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Godfrey Gao, seen here on June 15, 2013 in Shanghai, China, suffered an apparent heart attack while filming Chase Me and later died in hospital.

Feng Li/Getty Images AsiaPac

As an avid viewer of Chinese-language reality shows such as Chase Me, I was not entirely surprised to learn of Godfrey Gao’s death last week.

The 35-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian model and actor suffered an apparent heart attack while filming the show and later died in hospital, drawing an outpouring of grief among fans and celebrities around the world. His death also sparked criticism among Chinese internet users who questioned the safety protocols on the program, which is filmed at night and requires participants to race while completing a set of physically demanding tasks.

Chinese state-run media questioned where the boundaries are when it comes to the country’s variety shows. One article, published on Thursday, listed several incidents in recent years in which celebrities were injured, including a singer who broke his leg while shooting Race the World, which is similar to Amazing Race. On Keep Running, a show in which celebrities complete missions to win a race, an actor had to get 22 stitches on his eyebrow bridge after an injury.

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Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were only handful of reality shows in mainland China. When the singing competition series Super Girl premiered in 2004, everyone was obsessed with it. To most Chinese audiences, talents shows like that were still new. But in recent years, the amount and the wide range of themes of Chinese variety shows have boomed: dating, parenting, travelling – any subject one can think of, there seems to be a reality show about it.

A 2016 article from the South China Morning Post said Chinese satellite-television channels carry more than 100 different reality shows. China’s official xinhua.com said Chinese video-streaming platforms – a big shareholder in this market – produced 385 variety shows in 2018, double that of 2017. Many of these often feature popular celebrities from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Personally, I prefer cooking shows and am not a close follower of outdoor or sports-themed variety shows, so I wasn’t familiar with Chase Me until I learned about the incident. I then watched the first three episodes and was stunned by their intensity.

In its first episode, which premiered on Nov. 8, harnessed participants climbed a 70-metre-tall building with a rope then zip-lined down.

In the second episode, two former Chinese Olympic gold medallists joined the race and even they appeared worn down completing their tasks. Boxer Zou Shiming fell while trying to run across a rotating platform and couldn’t get back up until staff assisted him. He said one of his legs had cramped up.

William Chan, a Hong Kong singer and actor, and a regular participant of Chase Me, once said in an interview that the program was “too hard," even for people like him who are fond of physical activity. He said the show usually finishes filming around 6 or 7 a.m. the next day. This interview clip was widely shared on Weibo after Mr. Gao’s death.

It’s extremely sad to see a young life lost like this, but it did prompt many who follow or work in China’s entertainment industry to reflect on what went wrong. Is viewership worth putting participants’ lives in danger?

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