Posts Tagged ‘CCTV’

The Party’s Insecurities

Posted: May 10, 2012 in media
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Insecure governments are much like insecure people. They overcompensate for their weaknesses by making a big fuss about how strong they actually are in those areas. For instance, if you’re an ashamed closet homosexual, then you might become an Evangelical anti-gay crusader. Likewise, if you’re an authoritarian government that operates on the whims of un-elected leaders, you might stress how adherent you are to the “rule of law” again and again and again and again. So if you want to see what the Chinese government is insecure about, you usually need look no further than the propaganda.

All over China you see slogans like “Happy Guangdong” or “Civilized Chaoyang” that call attention directly to what leaders feel those places are lacking. And chengguan – the city management officers responsible for stopping illegal street vendors – have an often-deserved reputation as being thugs who use their little power to terrorize poor migrants. So all over Beijing we see signs like this:

“People’s City, People’s Administration” (A play on the word “Chengguan” )

With this principle in mind, I’ve been watching Xinwen Lianbo over the past few weeks. This is CCTV’s flagship news program that runs simultaneously on most channels every evening at 7:00. This program most consistently reaches the largest viewership throughout China, so it’s perfect for gauging the government’s biggest insecurities.

The program’s traditional schedule is widely recognized and mocked by Chinese. It consists of three segments: The leaders are busy, the people are happy, and foreign countries are in chaos.  I vaguely recall when I first got to China in 2007, you could almost set your watch to it most days. When images of top leaders shaking hands with foreign diplomats or doing countryside field inspections shifted into minorities and peasants enjoying favorable government policies, it must be 7:10. When those happy faces faded into American gun violence or Middle-East bombings, it must be about 7:20.

These three segments can be seen as compensation for the Communist Party’s three biggest fears: That the leaders might be seen as illegitimate, corrupt and self-indulgent; that the peasants and minorities might feel exploited or repressed; and that countries under different political systems might be viewed as preferable alternatives.

What I’ve found interesting from watching the program over the past few weeks – and ticking off the kinds of stories that are shown – is that the traditional format has been shaken up. To its credit, individual stories are now more diverse and often contain news without apparent political aims. However, the “leaders are busy” portion now often stretches out 15-20 minutes of the 30 minute newscast, with an average of 5 separate stories each program. This might suggest the leadership is REALLY keen on proving its legitimacy as the power handover draws near.

The “people are happy” and “foreign countries are in chaos” segments are also still cornerstones, with an average of 2.3 and 3.6 stories respectively each night. But two other segments seem to have become regular additions: “China is innovative” and “the economy is looking good.”

Each have been averaging one story per night. Chinese innovations like an aerospace medical lab and the world’s quietest washing machine are shown; as are detailed explications (often digressing into virtual PowerPoint presentations) leading you to feel that China’s economy is strong and will stay strong.

China is facing some major economic bubbles, coupled with bleak growth prospects if its businesses can’t move up the value chain while wages increase. The Chinese education system’s failure to produce the creativity needed to do so has been a concern for years. If, and how badly the bubbles will burst, and whether or not China can get creative, remain to be seen. But if Xinwen Lianbo is any indication, they’re things the government is pretty worried about.

I’m a bit late to the draw with this one, but last Friday, April 13th I noticed something interesting on CCTV. That morning People’s Daily had run an editorial on the Bo Xilai affair that was on the front page of nearly every major newspaper. That evening Xinwen Lianbo – the 7:00 PM national CCTV newscast – presented its routine fantasy world where people are moved by the empty speeches of leaders and the masses are engulfed with heated discussion of People’s Daily commentaries. On this day however, the program appears to have gone above and beyond just having anchors report the PD editorial’s contents. Several men-on-the-street were interviewed to get their takes on the Bo affair. When you set their comments next to the People’s Daily pieces, there are some pretty striking similarities:

Guo Hui, Haikou engineering maintenance worker

People’s Daily:  [The Bo decision] fully illustrated the Chinese Communist Party, which represents the people’s fundamental interests and shall never allow any “special party member” to be above the discipline of the party or the law of the country. Everybody is equal before the law and there is no privileged citizen or exception in the system. 同时也充分说明,代表人民群众根本利益的中国共产党,决不允许有凌驾于党纪国法之上的“特殊党员”;法律面前人人平等,制度面前没有特权、制度约束没有例外,

Worker: From the decision we can see the clear stand of the Party and government to safeguard party discipline and the laws of the state, that is to say, no matter what their position is in the party, nobody can be above the discipline of the party or law of the country. 从这个决定中我们可以看出,我们党和政府在坚决维护党纪国法面前的一个鲜明态度,就是说,在党内不管职位高低,不管任何人,都不能凌驾于党纪国法之上。

Yu Xingshou, Chongqing citizen

Chongqing citizen: As a party member, no matter how high your position is, whoever violates the law should be severely punished by the law. This treatment reflects equality before the law. 作为一名党员,不管你职位多高,干部多大,谁触犯了法律,都应该受到法律的严惩。这次的处理体现了在法律面前人人平等。

Chen Zhiwei, Changsha farmer

People’s Daily: China is a socialist country under the rule of law. The dignity and authority of the law cannot be trampled on. Whoever is involved, whoever broke the law shall be dealt with according to the law with no mercy. 我国是社会主义法治国家,法律的尊严和权威不容践踏。不论涉及到谁,只要触犯法律,都将依法处理,决不姑息。

Farmer: Our country is a socialist country under the rule of law. No one can be above the law and corruption will surely be punished severely by the law. 我们在法治社会主义国家,任何一个人不能凌驾于法律之上,有腐败行为的一定会得到国家法律的严惩。

Yang Fengcheng, Renmin University professor of party history

People’s Daily: Strict organizational discipline is a distinctive feature of our party. One of the party’s advantages is that organizations and members at all levels strictly obey the party discipline and consciously accept it. 严密的组织纪律性,是我们党的一个鲜明特征;党的各级组织和全体党员严守党的纪律、自觉接受党的纪律约束,是我们党的重要优势,

Renmin Professor: The Chinese Communist Party has a distinctive feature: that is strict discipline.  We say everyone is equal before the law, so to a Communist Party member, every member is equal before the party discipline.  中国共产党它有一个鲜明的特点,就是有着严明的纪律。我们讲在法律面前人人平等,那么在党纪面前,对于党员来讲那就是党纪面前人人平等。

Sun Fei, Deputy director of research at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection

People’s Daily (from earlier April 10th editorial): [The Bo decision] fully reflects the spirit to stress facts and rule by law. It complies with the party’s concept to discipline itself strictly and rule the country according to law. It demonstrates the party’s firm determination to keep its purity.  这充分体现了重事实、讲法治的精神,完全符合我们党从严治党的根本要求和依法治国的执政理念,表明了我们党保持自身纯洁性的坚定决心,

Discipline inspection researcher: The decision by the CPC Central Committee to initiate an investigation of Comrade Bo Xilai’s serious disciplinary problems fully reflects the party’s determination to discipline itself strictly. It fully reflects that the party will never tolerate any corruption and that its ruling concept is to rule the country according to law. It also demonstrated the party’s firm stand to keep its purity.党中央决定对薄熙来同志严重违纪问题进行立案调查, 充分体现了党要管党,从严治党的决心,充分体现了我们党对腐败现象绝不容忍的政治态度,体现了依法治国的执政理念,表名了党保持自身纯洁的坚定立场。

It seems to me one of three things happened here:

  1. CCTV reporters did some serious shoe-leather reporting in several different cities across China in the space of a few hours, managing to find interviewees that happened to have nearly verbatim opinions to the People’s Daily editorials.
  2. The whole country truly was engulfed by the heated editorials and their spirited points rolled off the tongues of all those CCTV approached.
  3. CCTV told interviewees what to say.

I know I know. Chinese state media lacking journalistic integrity…truly breaking news.  Last year a leaked uncut video showed a farmer being told what to say on camera by a reporter, and CCTV has had plenty of its own fake interviews exposed. But having the audacity to do it with five back-to-back interviewees speaking from a single source openly available to the public is a bit surprising; especially for a network now trying to build credibility for its ambitious overseas expansion plans.

CCTV’s overseas push

Posted: October 27, 2011 in media
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Last week CCTV (China Central Television) held its “First international forum for audience & seminar” where they tried to get advice from foreign journalists on how to expand their international influence. CCTV International, which comprises six channels in six languages, is setting up more foreign bureaus and trying to increase its access to overseas viewers.

This is mostly part of an attempt to expand China’s soft power. According to the Wall Street Journal, China’s media is in a “45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) push to have a greater influence abroad and counteract what they see as biased reporting from the foreign press.”

CCTV representatives repeated several times at the forum the idea of showing “the Chinese perspective” to the world. This, I think, is the fundamental problem with CCTV’s expansion goals.

How often do you watch France 24? Probably never, because they had the same premise. The TV station launched in 2006 with the stated mission “To cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.” They hoped to one day compete internationally with CNN and BBC.

The problem is, in spite of what they’ll tell you, most people don’t actually want to hear others’ perspectives. They want their own perspectives reinforced. It’s called Selective Exposure Theory. This is why Fox News is among the top rated cable news channels in the US, even though studies have shown their viewers are among the most misinformed. It’s a place where conservatives can congregate to have their views reinforced and avoid information that contradicts their beliefs. The same rings true with liberals and MSNBC. For both, it’s good business. They both have large audiences. But who outside of China is going to want information from the Chinese view? Pakistan? North Korea maybe?

Beyond a very niche market, most don’t want another country’s “perspective.”  CNN and BBC’s international channels have succeeded because of extensive resources around the world that can cover events faster and better than others. They’re certainly not 100% objective but they’re not explicitly promoting the American or British “perspective” either. When I watched news of the 2008 Tibet riots, I didn’t really need CCTV’s perspectives like “Any attempt to split China is doomed to failure.” I just needed to know what the hell was happening.

The advantage CCTV has over France 24, or even BBC, is that a lot of people around the world actually care what’s happening inside China. Bloomberg Editor-at-Large Lee Miller said, “You [CCTV] have resources that we can’t compete with. You can access people that we can’t.”

But that comes to the most obvious problem: credibility. While the foreign journalists at the forum talked about some practical business and coverage strategies, it inevitably kept coming back to that same implicit issue.

Even if CCTV ditched the “Chinese perspective” and just tried to report objective news nobody else had access to, could anyone trust the government controlled outlet? The English channel often makes token overtures to prove they’re provocative to foreign audiences but they still mostly rely on the dry traditional “leaders are busy, people are happy, foreign countries are in chaos” format. Then there’s the whole thing with CCTV’s Chinese channels faking interviews and largely neglecting to report their own massive downtown Beijing fire.

Li Bin, a representative of CCTV, assured the audience that they’re dedicated to improving openness and objectivity. The crazy thing is I actually believe him. Al Jazeera was cited by the host of the forum as a good model at one point. They managed to overcome perceived anti-American bias in the wake of 9/11 to launch Al Jazeera English in 2006. Earlier this year my eyes were glued to the station as they covered the Arab Spring, simply because they had access and resources in the Middle-East  nobody else had. Their success in the region has let them expand to the point that they can compete with CNN and BBC in many other places around the world. I remember during the first few hours of the Japanese earthquake their coverage was much better than both those outlets.

It’s obvious those at CCTV International know they have very little international credibility under present circumstances. And from talking to some CCTV reporters, I think they honestly do want to become a true spotlight on the good and the bad of China.

However, there was another English media outlet in China that had the same idea two years ago. They hoped to one day print overseas and compete with foreign outlets. They caused a stir when they ran two pieces on the Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary at a time nobody else in China’s media would mention it. The reporters of this outlet were excited with the freedom they thought they’d have and many (including myself) thought this could be the beginning of a provocative new chapter in China’s media.  That outlet was Global Times.

I don’t want to say CCTV has no chance of making it internationally. They have the resources and interest on their side. But even if the government says they’ll untie CCTV for the international channels, I suspect the first time something truly embarrassing is aired the propaganda department will throw the lasso back on – just like they have with Global Times. It’s a shame. Having an objective international media outlet would do much more for China’s soft power than having a propaganda machine that nobody watches.