BEIJING – Hu Mingming lands spin-kicks and splits with ease, but her hands are shaking too much to tie a bow.
She is a student at the famous Henan Shaolin Martial Arts School. In recent years, their gravity-defying brand of kung fu has become a staple of the annual televised Lunar New Year Gala.
“Last year I watched my classmates perform on stage and I felt nervous for them. Now it is my turn,” says Hu.
She has a right to be nervous.
The gala, a variety show broadcast on state television since 1983, is a cultural phenomenon and a key propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party.
It’s also a ratings juggernaut.
Combine the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, American Idol finales and MTV Video Music Awards — then throw in the Super Bowl ratings for good measure — you are not even close.
Organizers like to say that more than 90% of Chinese families tune in. Last year, it drew more than 700 million viewers.
“There is a huge amount of pressure,” says Zhang Hu, Hu’s coach, who has also performed in the gala. “And each rehearsal is like an inspection.”
Just days before the real deal and after months of practice, the producers are still cutting segments to fine tune the show to around 36 acts.
At Saturday’s rehearsal, performers hustled backstage near studio doors manned by security guards in white gloves.
Chinese opera singers adjusted their elaborate headgear; 5-year-old acrobats swarmed around movie stars and a group of glamorous dancers posed for selfies.
On the sidelines of the mayhem, the acrobats, crooners and pop starlets all had the same mantra for me: This year the gala is going global.
They are impressively on message.
In recent months, state broadcaster CCTV has touted business deals with YouTube, Google and Twitter to reach out to a global audience with coverage of this year’s Gala.
Never mind that all of those websites are blacked out by Communist Party censors inside of China, provoking widespread ridicule by Chinese netizens.
“Different countries have different Internet regulations. It’s not up to us,” said Jing Chunhan, a spokesman for CCTV, adding that the Chinese have plenty of ways to watch inside China.
CCTV has even rented a video billboard in the heart of New York’s Time Square to plug the show.
Some academics see it as an unusually overt push to win hearts and minds amongst the some fifty million Chinese in the diaspora.
“This aggressive push for Chinese soft power is new,” says Tao Xie, a professor of International Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “The approach in the past used to be cautious and low profile.”
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For soft power to work, though, the gala needs to stay relevant. When it began more than three decades ago, there wasn’t much else on offer for entertainment in China.
Now, even the heavily censored Chinese internet is stiff competition.
Last year, young Chinese started a meme online with photos of their relatives sleeping through the gala on the couch.
But watching the program is still a force of habit for many Chinese.
Xu Baoyu, a college senior at the University of Iowa, says she used to watch the show because it was “just there.”
On Wednesday, she says she will be watching the gala on YouTube from her off campus apartment in Iowa City.
“The Spring Festival just doesn’t feel complete without the gala,” she told CNN by phone. “Although I do like to mock the show while my mom is watching in China.” – CNN