CHINA'S runaway summer hit, "Super Girl," ended last weekend with a television viewership that eclipsed the population of North America. State news media reported that more than 400 million people watched the finale of the show, an "American Idol" knockoff, and saw a frizzy-haired music student from Sichuan Province selected as the winner.
But it was how that winner, Li Yuchun, was selected that has transformed "Super Girl" from just another evanescent offering on China's pop culture menu into a potentially lasting political marker.
Unlike China's leader, Hu Jintao, Ms. Li was popularly elected. Fans voted via text message, and the three finalists drew more than eight million votes, a figure that would have been far higher except that people had to pay to vote.
The enormous public fascination with the independently produced show has stimulated a nationwide online discussion on issues ranging from democracy to standards of beauty to whether Ms. Li is a lesbian. In a country where it is illegal to organize many types of public meetings, fans formed booster clubs and canvassed malls to court prospective voters. There were even accusations of voter fraud, as rabid fans circumvented the rule limiting each person to 15 votes.
"It's like a gigantic game that has swept so many people into a euphoria of voting, which is a testament to a society opening up," a social commentator, Zhu Dake, told state media.
No one is saying that the frenzy surrounding the show represents a threat to the ruling Communist Party or foreshadows the emergence of meaningful elective politics in China. But the degree to which the show resonated with people seems to have unsettled the government's propaganda leaders. There is already speculation it will be canceled next year.
Indeed, the show is significant not simply because people were allowed to vote for the winner but also because of the winner they voted for. Ms. Li, 21, is almost the antithesis of the assembly-line beauties regularly offered up on the government's China Central Television, or CCTV. Tall and gangly, with a thatch of frizzy hair, the adjectives most used to describe her in the media were "boyish" or "androgynous." Some commentators speculated that her fan base consisted of young girls who considered her to be their "boyfriend" because of her appearance.
"I have no such feelings," she told one interviewer. "That is their choice. I am an independent person."
Wang Yao, 24, a graduate student in Beijing, watched the finals with a group of female friends. She knew the gossip about Ms. Li but was more impressed with her confidence and stage presence. She also thought Ms. Li would never have been able to win a similar contest on state television because of her unorthodox appearance and manner.
"This time it depended totally on text-message voting," Ms. Wang said. "That's why I think the results are totally different."
The program was produced by a daring satellite television station in Hunan Province, in southern China, and sponsored by a dairy company. Hence, the full title of the show: "The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest." Several months ago, more than 120,000 contestants auditioned in five different cities in a week-after-week elimination process that grew in popularity as the field was whittled down.
Unlike much programming that comes out of Beijing or Shanghai, "Super Girl" featured young women from the provinces. For many fans, it was the lack of polish of the performers, and the lack of predictability of the voting results, that made the program addictive. Ratings steadily grew until the final episode, which the state media said drew more viewers than the government's perennial blockbuster variety show at the beginning of each New Year celebration.
The popularity of the show also made it a discussion point for intellectuals, with opinion divided on whether it signaled how much closer China had come to democracy or merely reinforced how far it had to go. Other commentators were more concerned that the program signaled the further erosion of traditional Chinese culture.
Recently, perhaps jealous of the high ratings, perhaps simply carrying out orders from above, CCTV held a forum that criticized the show for debasing Chinese culture. In a sign that perhaps producers wanted to deflect the political pressure, the final show was toned down and included some traditional acts. Even so, after the finale, the government's official English-language newspaper, China Daily, acknowledged the debate inspired by the show and also tartly asked:
"How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?"
Ms. Li and other finalists are scheduled to release a CD soon. Tryouts for next year's show are to begin in a few months, assuming "Super Girl" is not canceled. But there is good reason to think that it, or some type of imitator, will be on the airwaves again for the simple reason that the program reportedly made gobs of money.