed her valuables or mobile phone. The children there spend nine months in intensive training away from family and friends in order to get them back into mainstream school…”the kids cannot focus and are overactive…it is our role to get them back into schools”. There is no softly-softly approach (referenced in the last blog post in relation to Chinese School)…it is all about following orders. A third of the boys at the school have a major problem – they are addicted to online video games specifically ‘League of Legends’. Not good at class or studying they wanted to prove themselves in other ways. Their real lives and pressure of studying made life unbearable enough to make them immersive themselves online. 24 million teenagers are believed to be addicted to video games. The bootcamp consists of endless repetitive tasks like cleaning…their daily routine for nine months. For an hour they have to stand up and stare at a single dot on a blackboard. The purpose of that lesson was to be calm and improve concentration. They claimed after doing this over time, you feel the benefits. Does this camp really work?

Secrets of China 3

Standard schools are still of a military discipline. It is rare that students break the rules. Is the pressure worth it? If you don’t go to university does it limit your job prospects…you’re life will be very difficult in a competitive city like Beijing. Parents put more stress on you…they have high expectations. Billie asked whether they had ever thought about leaving school? Living in China and being part of the system it’s never crossed my mind. There are 10 million applicants to only 7 million university places. Teenagers doing what their told without question feels very different to back home in the UK. Why are the Chinese so obedient? The country has been a communist state for 70 years…protests are banned and no other political parties are banned. It is all about “respectful authority”.

She visits a Chairman Mao themed restaurant popular with the older generation in China (something so kitsch culture about these places yet embedded in China’s history). Mao died in 1976 but why is he still a hero here? “Long live Chairman Mao”…Mao liberated China, encouraged business. People don’t talk about the other side of Mao…tens of thousands died of starvation, political opponents killed, and young people indoctrinated. The older generation got used to oppression and strict rules in their own lives and whether this is reflected in why parents have such high expectations of their kids. China’s one child policy often means the family’s hopes are pinned on that one child. How different is life in China today to when you were younger? The change is drastic…in 1978, the reform and opening up in China changed the way in which we worked and travelled, improvement in living standards, buying our own car. The change happened in a small amount of time…so fast for a country to be transformed.

Not everybody can be the best. Back at the bootcamp, they embark on a 43km walk. It is called “survival training”. The point is to go from ‘not used to it’ to ‘getting used to it’. What do you think society expects of you? Everyone’s ideal image of a 15-year-old girl should be quiet, willing to study and obey. My mum hopes I become normal. She hopes I go to school like a should, stay home, not drink or smoke. They move on to talk of air pollution, the result of industrialisation. “The more you walk the easier it will get”. Billie asks, do you feel like you really learn something from doing activities like this? I feel like I will grow up. I will work harder and obey my mum. Billie starts to believe in the methods. She is called a hero by the bootcamp leader as she walked 43km on her first day receiving a “marching warrior” certificate…also seeing that the teacher has a special bond with the students.

Billie went on to research what games teenagers are playing and why heading to an internet cafe for research. ‘League of Legends’ was the most popular game. Shanghai the centre of the billion dollar gaming business, it’s a spectator sport too – such as the ‘LoL Pro League’Online gaming is a little like football where the top players can earn up to six figure salaries. Millions of viewers watch the league online. Video games don’t require too much energy to play…there’s a responsibility with the parents and the kids to know when to stop. Why are kids so attracted to these fantasy worlds? You don’t become fashionable through this…but if enough kids talk about it they’ll want to watch it. The gamers have groupies and super-fandom…which Billie doesn’t usually associate with the scene. In team Royal’s group apartment, where they are paid to play for 8 hours a day (and have a chef and PA), the gamers pretty much play non-stop. “It’s intense.” Girl visitors aren’t allowed. Are there downsides to spending hours in front of a computer…they are in a minority. Gaming in China is a way of life.

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Secrets of China 5

It’s hard to get to the bottom of what gaming means to the pros so Billie went to the top to meet the owner of one of China’s gaming teams. He went to boarding school and university in the UK so had a pretty good transcultural reference point. Do they enjoy living in the fantasy worlds they create rather in reality? It is a way of escaping from the mundane life of school and home. Is there anyway to escape the system here? It’s suicide if you try. The state chooses what’s mainstream and you must conform to that…it’s like wearing a mask. When you game online you can take off that mask. Does the lack of freedom here make people unhappy here? They just accept it. You don’t see people protesting about it…even through protesting they can’t do much. Where the line is questionable, the law is not explicit. At this point, the programme moves onto contexts of Hong Kong, specifically the recent protests (a huge area of research for me as you know)…the Umbrella Revolution, Umbrella Protest, Occupy Central.

Hong Kong is the only place with a different government and freedom of speech…however, there are signs that Beijing want to control the political state in HK. The 2014 movements were in response to this. Was any change brought about through the protest? There was no political compromise for political reform but the awakening of people, people are more aware of social affairs and political issues than before. Hong Kong is becoming more and more “Mainlandised” (what a terrible term, again…hybridisation of language goes hand in hand with China talk)…freedom of speech/rule of law are being invaded or repressed by the core values of mainland not Hong Kong. The consequence of protesting in Mainland China is horrible. We have to think very carefully as we risk our life and risk the future of our family. Information about the protests were blocked from being leaked to the mainland fearing it would spark protest in other Chinese cities. The fear of being Mainlandised in Hong Kong is obvious but not everyone in Hong Kong opposes a Beijing rule…they stand behind the Chinese system. They think there is a misunderstanding between the system and the people. They think the people are scared by the control and one-party system. I believe the current political system suits China…within China there isn’t as much discontent as people think, they need stability. More people are getting wealthy and living better lives due to the government. If that’s what’s working now, there’s not much more to ask for.

To conclude, Billie states she thinks she is starting to understand China as a stable, ordered society where everyone should stay in line. Yet conversely, when walking through the site of the protest that still remains (as I did in March 2015), it made her think of those who are trying to be different, those trying to make change. I’m looking forward to being back in Hong Kong in just over one week’s time, then onto Taiwan and China too.

“What all the people in this episode had in common was that they were all proud to be Chinese – how will they shape the country?”

For once, this was a programme that didn’t play on the common Chinese stereotypes or notions of “Chineseness”…I was happy there was no typically Chinese background soundtrack to make it a more “Chinese” experience (a pet hate that Chinese School was terrible for). It articulately covered a broad spectrum of the younger generation in China’s current reality, virtual and digital realities, expected and potential futures, and the inner turmoil, tensions and questions they are asking to themselves, each other and the wider world. I want to know whether Billie’s China experience has changed her UK way of life and thinking…even in such a short time. To next week’s episode…until then, I’ve got a trip to Asia to plan.

Secrets of China 6

Secrets of China 7

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