Blow-by-blow account of the China-Singapore spat over Global Times’ South China Sea report

Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times are caught up in a heated row over a report on the city state’s role in the South China Sea dispute.

The Global Times, owned by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, had reported last Wednesday that Singapore wanted to include the Philippines’ position on an international arbitration ruling on claims to the South China Sea during the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Venezuela earlier this month.

But Stanley Loh, Singapore’s envoy to China, rejected Global Times’ report, issuing two open letters to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin this week.

Here is the timeline of events leading up to the row.

July

By Singapore’s account, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had collectively requested updates to paragraphs in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Final Document to reflect the consensus of all 10 Asean member states.

Laos – as chair of the Asean grouping – submitted the collective request through a formal letter to former NAM chair Iran, which in turn circulated the updates to all NAM members on July 29.

September 18

The draft of the NAM Final Outcome Document was issued to member countries.

Laos wrote to Venezuela to put on record Asean’s collective reservation to a paragraph related to the South China Sea in the document. In the letter, Laos said Asean was not in a position to accept that paragraph.

Compared with the South China Sea paragraph in the 2012 NAM Tehran Summit Final Document, the updates provided by Laos included “concerns expressed by some ministers/leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, including the increased presence of military assets and the possibility of further militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.”

September 21

Global Times published its report headlined “NAM Summit closes, Singapore brings up South China Sea arbitration despite opposition”.

According to the report, the Singapore delegation tried to add to the summit’s final document, an endorsement of an international tribunal’s ruling on claims to the South China Sea.

Citing unnamed sources who attended the NAM meetings, the report said representatives of the Singapore delegation grew “exasperated” and responded with inappropriate ­remarks to other delegations opposed to including the endorsement.

“During and after the meeting of foreign ministers, Singapore continued to stir up problems and openly challenged the chair nation Venezuela’s ruling, which again drew clear opposition from many countries,” the report stated.

“To satisfy its own interests, Singapore had been pestering [other states] during negotiation and meetings. It dragged meetings into late night many times, which caused discontent among other countries.”

September 26

Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, refuted the Global Times report in an open letter to Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, saying the report “attributed actions and words to Singapore which are false and unfounded”.

Loh said Singapore did not raise the South China Sea issue or the arbitration ruling at the summit. Rather, the proposal to update the NAM declaration’s Southeast Asia paragraphs, including those referring to the South China Sea, reflected the consensus position of all 10 Asean members, the ambassador said.

“We are disappointed that an established newspaper published this irresponsible report replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts,” Loh wrote in his letter.

September 27

In response to Loh, Hu posted an open letter to the ambassador on Chinese microblogging platform weibo, in which he insisted that the Global Times’ sources were “serious and reliable” and the report reflected the truth.

“As an ambassador based in China, you were probably not able to attend the meeting in Venezuela nor be a witness,” Hu said in his letter. “Maybe your government asked you to say that.”

He also expressed “disappointment” towards Singapore’s position in the South China Sea dispute.

“Look at how most Asean countries deal with the sensitive South China Sea ruling in a balanced way,” he wrote. “I think Singapore should feel ashamed when you tried to trip up China, your largest trading partner.”

The same day, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, when asked about the Global Times report, said an “individual nation” had insisted on including South China Sea issues in the NAM final document.

“The facts are clear,” Geng said. “Some individual state(s) insisted to include one-sided content related to South China Sea in the final document, but it was not supported by most NAM member countries. China hopes related state(s) respect China’s position and the agreement reached with Asean countries.”

September 28

In a second letter to Hu, Loh reiterated that the Global Times report was inaccurate and that the proposal to update the document was a collective request made by the Asean members.

Global Times did not attend the meetings and had to rely on information from unnamed sources,” Loh said. “In contrast, Singapore is a member of NAM and had participated in all the proceedings at the Summit.”

Politburo announces Chinese Communist Party plenum will be held in late October

The Communist Party of China announced the date on Tuesday for a key plenum in late October, with revamping decades-old codes of conduct for party members expected to be high on the agenda.

The Politburo, the decision-making body of the Communist Party, said, after a meeting on Tuesday, that the annual plenum would be held from October 24 through 27, Xinhua reported.

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The sixth plenum comes amid ongoing reshuffles of senior provincial level leaders ahead of a five-yearly party congress late next year, at which President Xi Jinping is expected to cement his power.

Xinhua reported in July that the two main themes for this year’s plenum would be revising a resolution on political conduct within the party that was formulated in the Deng Xiaoping era, and amending a trial regulation on party internal supervision passed by the Central Committee in 2003.

China’s cadres may face ‘stricter’ rules in revamp of Communist Party’s code of conduct

In particular, the plenum would focus on the internal political conduct of leading party institutions and cadres, especially members of the Central Committee, the Politburo and the innermost Politburo Standing Committee, Xinhua reported.

The original criteria for political conduct within the party, established in 1980, stipulated that collective leadership was the overriding principle.

Premier Li Keqiang was absent from yesterday’s Politburo meeting as he is still on a visit to Cuba.

China seeks independent thinkers amid policymaking challenges

The southern Chinese manufacturing hub of Dongguan’s decision to lure elite workers with cash payments of up to US$3,000 owed much to a think tank founded in late 2013 after President Xi Jinping urged a greater role for research houses in policymaking.

Dongguan Talent Institute submitted a report early last year to local officials that showed the region’s nascent robotics industry was craving new talent. Months later, measures were unveiled to attract top brains, including payments of 6,000 yuan (HK$7,000) for graduates and up to 20,000 yuan for doctoral students.

“Local governments now ask for field research and advice before making policies,“ said DTI director Chen Liang, who holds a PhD in history from the National University of Singapore. ”In the past, some of them just decided things off the top of their heads.”

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While Xi’s administration has tightened censorship in the press and social media and increased oversight of academia, officials are simultaneously striving to enhance the quality of advice available to policymakers.

Yet to be seen is whether the hundreds of new think tanks prove able to shake up a sector that remains dominated by elite institutions ranging from Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to the Communist Party’s own school.

There’s no shortage of weighty topics that need addressing, from the upgrade of China’s manufacturing to debt deleveraging and state-owned enterprise restructuring. Last year’s US$5 trillion Chinese equity-market meltdown also showed room for macro-policy improvement.

Voices Needed

“The one-party system can be highly efficient, but once it makes a wrong decision the losses can be huge,” said Wang Huiyao, founder and director of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG). “China needs think tanks, especially independent and private ones, more than any other country in the world.”

It needs their voices to fill in the debate that’s missing in its internal system, he said.

The nation faces unprecedented challenges as it restructures its economy away from old-line heavy manufacturing and towards consumption and services.

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The central government itself bemoaned a lack of “institutionalised channels” for outside advice to penetrate policymaking, in a January 2015 plan to boost the role of think tanks. There’s a pressing need for “decision support,” it said.

The think tank research centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which releases a ranking every year, now monitors about 400 groups, up from 279 last year. Smaller institutions like DTI don’t make it onto its radar, suggesting an even greater expansion.

Independent Advice?

While access to policymakers in China’s one-party state is the ultimate test of a think tank’s influence, such influence also has drawbacks. Dependency on funding from and approval of the government “might undermine their capabilities to produce independent advice,” according to Abigael Vasselier and Angela Stanzel, co-authors of a paper on Chinese think tanks.

With all spheres of Chinese society subject to the Communist Party, independence on the part of think tanks will be limited, according to Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

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“Some may push the boundary a bit, but few will ever dare to go beyond what the party will tolerate,” he said.

Chen at DTI, who leads a seven-member team, agrees that overreliance on government funding can’t make great think tanks. He’s also worried about those who are already in the game.

“This sector is a bit fickle,“ Chen said. ”Too many people have jumped on the bandwagon, and few of them can really sit down and do real research.”

An official from Dongguan’s talent coordination office confirmed it consulted with DTI when formulating the policy to attract experts to the city. 

Information Overload

As with other spheres – from solar power to the soccer industry – once the central government determines a priority, there’s a rush of activity that follows. Witness a proliferation of think tank research into Xi’s “One Belt One Road” vision to deepen development and Chinese influence along the old Silk Road maritime and land routes.

The International Department of the Central Committee of the communist party championed an “OBOR Think Tank Cooperation Alliance” last April, gathering about 60 official and non-official research bodies. 

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A key member was Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, a privately funded entity established in January 2013. On their website, more than 500 articles related to OBOR were available. 

Yet there’s plenty of need for smaller-scale development planning, too, says Wang at CCG. In a country with more than 2,000 county-level governments, he estimates there could be 5,000 think tanks in years to come, twice as many as in the United States.

Wang’s institute earns about 40 per cent of its income from advice for government projects, while the remainder comes from publications, events and donations, he says. Its branch in Guangdong province in the south has worked with the local government to help roll out plans to boost the 3D printer industry.

‘Shared Agenda’

“On economics issues, think tanks and government have a shared agenda in being credible, evidence-based and at least producing robust work,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College, London.

“On issues about domestic matters like rural conditions, social conditions, and so on, think tanks in China are the best placed and can offer very valuable work.”

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Meantime, overseas observers are starting to take note of the rise of China’s think tanks.

Naoko Nemoto, who works at the Asian Development Bank’s own think tank in Tokyo, says her institute is considering inviting about nine Chinese research groups to their global summit next May, alongside names such as the Brookings Institution in Washington, and the Chatham House in London.

“They are not just participants, sometimes they are taking the lead,” Nemoto said.

Risks of property bubble growing in China with policy options running out

Risks of a property bubble are growing in mainland China’s major cities, observers say.

New home prices have risen more than 30 per cent year on year among first-tier and a few second-tier cities. In August, Xiamen, a coastal city on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait, saw new home prices rose 44 per cent. Similar increases were also seen in Hefei, Nanjing Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin.

It’s abnormal especially when the economy is facing downward pressure and corporate profitability is weak

Shen Jianguang, chief economist, Mizuho Securities Asia

In some cities, the prices are approaching levels seen in New York, London and Hong Kong. A three-room flat at a development called Purple Palace in Beijing goes for 31.9 million yuan (US$4.8 million), which will take 375 years for a Beijinger with an average annual salary of 85,038 yuan to pay off.

Signs of panic buying are already emerging. A China Vanke project in suburban Beijing sold out overnight.

In Shenzhen, where August home prices jumped 37 per cent on year, some units as small as 6 square metres were offered for sale. Nine of them, at a price of 880,000 yuan each, all sold out within the day,

Guangzhou Daily said.

In Nanjing, officials introduced a lottery system for land sales because developers had become so eager to acquire plots, regardless of the price, while Hefei, where home prices rose 40.5 per cent year-on-year, saw flats sold at averaged at between 20,000 yuan and 30,000 yuan per square metre,

“Just in the first half of 2015, prices there were just a little more than 10,000 yuan,” said Wang Min, who works for a property website in the city.

How to solve China’s property bubble

The market frenzy was “the most extreme” since 1998, when then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji privatised the housing market, said Shen Jianguang, chief economist of Mizuho Securities Asia in Hong Kong and a veteran Chinese economy watcher. “It’s abnormal especially when the economy is facing downward pressure and corporate profitability is weak,” Shen said.

Shen also compared the situation to Japan in the late 1980s, when that country’s property market overheated amid broad economic weakness. Mainland authorities might still have leeway to prevent a Japan-style crash of the housing market, he said.

Andy Xie, former Morgan Stanley economist, said China’s shadow banking sector gave buyers access to loans that effectively meant zero down payments, creating risks similar to what was seen in the United States before the subprime crisis.

“This is the same as zero down payment mortgages in the US before 2008,” said Xie, who has been warning about bubble risks in the mainland’s housing market for years.

Tightening measures having little effect on surging property prices

Money is flowing into real estate in such volume partly as a result of the sheer scale of the monetary base, which is almost twice as big as the economy. But investment options are limited and outbound investment channels restricted, leaving a flood of yuan chasing returns at home amid a weakening economy.

Fang Jing, a Hefei resident, who bought three flats in the city a few years ago, said most of the units were bought by non Hefei residents .

“Even as an outsider, the rising home price is quite scary for me,” he said.

A decade ago when he bought homes, prices were just more than 3,000 yuan he said.

Housing stock in Hefei takes 1.3 months to clear, the lowest inventory among 35 cities tracked by E-house China R&D Institute. The price growth was bolstered by the surging land prices as the country’s major developers have been flocking to buy sites in the lower-tiered cities as land supply in first tier cities is limited.

A plot near city government were acquired by Sunac China a year ago at a record price of 17,000 yuan per floor space, and now units on the site are being sold at 48,000 yuan per sq metre.

The property market is also being pumped by the relaxation of bank credit. As government and corporate debt quickly rises to dangerous levels, Beijing is trying to boost household debt levels to help stimulate growth.

It will be tricky … if housing inflation cannot be arrested before growth loses momentum again

Wei Yao, China economist, Societe Generale

In August, the amount lent out for home mortgages rose by more than 500 billion yuan over the previous month, the second largest increase of the year, according to central bank data.

Climbing prices in the mainland’s big cities pose a tricky issue for the monetary authority – it can’t afford to tighten monetary policy as that would hurt fragile economic recovery. If it continues with a loose monetary stance, speculation in the property market will persist, according to Wei Yao, China economist at Societe Generale.

“In every cycle in the past, housing and general inflation only ceased after the People’s Bank of China started tightening monetary policy,” Yao wrote in a note. “It will be tricky, to say the very least, if housing inflation cannot be arrested before growth loses momentum again, possibly by the end of 2016.”

For the moment, the property market fever remains restricted to dozens of cities and their surrounding areas, with 17 cities out of China’s 70 biggest cities reporting double-digit price growth in August, according to official data.

Nationwide, the household leverage ratio is still low. Wang Tao, chief China economist at UBS Group, wrote in a recent research note that prices in a few large cities had hit record levels of nearly 20 years’ annual income.

It was still premature to worry about an imminent burst because the frenzy has “not yet spread to a great many cities, pushed household debt to unsustainable levels, or led to strong construction growth.”

10, 9, 8 … China prepares to flick the switch on world’s biggest telescopic eye on the sky

China plans to switch on the world’s largest radio telescope on Sunday as it focuses much of its growing scientific ambitions on unlocking the fundamentals of the universe.

Along with other massive facilities that Beijing plans to build, the telescope, which as a diameter of 500 metres, could entice international researchers to the country as it tries to catch up with the United States in generating discoveries.

Officially named the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the facility in Guizhou will replace the telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory as the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope.

It will be an extremely good telescope for studying some areas of astronomy, especially for the study of pulsars and the distribution of galaxies in the local universe

Donald Campbell, Cornell University astronomy professor

Covering an area roughly the size of 30 soccer fields, it will scour a much bigger swathe of the sky than Arecibo for radio signals – including those possibly sent out by any aliens.

“It will be an extremely good telescope for studying some areas of astronomy, especially for the study of pulsars and the distribution of galaxies in the local universe,” said Donald Campbell, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and former director of the Arecibo Observatory.

Campbell said the telescope would make “significant contributions” to understanding the structure and history of the universe.

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China is yet to announce a research plan for the telescope, but an early-stage study focused on six topics, including galaxy structure and the formation of stars, according to the study’s website.

The National Astronomical Observatories said the FAST team would not take media inquiries before the telescope’s launch on Sunday.

In its push to generate as much basic science as the US by 2020, Beijing has spared no effort in upgrading research facilities.

The new telescope cost 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.4 billion) to build, and an additional 1.8 billion yuan to relocate more than 9,000 residents from its site, state-run Xinhua reported.

The relocation was to make sure that no one lived within 5km of the telescope.

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To protect it from radiation interference, people would not be allowed to use electronic devices, including mobile phones and digital cameras, if they entered the area, China Central Television reported.

The Chinese government is willing to spend big money on basic research, which is good news for us

University of Hong Kong scientist Stephen Ng Chi-yung

“The Chinese government is willing to spend big money on basic research, which is good news for us,” University of Hong Kong scientist Stephen Ng Chi-yung said. “It creates a lot of opportunities for astronomers all over the world.”

Ng, who has been using telescopes in the US and Australia for his astrophysical research, said scientists from Hong Kong and elsewhere might head to China in the future to use its advanced facilities.

James Cordes, also from Cornell, said he had been invited by fellow astronomers in China to use the FAST in his research on pulsars, gravitational waves and fast radio bursts.

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China also plans to build a 110-metre, fully steerable radio telescope in Qitai, in Xinjiang province, which will surpass the US’ Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to become the largest of its kind in the world.

Ng said the steerable radio telescope would be able to survey the part of the sky not covered by the FAST, which cannot be moved because the reflector is too heavy.

We do not think of astronomy as a competition … I’m happy to see China is part of the community

Donald Campbell, Cornell University astronomy professor

The site in Xinjiang was chosen in 2011, and a major research project for its construction was launched in April last year. It is unclear when construction will start. It is unclear when construction will start.

Although the FAST will be one of the most advanced radio telescopes on earth, scientists say they need a wide range of telescopes covering different parts of the sky and radio frequencies to study the universe.

“We do not think of astronomy as a competition,” Campbell said. “It’s the extensive collaboration throughout the world between astronomers using different telescopes. I’m happy to see China is part of the community.”

Eye of the storm: Chinese TV journalist suspended for using sunglasses and umbrella during Typhoon Meranti interview

A Chinese television journalist has been suspended from work after being photographed wearing sunglasses and holding an umbrella while interviewing volunteers in a typhoon-hit community in southeastern China.

The picture, widely circulated on the internet, showed her speaking to volunteers in Xiamen, in Fujian province, as they worked to help the city recover from the deadly Typhoon Meranti, which killed 13 mainland people and left 700,000 others affected.

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Xiamen TV station said on its microblog account on Tuesday that the woman journalist had behaved “inappropriately”while doing the interview.

“Her behaviour has violated the professional codes of conduct, damaged the image of journalists and has had a negative impact on the public,” it said.

Typhoon Meranti killed at least seven people in Fujian and left nine others missing after striking the southeast coast of the mainland on September 15. It also killed one other person and injured 44 others after striking Taiwan.

The decision to suspend the journalist came days after the photograph went viral after being shared by mainland mainland internet users.

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Most people that wrote comments criticised her fussy attire, particularly as she was taking to volunteers who were busy clearing up the devastated city.

Some people also said it was unnecessary to wear sunglasses or hold up an umbrella that day as the sunshine was not too intense.

They also said wearing that sunglasses while doing the interview suggested the journalist did not respect the people she was interviewing.

However, some others questioned the TV station’s decision.

One internet user said: “Does the broadcaster have stipulations which say that journalists who don’t appear on screen cannot hold umbrellas or wear sunglasses while doing interviews?

“Is it a common practice that as long as they are being pressured by the public, employers will impose tough punishments, whether or not the employees’ misdeeds are serious?”

Schoolboys brandish knives in street brawl in western China

Two secondary school pupils in western China were involved in a knife fight in the street with two older students, according to a news website report.

The brawl ended with the older pair needing treatment in hospital, Thepaper.cn reported.

The street brawl started on Sunday in Leshan in Sichuan province after the two younger boys had bought knives at a nearby shop.

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It is not clear what started the argument, but the older pair enrolled in tertiary education at the same college were injured in the brawl with one suffering a broken wrist, the report said.

A video circulated on the internet shows the older students kicking the younger two, who were slashing with their long knives.

The older students were later left lying injured on the pavement.

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They were in a stable condition after receiving treatment in a hospital, the report said.

The younger pupils turned themselves in to the police on Monday.

The two pairs involved did not know each other before the fight, according to the article.

China’s new 565-metre-high bridge to beat nation’s existing world-record holder – by five metres

China is set to break its own record of the world’s highest bridge with the completion of a structure that stands 565 metres above the valley floor later this year, mainland media reports.

The deck of the road bridge over a valley in southwestern China is 24 metres higher than the top of the rebuilt One World Trade Centre in New York City, China News Service reported.

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The final section of the main span of the Beipanjiang bridge, connecting Yunnan province and Guizhou province, was put in place on Saturday, the report said.

It will become the highest bridge – when measuring the vertical distance from the deck to the ground or water below – beating the Sidu River bridge, in Hubei province, the current record holder completed in 2009, by just five metres.

The new bridge is part of a highway linking the eastern city of Hangzhou to Yunnan province. No precise date has been set for its completion later this year, the report said.

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China has been investing heavily in its infrastructure projects to support the slowing economy.

Beijing unveiled a 4.7 trillion yuan (HK$5.5 trillion) plan in May to improve the country’s transport infrastructure over the next three years, which covers 303 projects including railways, highways and urban rail.

Construction of the new 1,341-metre-long bridge is costing about 1 billion yuan (HK$1.2 billion).

The mountainous Guizhou province is home to seven of the 10 highest bridges in China, Xinhua reported.

In August, China opened the world’s highest and longest glass-bottomed bridge in Zhangjiajie, in Hunan province, which is 430 metres long and suspended 300 metres above the ground.

It was closed 13 days later for maintenance after attracting too many visitors.

Chinese television screens dominated by copycat reality shows featuring local celebrities

Flick through the channels on any TV screen in China and you can’t help but notice the dominance of reality shows featuring celebrities from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mainland satellite TV channels carry more than 100 different reality shows, many of which are so popular that some young Chinese say they don’t have time to meet their friends in the evenings, as they would rather watch such shows to be entertained and relax.

Experts, however, said the proliferation of such shows comes with obvious shortcomings – the programmes lack creativity and their popularity leads to a lack of motivation on the part of producers to make high-quality shows with rich cultural content.

Almost all of the offerings are either localised from popular foreign shows, or copied from domestically produced programmes that have proved popular with viewers.

Entertainment industry consulting firm Ent Group reports that nine out of 10 of the most popular variety shows since this year are reality shows.

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The highest ratings belong to Go Fighting – a game-variety show broadcast on the Shanghai-based Dragon TV. It has harvested more than two billion clicks from six major broadcasting websites this year, the firm said. The show features six male stars completing different tasks.

Shanghai resident Tina Deng is a loyal fan of the show, and said she has been watched it for the past one and half years. “Actually, all the members of my family, from my 70-year-old parents to my 7-year-old son, like Go Fighting,” she said. One of the attractions for her is that the show is so easy to watch. “I don’t need to use my brain. Instead I just feel relaxed and it’s a lot of fun.”

Over the past three years, TV reality shows have mushroomed in China after several of the genre, based on popular shows purchased from overseas, recorded high viewing rates. The shows have diverse themes, including tourism, matchmaking, education, cooking, sports, parenthood and outdoor survival skills, among many others. Many are shot in an outdoor environment, with some teams travelling overseas, and one group travelling as far as Antarctica.

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In order to catch the attention of young people, producers follow the tactic used on such international shows as Survivor to make stars perform embarrassing or even demeaning tasks. One such show, Stars in my House, took four female celebrities, including Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi, to live in the countryside for weeks as “daughters-in-law” of an elderly farming couple. The usually glamorous stars had to perform farmwork, with their tasks including feeding livestock and ploughing the fields.

Cui Ni, the producer of Hubei Satellite TV’s reality show If Love, a matchmaking show for stars, said reality shows didn’t involve scripts or rehearsals, but simply recording what happened, and therefore they appeared less mysterious and closer to the lives of everyday people.

“In reality shows, in contrast to their alluring image on stage or their roles in TV drama or films, stars can just be themselves when experiencing joy, anger, sorrow and happiness,” she told the Hubei Daily. “It can to a great extent satisfy people’s curiosity about stars’ private lives.”

Chen Shaofeng, deputy dean of Institute of Cultural Industries of Peking University, said the format and content of reality shows has become homogenised and many of them are similar to each other.

“There is excessive investment in this area and I think they are just copying unscrupulously,” he told the South China Morning Post.

For instance, after a show funded by Hunan TV, “Dad, Where Are We Going”, based on an original show from South Korea, achieved unprecedented success, six similar programmes appeared on domestic screens. In one of these, six celebrity fathers and their children were recorded living together in a challenging environment for three days.

Chen said the celebrity reality shows mainly target young people who are fiercely loyal to their idols and prefer entertainment to other types of programming. They seldom care about cultural content or artistic quality, Chen said.

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“It’s part of the ‘fan economy’. These fans are interested in everything about their idols and follow shows featuring their idols.”

The popularity of such shows has attracted many stars to participate – and, of course, the pay is lucrative. First-tier stars such as Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chow, Hong Kong comic actor Stephen Chow, Hong Kong actor and dancer Aaron Kwok, mainland actor Huang Xiaoming and director Feng Xiaogang, have all been paid at least 10 million yuan (HK$11.6 million) for a single season of a reality show. Huang is considered China’s version of Matt Damon while Feng is a leading director of commercial films in China.

The furore surrounding such shows and the amounts of cash being steered their way has aroused the attention of the state broadcasting regulator. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a circular in July last year, requiring that reality shows “abandon the wrong conception of relying on stars to achieve viewing numbers”, said such shows should not competing for stars or show off excessive wealth. That order from the top authority has been generally ignored.

The authority also rubbished reality shows by saying they were “interesting”, but not “meaningful”. Despite being popular, they don’t express “social values” and sometimes spread wrong values or feature vulgar content, the administration said.

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Gu Jun, a sociology professor at Shanghai University, said that for years, TV producers hadn’t paid much attention to programme content, but to the “faces” appearing in the programmes. “In their opinions, in order to attract a wider audience, it’s better to hire stars than to produce high-quality programmes,” Gu said.

Those producers may need to go back to the drawing board to revitalise their content, however, as audience numbers for celebrity reality shows have dropped a little from last year – their peak time. This is due to the scarcity of creativity in these programmes, said Catherine Liu, a research supervisor with Ent Group.

“People began to get a kind of ‘aesthetic fatigue’ in the face of so many reality shows, saying that the difference among the shows isn’t much,” she said.

‘No harm done’: alarm at Daya Bay nuclear plant accidentally deactivated for three months

An alarm system monitoring the radiation of reactor coolant at a nuclear power plant in Shenzhen was accidentally shut down for three months before the mistake was discovered, although a safety committee insisted the incident did not constitute a safety breach.

Details of the incident were revealed during a biannual briefing of the Guangdong Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station and Ling Ao Nuclear Power Station Nuclear Safety Consultative Committee on Friday.

Three “level zero” incidents were recorded at the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Base in the first half of this year, two of which involved human error. Incidents are categorised into eight levels under the International Nuclear Event Scale, with a level seven alarm being the most serious. A level zero incident denoted “deviation” of normal procedures and had “no safety significance”.

The latest took place on May 24, when a worker at Ling Ao Nuclear Power Station Phase 2 discovered that the alarm system for the radiation of reactor number one was deactivated, with no information displayed.

The alarm was immediately restored. A backup alarm did not detect abnormalities during the shutdown period.

Committee chairman Raymond Ho Chung-tai said they were told by staff members that the system was believed to have been switched off during a scheduled maintenance in late February, but was accidentally left deactivated afterwards.

“There was no harm done,” vice-chairman Tso Wong man-yin added. “But as [we] said, there is always room for improvement for such a large operation.”

The committee also rejected claims that notification had been delayed, saying all confirmed incidents were published within 48 hours, adding that the transparency of the nuclear plant’s management was “unmatched in the world”.

Separately, the committee was not informed of an operational incident at another station about 200km southwest of Hong Kong, nor did it try to reach mainland authorities for more information.

A heat ­removal pump on one of the key reactors at the Yangjiang nuclear power plant stopped functioning for six minutes in March 2015, although the incident was only announced by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in August.

It was said that the incident did not result in a radioactive leak or pose a direct public safety threat, but four staff were later found be trying to cover up the error by failing to log it as required.

Three were slapped with administrative warnings, while their leader was stripped of his senior nuclear operator’s licence.

But Ho insisted the committee was not duty bound to monitor the Yangjiang plant, nor was it able to extend its scope of surveillance, as the body was formed by the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Operations and Management Company.

The Security Bureau told lawmakers during a 2010 briefing at the Legislative Council that the expert panel was formed by the power plant and had no obligation to submit reports to the Hong Kong government.