BEIJING — Chinese teenagers are not defying the state over democracy these days, but over the freedom to watch their favorite TV soaps. And the government seems helpless to stop them.
When the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television banned the Taiwanese series "Meteor Garden" in March because it "misleads teenagers," Chinese kids just switched to watching it on the Web or bought pirated video compact discs.
"We sold over 50 sets within a week of the ban," boasts 23-year-old Li Xia, a saleswoman who runs a small video shop just next door to the district court in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
One of the mainland's top Internet providers, NetEase, said that within 24 hours of the ban, more than 70,000 users logged on to discuss and complain about the ban on the soap "a poor girl meets rich boy" romance set in an elite high school.
A state-run weekly newspaper, Southern Weekend, even commissioned a poll. It found that 78 percent of those surveyed in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou opposed the state's judgement that the series promoted "a decadent luxurious life" and the "worship of money."
Censorship is not as easy as it used to be here, as China dashes to outstrip the United States in the number of Inter- net users. In a land of Britney Spears videos and NBA chat rooms, where the strong hand of Western culture has a hold on Chinese youth, it is difficult for the government to control the use of the Web.
But last Friday, China announced more regulations to try to limit teenagers' access to the Internet to school holidays and only at Web cafes. The regulations, which apply to those ages 16 to 18, also state that they can enter Internet cafes only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. during school breaks, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The Taiwanese producer of the soap, however, contests the government's pronouncement that the series promotes a "decadent luxurious life."
On the contrary, says Tsai Chih-ping, "The series sets out to encourage young people to search for 'true love' and to remind them that power and money will never buy happiness."
In a country once steeped in the philosophy of endless class struggle, the Cinderella-like fable should have seemed ideologically correct. A poor but smart girl handles a gang of four spoiled and handsome bullies known as the F-4, who drive BMWs.
Yet many mainland parents seem horrified by the way this fantasy attracts their teenage daughters. "It was hideous what was being shown," says Mrs. Ren, a bookkeeper and mother of a 16-year-old daughter. "She told me it was normal for a girl to have both a partner and lover at the same time."
Discovering what works in a country where a successful soap could bring in an audience of more than 100 million is not straightforward for the global media conglomerates trying to enter China's market.
The first priority is ingratiating themselves with the authorities. But satisfying viewers is looming ever larger.
Britain's Granada TV has spent heavily in collaborating on a Chinese version of Britain's never-ending working-class saga "Coronation Street." The show is called the "Joy Luck Club," and it features such characters as heartthrob soccer player Xu Xiaoyang and his two sweethearts, arrogant actress Ah Lan, and honest checkout girl Cheng Wzen, as well as a manipulative lawyer, a mordant alcoholic chef, and an eccentric flower-shop owner.
With three episodes a week, it has not yet found its target audience of 20 million, perhaps because mainlanders are more interested in fantasies than the dour portrayals of daily life favored by British TV.
Pandering to China's youthful audiences and their hunger for idols seems to work better. Indeed, one lesson from the "Meteor Garden" success is that Chinese teens enjoy the same shows as their peers in the region.
The story is in fact adapted from a Japanese comic book, or manga, called Hana Yori Dango meaning boys prettier than flowers.
The tall, handsome, and very rich F4 have quickly became pinups, not only on the mainland but in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia. When the F4 released an album last August called "Meteor Rain," it sold more than 200,000 copies in Taiwan alone.
South Korean soaps have also done well on Chinese television, especially the programs aired by the country's many cable networks.
There also seems to be a tantalizing link between political liberalization and making better soaps. As Taiwan moved from the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang one-party dictatorship to multiparty democracy, the government lifted many restrictions and the quality improved.
Taiwan soaps could once be broadcast only at 8 p.m., and the content, which was carefully vetted, tended to be very repetitive. Kissing on screen was forbidden until a decade ago.
The island's most recent success is "April Rhapsody," a steamy true-life saga based on the life of romantic poet Xu Zhimo, who died in the 1930s. He divorced his wife to marry a 16-year-old school girl and then began an adulterous affair with a society hostess.
On the mainland, officials still want soaps to push a government message, such as the one-child policy, or corruption does not pay.
But Phoenix TV, a satellite channel backed by Rupert Murdoch's Hong Kong-based StarTV, is helping to change the climate.
Its successful mixture of popular shows and soap operas is providing competition for the state media with a programming mix aimed across the region. It includes a dating game called "Perfect Match," which pairs well-heeled but shy young Taiwanese singles.