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China’s Voice Represented Hopes and Dreams—It Turned Around to Reveal a Darker Reality

6 minute read

For more than a decade, thousands of contestants have taken to the stage of Sing! China, hoping to translate their talent to fame, while hundreds of millions have tuned in to be entertained and inspired. It offered a rare representation of equal opportunity and success based on merit alone.

But over the years, viewers grew more and more disillusioned with the reality television show—which was originally known as The Voice of China and modeled after the Dutch singing competition that has been replicated to great popularity worldwide, including in the U.S. Sporadic complaints of Sing! China’s producers playing up dramatic backstories of contestants, rigging outcomes, and overly commercializing the production dogged the Chinese version of the show, though it mostly kept up its high viewership across the country as well as among Chinese communities overseas.

Recently, however, the disillusionment reached a tipping point: audio and video clips went viral last week of the late Hong Kong singer Coco Lee, who served as a judge and mentor on the show last year and died of suicide last month, apparently claiming she was bullied by directors and producers; and fans have recirculated past grievances of other contestants and judges, alleging a pattern of mistreatment, exploitation, and unfairness.

Zhejiang Television, the show’s broadcaster, which saw its stock drop sharply amid the backlash, initially responded by disputing the allegations surrounding Lee, saying leaked clips had been “maliciously edited.” The company followed up with a statement on Sunday acknowledging that it “had fallen short of expectations.” And on Friday, Zhejiang Television announced that it would suspend airing the show.

The outrage, particularly over Lee’s experience, with Sing! China, experts say, may speak to a broader dissatisfaction with what has come to be an open secret in China: that, ultimately, power pulls the strings—even in a singing competition that is explicitly premised on blind auditions.

“People would think The Voice of China is a place for ordinary people—whoever loves to sing, whoever has the skills of performance,” Xinxin Jiang, associate professor of Chinese media culture at China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, tells TIME. “But then they were just blinded by the [format] of the show.” 

“I think ordinary people know that,” she adds, “but they just didn't know how bad it was, until the event of Coco.”

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After the 48-year-old died by suicide in July, her sisters shared that Lee had been dealing with depression for years. Friends also revealed that she had been suffering from cancer in the last few months of her life. When the allegations of mistreatment surfaced, public anger was primarily directed at Zhejiang Television, which already had a history of celebrities on their shows getting injuredin one case even dying.

“People believe that [Lee’s] struggles with depression, subsequent deterioration of physical and mental health, and ultimately her death are directly connected to the humiliating experiences she had on this program,” says Han Li, a professor at Rhodes College whose research has focused on Chinese cultural history and contemporary Chinese media. 

“The public also appreciates Coco’s bravery and straightforwardness in exposing the ‘behind-the-scenes’ manipulation and unfairness behind these programs and the underlying capital and power that backed them up,” says Han.

The unprecedented public anger and the resulting suspension of Sing! China marks the end of a remarkable rise and fall of one of the country’s biggest-ever shows. When it first aired in 2012, its blind audition format (contestants perform to judges’ backs) came at a time when the most popular reality shows on television were known to favor contestants with strong connections or good looks. The Voice of China shot to the top of viewership charts because of its apparent impartiality: it seemed to allow contestants from every background an equal shot at stardom.

The show drew a reported 120 million TV viewers and 400 million internet users during its first season. By 2016, it captured over 30% of the national audience, the highest among shows airing in its time slot and more than five times the show in second place. Even as critical ratings started to slip in recent years—from 7.9 out of 10 in its first season to 4.8 in 2021—the show continued to outperform its growing number of competitors in the same time slot.

But the show was never free from controversy. Since its inception, it faced speculations of rigging and critiques of overcommercialization. Viewers bemoaned excessive product placements on the show, while judges revealed that they were encouraged to play up the drama or vote for contestants they didn’t think were good enough. In 2021, the show also grappled with an official government crackdown on the entertainment industry and fan culture, which authorities saw as excessive and problematic.

The renewed attention around Lee’s experience has triggered fresh exposés and accusations, including contestants claiming to have been coerced to sign exploitative contracts to allegations of contestants paying for a spot in the finals. A video also gained traction on social media earlier this week of a judge’s chair seemingly swiveling by itself—the show’s signature move—without the judge pressing the button to make that happen.

“In China a lot of young people are dreaming of becoming celebrities because of the attention and resources. The Voice of China would be advertised as a natural or convenient way to realize their dream. But as they step into the show and get to know more about the show, they would just realize, it's not going to happen,” says Jiang. “The whole mechanism of the show, how it was run and to what degree it was manipulated, is beyond our imagination.”

The public scrutiny of the show since Lee’s death also comes as broader faith in meritocracy is increasingly being questioned, while authorities seem focused on trying to hide widening social inequalities and diminishing opportunities for economic mobility from public view.

When “individuals perceive that even someone of Coco’s fame, status, and accomplishments could be subjected to such unfair treatment,” says Han, it causes “ordinary citizens” to feel even more “powerless in the face of power.”

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