BEIJING — For nearly three hours Chinese society stopped - and voted. No, it wasn't a political revolution, but a mass thumbs up to a 21-year-old from Sichuan who belts out the song "Zombie" from the rock band "Cranberries" as part of her act.
China's "Super Girl" is an American Idol-style TV show whose grand finale of dancing and singing drew 400 million viewers here last Friday night, roughly equivalent to every person in the US and Britain.
In China, Super Girl created a stir from bamboo forest villages to the crab shacks of Shanghai, and is seen as a new phenomenon. Nothing this large and spontaneous has ever pushed its way unapproved into China's mainstream media before.
Some 8 million, mostly younger, Chinese paid the equivalent of 2 cents to send a "text message of support" (the word "vote" is avoided) via cellphone for one of the three Super Girl finalists. Li Yuchun, a music student whose tomboy looks and confidence onstage are the talk of Chinese chat rooms, won with 3.5 million votes. The three finalists, all in their early 20s, became instant celebrities in a nation that really hasn't made much room for the pop star concept, except when they come from Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Super Girl owes its popularity to its raw authenticity, to indirectly giving voice to individual Chinese through a vote, and to its unscripted creation of a feeling of "happiness," according to a dozen young Chinese interviewed on campus and inside Beijing restaurants on Friday.
The program did not, for example, emerge from the Beijing studios of official Chinese programming, but from a provincial station in the gritty heartland of Hunan, that has a satellite uplink. The contest is officially called the "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest." By its rules any female, young or old, talented or not, can participate - not just the familiar beauty-queen types from central casting.
Some 120,000 girls took part in the past year, in a sudden and unexpected burst of enthusiasm that has Beijing authorities slightly worried about the precedent it may set for more unregulated forms of pop culture.
"This is totally new to Chinese people," says Wei Feng, a student from the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. "The whole thing is about singing whatever you want, and millions of young girls in those provinces have never had that chance before."
In fact, the two top scorers on Friday were "girl next door" types, with the more feminine Zhang Liangying, who sang, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," coming in a distant third. Super Girl Ms. Li has a small army of young supporters who see her as a role model.
"[Super Girl] represents a victory of the grass-roots over the elite culture," argues Beijing sociologist Li Yinhe.
"It is vulgar and manipulative," intoned an official statement from China Central TV (CCTV), the national state-run broadcaster, which added that the program was not high-toned enough, due to the gaudy clothing worn by contestants, and that the show could be canceled next season due to its "worldliness."
Technically, CCTV officials can shut down Super Girl, since they hold a monopoly position on broadcast decisions. Many ordinary Chinese say that it won't be worldliness that prompts any shutdown, but the fact that CCTV's advertising revenue on Friday night was lower than that of its modest Hunan competitor. A pilot of an official version of Super Girl produced by CCTV reportedly failed.
"Most Chinese TV is formulaic," says Luo, a young Beijing University graduate, who would only give his first name. "We can figure out after 15 minutes what will happen, but on Super Girl we can't predict what they will say."
Young Chinese women interviewed say that they want to see examples of confident females interacting spontaneously in Chinese public culture, rather than through an official script.
For some students, the exciting part of Super Girl is making a private choice in a public matter. A daring few, online and usually anonymously, link the concept to political voting.
In recent years, and for the first time, China has experimented with online votes, though topics are usually scoured by authorities and sensitivities removed. (One recent online vote in the Xinhua news service asked the question, "Do you think Japan should become a member of the UN Security Council?" The vote was a nearly unanimous, "no.")
One indication that authorities are targeting Super Girl was the number of traditional folk songs sung. At one point, a matriarch from the People's Liberation Army, wearing a green uniform swathed in ribbons and medals, sang a patriotic song in what many younger Chinese interpreted as a way of appeasing the central government authorities.
The new and slightly giddying freedoms of a mass-media program also, it is pointed out by the male viewers, makes a program about the girls, more appealing.
Zhao, an engineering student, was passing out fliers about Li Yuchun at People's University on Friday. The fliers gave step-by-step instruction for cellphone voting on one side, and a particularly love- struck message, penned by Zhao, on the other.
Li Yuchun, Zhao said, is a "no frills, natural girl who has control of the stage, and is not easily disturbed. She has no long skirts or long hair, and will challenge the traditional female idea. She is the Super Girl in my heart."
Even older Chinese have been caught up in the show.
One high-ranking minister who was hosting a lengthy business reception scheduled to last until 9 p.m. was suddenly missing at 8 p.m. on Friday night. Sources close to the minister noted that Super Girl started at 8:30 p.m.