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The BBC in the brave new China

After the box office success of BBC drama Sherlock, a look at who is accessing the BBC in China, and why.

Dianjing Li
12 February 2016
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The Sherlock special included a clue for Chinese audiences. Credit: AP/Press Association Images

“My first thought about the BBC is ‘this is a foreign medium’, and the second is that they are good at making high-end documentaries,” Wang Anzhuo says. “But I really started admiring the BBC for its taste in entertainment after watching the great Sherlock.” Like other Chinese fans of the BBC drama, the 27-year-old photographer calls both the character of Sherlock and the actor Benedict Cumberbatch ‘Curly Fu’, referencing the sleuth’s hairstyle. Before Sherlock gained mass appeal in China, with 98 million people tuning into the third series, Wang thought of the BBC as a medium for elites. Like many in the country, she found it difficult to access due to language barriers and political censorship, but also because of cultural differences. The detective drama has broken through, with the Victorian ‘flashback’ Christmas special showing in cinemas up and down the country, raking in ¥161m (£16.86m). The BBC states on its website that “the ambition is to forge a new collaboration between the British and Chinese creative industries.” 

Will it work? According to Shi Lan, the Assistant General manager of SMG Pictures, the Chinese company that imported the Sherlock special, the BBC’s cultural programming is seen by Chinese audiences as “high-class spiritual food”. Shi explains that the BBC was already prestigious among the higher educated population in China due to the reliability of its information, as well as its unmatched documentaries and dramas. Meanwhile, shows like Sherlock have attracted younger audiences. There is particularly high demand for non-commercial, first-class cultural programming in the first-tier Chinese cities, like Beijing and Guangzhou, though the market remains small. Following the success of Sherlock’s ‘The Abominable Bride’, SGM Pictures will co-produce ‘Earth: One Amazing Day’ with BBC Earth Films and BBC World Service, for release in cinemas in 2017. 

Chinese audiences have very different and even conflicted attitudes towards the BBC. Influenced by state-level censorship and ideology, not everyone trusts the corporation, and not everyone has equal access to its content. Sherlock, as a TV show, is officially banned in China, but has been accessed widely through video streaming sites, along with other dramas such as BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders, BBC One’s The White Queen and E4's comedy drama Misfits. Many also use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to scale the online Great Wall and access BBC iPlayer. According to research by GlobalWebIndex, 38.5million people in China regularly accessed the service last year.

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Credit: BBC Earth Films / SMG Pictures

Meanwhile, the BBC and the Chinese government have developed a complex political and business strategy, establishing different websites aimed at different demographics. English-speaking Chinese have access to bbc.com, while BBC Chinese Net is blocked. However, the BBC News in Chinese is available. We should remember here that for Chinese society the BBC is not a public service broadcaster but an international company with a primary mission to make profit. Adoke Duan, a Beijing-based journalist, has used a VPN to follow the English-language BBC News for the last decade, along with CNN, The New York Times and The Financial Times. Marking the BBC, CNN and China Central Television (CCTV) on trustworthiness with 10 as most trustworthy, Adoke ranks the BBC 8, with CNN scoring 7 and CCTV 5. He echoes the general admiration for its documentaries, but thinks the BBC could further improve the diversity of its authors and the depth of its analyses. 

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Screenshot of bbc.co.uk/learningenglish/chinese.

Another major reason for Chinese people to tune into the BBC is to learn English. The BBC UK Network is aimed at introducing modern Britain and teaching native English, while BBC Learning English provides free English courses. Both collaborate actively with Chinese institutions.  Ming Li is one example of a college student who relies on the BBC to improve her English, rather than for information. She prefers to download mp3s of BBC radio programmes. In her family, the BBC is now accepted, but it wasn’t always this way. Ming’s father says that before the 1990s, he and his wife both believed that the BBC was an enemy broadcasting station of the British imperialist state, with ulterior motives. In the intervening years he forgot about the BBC and seldom heard anything about it. That was before he became a big fan of the nature documentary series Wild China, co-produced in 2008 by the BBC Natural History Unit and China Central Television, and now of Sherlock and ‘Curly Fu’. He sees programmes like Wild China as going beyond politics and prejudices, to evoke basic shared emotions between human beings, even though the narration style and storytelling logic is different between the UK and China.

The BBC has more chance of success in the commercialized era of the brave new China. The highly educated and elite of China have long been buying BBC programmes, accessing English-language services or using VPNs to evade censorship. Now, the love of ‘Curly Fu’ and planned cinematic collaborations like ‘Earth: One Amazing Day’ could help bring the BBC to the majority of Chinese people.  

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