China’s Hottest TV Show Right Now is Striving to Provide Space for Mainstream Debate

"I Can I BB" is more than a debate competition -- it's a forum to organize discussion around topics that preoccupy its huge audience of Chinese millennials

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9:40 PM HKT, Mon November 25, 2019 2 mins read

If you follow our reporting on iQIYI‘s hit rock show The Big Band over summer, you may remember seeing the name of the program’s co-producer, MeWe Media. Though it’s relatively new to the music space, MeWe has had years of experience making hit internet shows. Among its projects, the entertaining debate competition I Can I BB (奇葩说 Qipa Shuo literally, “weirdos talk”) is undoubtedly the most beloved.

The first season of I Can I BB (BB being internet slang akin to “talking crap”) aired in 2014 as an original iQIYI variety show hosted by Ma Dong, a famous former CCTV host, director of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in 2011, and son of Ma Ji, a well-known master of xiangsheng (“cross-talk,” a traditional Chinese form stand-up comedy mixed with performance art). Ma Dong also happened to be the Chief Content Officer of iQIYI back then.

Alongside Ma, the show featured mentors no less qualified than the host to coach contestants in “the most eloquent Chinese,” including talk show host and bestselling Taiwanese writer Kevin Tsai; chairman of Alibaba Entertainment Strategic Committee (and another talk show host), Gao Xiaosong; one of the best Chinese dancers (and talk show hosts) famous for her harsh commentary, Jin Xing; former CCTV reporter and host Zhang Quanling; former CCTV producer and founder of popular online professional education platform iGet, Luo Zhenyu; and Li Dan, a popular stand-up comedian and founder of Tencent Video’s Rock&Roast, a stand-up talent show that received hundreds of millions of views.

These veteran public speakers and knowledgeable intellectuals always offer different perspectives on the program, put in beautiful forms of verbal expression. However, I Can I BB would never have reached its high level of success without interesting contestants, and highly relatable topics.

As a debate competition, early contestants on the show were mostly professional debaters who had graduated from top colleges and been active in national and pan-Asian, Chinese-language debating competitions. Contestants like Ma Weiwei and Qiu Chen became famous for their quick reactions, strong reasoning skills, and unpredictable expressions, with Qiu later joining Ma Dong to established MeWe Media after the latter resigned from iQIYI in 2015.

Some contestants from different areas and diverse backgrounds, like actress Fan Tiantian (aka Vila) and fashion host Xiao Xiao, also got the chance to transform into brilliant speakers and sharp debaters after being well-honed by the show’s cruel and stressful elimination competitions.

Although it’s still fascinating to see professional debates, young Chinese viewers mostly tuned in to see day-to-day topics being seriously discussed in eloquent terms, from all possible perspectives.

The show’s sixth season, which began airing at the end of last month, has included topics like, “The job I’m interested in requires me to work in the ‘996’ style, should I quit?” and “Would you support a required ‘romantic relationship course’ in your college?” Given the discussion on the “996” work style (working from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) throughout Chinese society earlier this year, and the longstanding “relationship prohibition” that Chinese parents place against their teenage kids to keep them focused on the gaokao college entrance examination, there is a massive space for more discussion and analysis of the topics.


Much of the show’s young audience has never been taught how to deal with the problems of real life and the real world after a decade and a half of studying, and are also looking for answers to questions about their relationships and careers, marriage, family, friendship, social media, and other topics. I Can I BB is more than a debate contest — it’s a forum to organize discussion of these topics targeted at an audience of Chinese millennials.

The fact that A-list celebrities are often invited as guests doesn’t hurt the show’s appeal — so far this season has featured controversial idol Yang Chaoyue, and (not quite surprisingly, but still sort of incredibly), Peng Lei, the vocalist of Beijing rock band New Pants, who earned the love of millions of fans after appearing on The Big Band earlier this year.

After a summer full of music, with Rap of China‘s third season and The Big Band‘s premiere, iQIYI and MeWe seem to want to continue seizing Chinese netizens’ attention by keeping high-performing faces in heavy rotation.

But more importantly, the show is attempting to play a crucial social role. It’s not ideal that “critical thinking” courses are rare in Chinese college curricula — but at least in this show there is a platform where young people can watch rational, sometimes rather emotional, and most of the time entertaining debates on issues that have confused everyone, and then, hopefully, start thinking on their own.

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