China bans soap opera for being too life-like
SEX, wealth, deceit and corruption -- even in Communist China they are the winning ingredients of a successful soap opera.
The latest runaway success on Chinese television has had to pay the ultimate price, however, for depicting the grubby reality too closely.
'Snail House' -- a show featuring shady communist officials, their mistresses and dodgy financial dealings -- has fallen foul of the censors.
For months, tens of millions of viewers have been following the twists and turns in the lives of two sisters who take different paths to escape their plight as "mortgage slaves".
'Snail House' is set in a fictional city that closely resembles Shanghai. The drama tells the tale of the sisters, who are struggling to buy a home in a country where 85pc of the population is priced out of the housing market.
One sister takes the quick route to riches, becoming the mistress of a corrupt Communist Party official to get his help to buy a flat.
Unfortunately for the producers, the plot line cuts too close to the bone.
Viewers believed that the corrupt official and fictional city bore a remarkably close resemblance to a district boss in Shanghai who fell victim to a purge of corrupt cadres in the metropolis in 2006.
Judging by internet forums, viewers also recognised the protagonists and were able to identify with their daily struggles.
One Beijing blogger, Beifeng, said: "The show is famous because it shows a lot of things from real life, like being a mortgage slave or mistress. These problems are the problems that people voice. So the government will definitely be sensitive to a show that touches on them."
Fans adore the show, not only for its depiction of the red-hot property market. They have also been fascinated by its take on office politics and the hints it offers on how to get around the boss and how to charm a government official.
As Tu Qiao, an independent journalist and writer, said: "The show sticks to a subject that is the most sensitive and causes the most anxiety in society: the skyrocketing property prices and the accompanying tragedies."
The censors, though, did not share the viewers' delight.
After the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television issued a notice to all media banning further broadcasts of the series, it promptly disappeared from China's hundreds of local channels.
It is not unusual for the censors to ban films, books or television programmes they deem unsuitable. The difference this time is that the television show's focus on the property market touched a chord with almost every Chinese -- from urban residents struggling to get a foot on the ladder to farmers confronted with the realisation that they will never be able to afford a home in the city.
For all the censors' best efforts, however, 'Snail House' has not vanished entirely.
Hundreds of websites have since sprung up, allowing audiences to download copies of the soap. (© The Times, London)