December 18, 2002 17:53:29

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What Would Mao Think?

SHANGHAI, China, Dec.18, 2002


"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" spawned China's "Happy Dictionary," while "The Weakest Link" has become "The Grand Testing Arena for Wealth."

A man stands below a billboard featuring bank notes from around the world at an exhibition in Beijing in this Sept 15, 2001 file photo. A new television game show called "Everyone Wins," in which both the viewers as well as contestants can win, is being launched in Shanghai.  (CBS/AP)

(AP) Who wants to be a millionaire? Pretty much everyone in China, and communist leaders are urging them on. Now, the latest Chinese television quiz show is offering cash-hungry citizens a path to riches.

"Everyone Wins," unveiled Wednesday in the booming city of Shanghai, is billed by its creators as the first TV quiz show in the world that enriches viewers as well as contestants.

The show, which debuts on New Year's Day in Shanghai, looks familiar enough: Seven players in a studio compete for cash prizes by answering questions on everything from history to science.

But there's a twist, which executives at Shanghai Oriental Television say they hope will prove irresistible to viewers in this money-mad city of 17 million.

At show's end, the final digit of each player's score will be strung together to form a seven-digit "lucky number." Viewers who can match all or part of it with a personal number — a home phone number, an official ID, a utility bill, even a car license plate — will collect up to $500.

That's about four months' salary, even by the standards of China's wealthiest city.

"People in Shanghai are going to like this," predicted Teng Junjie, an executive director at Shanghai Oriental Television.

Shanghai, mainland China's financial capital, is an apt location for launching a show that markets the enthusiasm of greed to the masses.

The unremitting construction of shining skyscrapers and shopping malls in this former hotbed of communist radicalism attests to its single-minded focus on higher standards of living — a mindset Chinese leaders want to spread across the land.

"To get rich is glorious," the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed in the 1970s when he abandoned China's experiment with communist utopianism for the profit motive. Those have been the nation's marching orders ever since.

Rising living standards have helped keep the Communist Party in power despite popular resentment over corruption and the 1989 killings of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Deng's wisdom was reaffirmed last month at the party's congress, where President Jiang Zemin — whose legacy is based on building the nation by making money — promised to lift most of China's 1.3 billion people into a low middle-class lifestyle by 2020.

And middle-class lifestyle means, among other things, more television viewers.

As China's increasingly market-driven economy put TVs into more homes, quiz shows followed. The first appeared in the 1980s, primitive productions that offered TVs and washing machines but no cash.

Nowadays, the most popular are slickly produced imitations of foreign programs. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" spawned China's "Happy Dictionary," while "The Weakest Link" has become "The Grand Testing Arena for Wealth."

"Arena" produced the highest prize ever taken home by a player in China — $26,000, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency.

China is far from alone in its embrace of quiz shows and their unabashed enthusiasm for avarice. Versions of "The Weakest Link" have appeared in more than 70 countries. But in one of the world's last communist regimes, there are those who fret about this latest foray into capitalist debauchery.

"While quiz shows give a lucky few sudden wealth, they also end up creating a television culture in which consumption and money are supreme," the official news agency Xinhua warned in an editorial two weeks ago.

Ordinary Chinese are more mellow.

"Quiz shows are the most fun programs on television because the contestants get excited and rowdy, and audiences feel a sense of participating," said Lisa Hong, a Shanghai resident shopping for television sets at a downtown mall.

"Everyone Wins" pushes that participation to a new level with a slick production that enlists the help of foreign experts.

The producer, Hong Kong-based Robert Chua, is a Singaporean executive who also founded China Entertainment Television, a 24-hour Chinese-language family channel. The show fits Shanghai perfectly, Chua says, because of the city's enthusiasm for new ideas — particularly those that prove enriching.

"There was never such a show produced in China, or the world," Chua said. "Shanghai wants new business ideas."

©MMII, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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