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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

'Survivor's' China is not much like the real country


One thought passed through my mind as I settled back in the easy chair: What China is this?

The first few minutes of the latest installment of CBS TV’s reality program “Survivor” was unfolding. This time around, the “Survivor” contestants are in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. The next few weeks of their lives will be spent in makeshift camps on the picturesque banks of Zhelin Lake.

The opening scene was shot in Mi Tuo Temple. Aided by maroon-robed monks, the contestants clanged bells, burned incense, chanted and bowed. It was, show host and producer Jeff Probst said, “a traditional welcoming ceremony.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if those were real monks or Chinese actors. Whoever they were, I knew one thing: They were government-approved.

Religious practice and media are the two most controlled areas of life in China today. When the two mix -- filming a religious ceremony -- I can only imagine how much government oversight was involved.

Variety, the entertainment industry trade newspaper, reports that the production of U.S. entertainment projects in mainland China is rare, because of logistical and government restrictions. “CBS’s lensing of an entire series is a precedent for an American network,” it said.

To obtain the necessary permits to film in China, a foreign company must first submit a script outline and shooting schedule for approval by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. However, if the production includes scenes featuring the military, religion or other sensitive cultural issues, the agency requires a full script review. I wonder what kind of negotiations took place before “Survivor” filmed in Mi Tuo Temple.

The week the season opener aired, NCR reported that Bishop John Han Dingxiang of Yongnian, China, died while in police detention. Han, not a government-sanctioned bishop, had spent nearly 30 of the last 45 years in prison or police detention. Christian house churches that resist joining patriotic associations are routinely raided and leaders arrested. Adherents to Buddhism and Taoism have their own government-sanctioned patriotic associations.

Chinese state media regularly castigate the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. Oct. 9 Xinhua, the official state news agency released a commentary titled, “The Dalai Lama: Enlightened or Evil?” The commentary concluded he was evil.

Watchdogs of human rights and religious freedom routinely issue reports condemning China for these abuses. Some have stepped up their campaigns as world attention focuses on Beijing’s hosting the 2008 Olympics.

Given this situation, Chinese authorities must have recognized the chance to show Chinese monks praying in a temple on prime time American TV as an invaluable opportunity.

“Survivor: China” is being closely watched by Chinese in America to see how their nation is portrayed. Sean Chou has compiled some of the reactions on his Web log at

Chinese from Jiangxi say they didn’t recognize the “traditional welcoming ceremony” as any tradition they ever practiced. They also noted that the wilderness in which the “Survivor” cast camps is a nature preserve at the crossroads of several major highways and a popular, crowded tourist site.

In an interview with the Web site Reality TV World, Probst was asked why he went to China. “Culture,” he said. “China was exciting from a creative point of view. This culture that dates back 5,000 years gives you so much to draw from.”

Culture is a social construct. The culture we see on “Survivor: China” is more constructed than most, it would seem. It is a fiction created by Western TV and no doubt guided by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. That doesn’t -- shouldn’t -- come as a surprise, but it does bear keeping in mind.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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