Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A FOOTBRIDGE IN BEIJING

Philip J Cunningham

The news kiosk nearest my Beijing residence is nestled under the staircase of a massive pedestrian bridge that spans a centuries-old thoroughfare now thoroughly jammed with buses and cars bearing down on the dust of what was once the heart of the old city in Marco Polo’s time. The sturdy span not only connects one side of the street to the other, but links two different administrative districts.

The bridge is the only reasonably safe and convenient way to cross the busy fenced road, an elevated bottleneck and chokepoint as it were, engorged with foot traffic morning to night. The bridge, fed by four massive staircases rimmed with inclined ramps for pushing bicycles, is sturdy and wide enough on top to accommodate hundreds of pedestrians at once, inadvertently providing the kind of foot flow coveted by street merchants. As opportunistic merchants stake out space along the railing, the path narrows, the crowd thickens and the bridge is transformed into a floating market, allowing wily salespeople to hawk their wares above the pedestrian-unfriendly roadway below.

The market is a black market, operating without permits or permission, but it brings goods to customers, including impulse items and cute knick-knacks you didn’t know you wanted until you suddenly wanted them. Every now and then there is a crackdown and the merchants are brusquely dispersed by police, but the moveable market persists and for the most part it thrives, if only because enough profit is turned to make the risks tolerable.

Because trade is conducted on the sly, it’s buyer beware; quality control and accountability are largely absent. Counterfeit products abound, some relatively risk-free; say the latest installment of Harry Potter, others outright risky, such as unsanitary foodstuffs. Faulty merchandise is near impossible to refund.

Wedged in between the faux marble railings of the footbridge one beholds a movable tableau of unsanctioned commerce, offering everything from pirated books, including political tracts from Taiwan, Hong Kong and translated bestsellers from abroad, to the latest Hollywood DVDs and banned documentaries critical of communism. Everything from socks, bracelets, mobile phone cases, flowers, incense, road maps, toys, tropical fruit, pet rabbits, freshwater shrimp, to fresh fish flopping in buckets — is offered in plain view but can be made to disappear in a moment’s notice.

When police from one of the two jurisdictions arrive, it often suffices for the fleet-footed merchants to shift to the other side of the bridge, and when law enforcement eventually shows up on the other side, to shift back again. Only during the more serious crackdowns, say during a ritual sweep before a major party congress, are the police actions synchronized to effectively clear the span of all vendors. There are poignant times of the day and times of the year when the bridge is strikingly uncluttered and empty, but it doesn’t stay empty for long.

A similar dynamic in the art of the possible is at work in Beijing’s bustling journalism scene. The days when the iron rule of political loyalty and conformity was the single most important force shaping Chinese journalism are gone, the single unified state narrative as espoused by People’s Daily a thing of the distant past. The old stalwarts such as the People’s Daily, faced with competition from a freewheeling commercial press, is rapidly becoming irrelevant fish-wrap. Like many a bloated, state-run enterprise on the verge of bankruptcy, subsidies alone can’t keep it current or competitive in market terms, it is steadily losing readership share to new, resourceful players.

Chinese journalists navigate this brave, new journalistic landscape by pluck and instinct, as the old red lines bend and break, as the old draconian restrictions are replaced by more inconsistent, laissez-faire environment. Censorship is still strictly imposed on selected taboo topics, Tiananmen or Tibet for example, but increasingly the old restrictions are met with defiance, the perimeter of acceptable expression forever being poked, stretched and widened. A combination of creative subterfuge and sheer resilience on the part of Chinese journalists keeps the press doggedly alive.

China is a big place. Different things can be expressed more or less freely in different places, playing one side of the bridge off the other so to speak. It is often the case that papers in south China can say things that papers in the north couldn’t get away with, and vice versa. This drives a practice known as yidi baodao, or “reporting far from home.” Like the vendors on the footbridge who shift from one end to the other to escape the police, wily journalists write for newspapers in province A to criticize corrupt officials in province B. This explains why Southern Weekend, (nanfang zhoumo), a weekly broadsheet published in the southern city of Guangzhou, is such a hit in a city as far north as Beijing.

Another way journalists here protect themselves is to assign important-sounding titles to relatively unimportant newsroom employees. That way, when official disfavor mandates the firing of an editor, the cut can be made with little cost to the real editorial power, and publishing as usual, if publishing under such conditions can be considered usual, resumes quickly. Sometimes prudence requires nothing more than substituting a pseudonym for a byline, something one Chinese-language newspaper requested I file under a different name for fear that any residual records of my reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests would bring unwanted attention to the paper. At other times prudence requires pulling punches and laying low until a given political storm dissipates and passes.

Despite the persistence of government “cleansing” and meddling, the commercial revolution in the media is impossible to ignore. The news kiosk below the footbridge is crowded; headlines sing and papers dance off the newsstands, promising a seductive read. The display is breathtaking compared to the dull, dusty communal fare distributed to the workplace just a few years ago when the workplace was the primary unit of political control.

Newsstands overflowing with printed matter are getting to be ubiquitous in the big city, but their offerings remain uneven. Today’s kiosks peddle everything from tough investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance to deceptive advertorials, from tabloids offering breathless scandal to fashion rags. Risk-taking for the risqué manages to get even scrupulously apolitical journalists into trouble with the law, as libel suits -another new twist to China’s complicated media scene -add to the hidden costs of the news.

It’s a guerrilla war of sorts, but it is not a war against the government per se, as is sometimes implicit in black and white foreign reports about the struggle for press freedom in China. Rather it’s more an uneasy alliance of earnest reporters and conscientious officials working in tandem for themselves and their country.

Accurate news reporting is useful, indeed essential, to provide an adequate response to epidemics and environmental disasters, and it serves an equally essential role in providing checks on out-of-control corruption and social injustice in a country in the throes of dramatic and fundamental change. Abuse of power, malfeasance, special interests, and a lack of transparency are the frequently the targets of this new Chinese journalism, and when a story is suppressed it is not because it is critical per se but because the criticism cuts too close to certain vested interests and certain power holders protected by the party.

By urgently addressing these issues before things spiral completely out of control, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not, the Chinese press is both partner and adversary to the government by shining light in dark places. Properly understood, journalism is a supremely patriotic undertaking, helping society to correct itself, to address errors and grievances before things tumble out of control.

Be that as it may, doing real journalism in China remains a thankless job for the most part, low pay, high risk. Pursuing the truth conscientiously is not a career for the faint of heart, it has been in the past, and still is to some extent, a fast track to unemployment, prison or exile, in the intrepid tradition of Liu Binyan, Dai Qing, Li Datong and other spirited journalists who dared to speak truth to power.

But such lone courageous individuals are rare. Most reporting is couched in the realm of the possible, though not without integrity and not without risk. Even taking into account a certain amount of compromise, a watchdog press can serve as a curb on societal excess. Caijing, a leading business publication edited by Hu Shuli, has run several eye-opening investigative reports on real estate corruption in Beijing. The money may be lost forever, the injustice stands uncorrected, but every bicyclist and taxi driver in Beijing seems to know about it and real estate developers, who are corrupting the press with their own hidden agendas backed by lavish advertising, are subject to increased ridicule and suspicion.

Chinese journalists who came of age in the Deng Xiaoping era have been swept up as much by the turbo-capitalism Deng unleashed as a corrective to communistic excess as the pithy political injunctions he is remembered by. To navigate the uncertain terrain of this fluid, translucent world one must be opportunistic and observant, effectively “groping for stones as one crosses the river.”

Old draconian restrictions are lifted only to be replaced by extremely complicated and tricky new rules that effectively “democratize” the burden of censorship by making every editor, every writer, even bloggers, guardians of their own pen.

While residual heavy-handed censorship is disdained for its blatant clumsiness, there are ways around it with word of mouth and the Internet, but the new, insidious pressures to censor the net pose new fresh challenges. To some extent this can be met with creative subterfuge; irony, sarcasm, symbolic expression and other zigzag forms of subversive speech can withstand the befuddled gaze of the straight-laced censor. More corrosive of the net’s ability to provide reliable information is the epidemic of hate speech, ad hominen attacks and misinformation, polluting the well of public knowledge.

China is awash in a swirling sea of information, more than ever in its history, thanks to the Internet, cell phones, handy-cams, blogs, satellite television and newspapers. Increasingly you can find what you are looking for if you know where to look, but you must first master the art of reading critically, oftentimes between the lines.

pc

ANCHOR IN THE AIR

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

If you are a TV host named Yang Rui there are days when it seems like the whole world is against you. American critics dismiss you as a mouthpiece for China; Chinese officials carp about your “intrusive questions”, saying you’re too aggressive, too “Western.” A diplomat from a Muslim country is pressuring the Foreign Ministry to have you fired for overly critical remarks, and there were pointed complaints from Africa, where the program is widely broadcast, when you compared the situation in Sudan to Rwanda and Timor. Israelis and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Iraqis and Turks each accuse you of favoring their rivals. Doing your job well means someone, somewhere will not be pleased.

You pull yourself out of bed before dawn, gulp down a cup of milk, and then select a suit, shirt and tie. You have a lengthy live broadcast to anchor starting nine AM. You flick on the TV to review last night’s show as it is rebroadcast, and then boot up the computer to see how the world's changed overnight.

If it weren’t for the day’s hectic schedule, you might like to spend the morning in the book-lined study listening to classical music. But North Korea is in the news, the Six-Party talks, a volatile discussion concerning denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are the topic of today’s special show. In haste, you take the elevator down to the cavernous basement garage of the modern apartment block you live in, key up your car and commence your drive to work. Rush hour is in full force. With your mind on global affairs, you negotiate the bicycle clogged highways and by-ways of West Beijing, mindful of over-loaded trucks, errant cyclists and the odd donkey-cart.

You pause at the entrance gate to CCTV’s headquarters, there are no disgruntled rural petitioners assembled here this morning, but such is the faith in TV that many come here as a last resort. You pause long enough for the uniformed guard to give you a crisp, perfunctory salute, then seek a place to park, securing your favorite parking space on a neglected piece of blacktop behind the East Gate guardhouse. You walk a short distance to the main entrance where you are brusquely waved in by a muscular man in a khaki uniform, then take the elevator up to your office on the nineteenth floor. You sift through memos, lead-ins and research prepared by your staff, then whiz through the Western wires starting with Reuters, scanning the NYT, sina.com, sohu.com and the New York Times online.

What an enviable information flow, what a beautiful world the Internet is for the reader of English!

You gaze out the window at the postcard-perfect vista of Yu Yuantan, imperial Qing garden turned people’s park, now illuminated in the oblique light of the rising sun. To the east, the articulated rooftops of Soviet style towers and grandiose bank buildings line the city’s main thoroughfare. Beyond the chimney-shaped television tower capped with a revolving observation deck, a golden mist hangs over the Fragrant Hills.

Today's show, due to go on live in half an hour, has three guests; the former Japanese Ambassador to Russia, a local Arms Control expert from the Academy of Social Sciences and an American journalist. You're a little nervous about the ambassador because recent tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have put things on edge. On the one hand you want to ask tough questions, it’s your practice, it’s your pride, it’s what you do to create a circumscribed, propaganda-free zone; on the other hand you have to keep things diplomatic. A major issue of war and peace --will North Korea go nuclear, inviting attack from the US and Japan, or will it be persuaded to give up its atomic activities?

While on any given day it is difficult to determine who or how many of the estimated ten million potential satellite viewers in China and abroad are tuning in to the show that you script with your own hand and enliven with your off-the-cuff comments, one thing you can be sure of; Dialogue is monitored daily by Beijing-based diplomats, the Foreign Ministry and various state security agencies.

You check your appearance in the mirror as you knot your tie and take the elevator back downstairs, ambling down the long corridors of CCTV’s aging modernist structure, where discarded lunch boxes and drink bottles litter long, curving hallways and some of the floorboards creak. Although the recently renovated studio for live broadcasts sparkles, building repairs are made only reluctantly now that the all available funds are being poured into the gargantuan new CCTV tower designed by the flashy Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

You briskly stride the length of the second floor to get to the English language newsroom where bilingual Chinese staffers and foreign experts assemble and polish news scripts for the day’s bulletins, mostly international news, sometimes with a China angle. Wall-mounted TV screens simultaneously display half a dozen news programs, including BBC, banned from most Chinese cable providers in China, but an indispensable part of your daily fare as a newsman.

You are shepherded to the make-up room for a quick hair check and a touch of color and powder. Then you are quietly ushered into the oval-shaped live studio next door, silently slipping into your seat and putting in your earphone as another live news update winds up on the other side of the room. Your guests arrive, after handshakes you seat them according to protocol, the Chinese arms expert sitting closest to you, the Japanese ambassador in the middle and the American journalist at the end of the table.

The lights come on, and all conversations cease. An illuminated clock counts down silently. "Hello this is Yang Rui, and welcome to Dialogue..."



I’m sitting with Yang Rui at a wooden table in a trendy Tex-Mex restaurant in the diplomatic district. Though relaxed and smiling, the conversation is never less than serious, even as we order lunch. He tells me how much he enjoys doing live shows, and it’s not just the extra adrenaline and excitement. With live TV, there is no editing, no second-guessing the comments made by hosts or guests, you just have to go with what happens.

Taped interviews, on the other hand, are vexing because they invite endless edits and outside meddling. He talks about how the Foreign Ministry once expressed concerns about the pointed questions he asked Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, then visiting Beijing as a state guest. Despite the pressures of protocol, Yang Rui had insisted on asking the “old friend of China” about controversial shantytown demolitions, even though he was pretty sure it would be censored out. He was criticized by an aide to Mugabe at the time, so it was to gratifying to see that the interview aired pretty much intact, as best he remembered it.

He found US government guests could be equally prickly about content and protocol. During an interview with US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, her aides, functioning as US minders, blocked the camera and demanded that the line of questioning be halted because it deviated from a pre-arranged script. Similarly, when Alberto Gonzalez, as US Attorney General, sat for an interview at the US Embassy in Beijing, Yang Rui reported being bullied by US minders who tried to control every aspect of the interview, from questions to seating arrangements and placement of national flags.

And of course there are political sensitivities much closer to home. Yang Rui explains, with a note of exasperation, that Chinese television is at risk of going from political propaganda to commercial propaganda, in effect making the move from mouthpiece to mouthwash.

As the long hand of the state recedes, it yields not so much to serious journalism, such as he would like to see, but bottom-line driven commercial product. He quotes a former CCTV colleague, the Columbia-educated television hostess and media entrepreneur Yang Lan who complained to him about the low-brow pressures of independent television production, nostalgically recalling the “freedom” she enjoyed of being able to talk about serious issues on state-run CCTV.

“China wants to be seen as a serious, responsible player,” explains Yang Rui, “and that requires producing balanced news and winning the trust of the viewer.”

The American invasion of Iraq was a big turning point for CCTV, Yang Rui continues. “That’s when we really started doing journalism. We ran live reports, we quoted foreign sources, we had PLA generals talking military strategy. The head of the news division was so nervous, expecting at any moment to be criticized by the national leadership.” The complaint never came. “They liked it; it was the Americans who complained,” he adds with a grin.

Yang Rui says self-censorship is much more insidious than formal controls; a willingness to take risks should be part of the news sub-culture at a TV station. During orientation, new recruits are admonished; “be willing to be casualties.”

The challenge is to do your job well, he adds, “even if it means losing your job.” During the weekly two-hour meeting he chairs for the youthful, largely female staff of seven producers and a number of assistants, Yang Rui challenges the innate caution and “one-day, one-dollar” attitude of today’s youth. “I see journalism as a noble cause, a mission; too many others see it just as a job.”

I meet Yang many times again in and out of the studio. An American professor in Japan, I am frequently asked to comment on Sino-Japan relations, both in the studio and by telephone hook-up. We meet later at a trendy café in the university district where he is recognized by several students who watch his program to improve their English.

What are some of the memorable interviews has he dealt with? “Ah, Margaret Thatcher!” he says, conjuring up a smile. “What a skilled actress! She was unshakeable.” Michael Deaver, former Reagan aide, was challenging in a different way, “He didn’t answer any of my questions!” He mentions that several Chinese officials similarly proved difficult subjects, they didn’t like being interrupted or asked follow-up questions, tending to treat journalist as scribe. On the other hand, he thoroughly enjoyed repeated interviews with Jimmy Carter, “an honest and smart man” and Chris Patten, “he is tough, his words so strong, he has the instincts of a wolf, but I enjoy talking to him.”

Although Yang Rui still has days when doing what a journalist is supposed to due puts him under immense pressure, his supervisors can’t help but notice that Yang Rui is good at keeping cool. He has also cultivated a long line of diplomats, scholars and statesmen willing to sit in the hot seat as a guest on his show. Now with the Olympics coming up, he will be busier and more in demand than ever.

“Sometimes I think it’s amazing I still have my job,” he confesses over coffee. “What a job!”

pc

Thursday, December 6, 2007

INSIDE CHINESE STATE TV

Inside Chinese state TV: When dialogue is hard talk

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

BEIJING Earlier this year I was about to sit down for a live TV interview for the public affairs program Dialogue at CCTV’s main studio in Beijing when a work team from former employer in Tokyo suddenly showed up.

An NHK news crew from Japan was on hand, roaming the premises of CCTV to “study” the impact and apparent success of CCTV's Dialogue. The visiting camera crew followed Dialogue host Yang Rui around the newsroom and into the studio as he and I sat down to discuss nuclear proliferation with China’s distinguished Persian-speaking former envoy to Iran, Ambassador Hua Liming. As the NHK crew filmed CCTV filming us, we were joined on air by a Xinhua correspondent on the ground in Teheran, analyzing US moves in the region

Things had suddenly come full circle for me. I first got involved with Chinese state television indirectly while working for NHK in Tokyo in 1991 as the producer of China Now, a news-magazine co-production designed to educate CCTV in the art of TV, at least as practiced in Japan at that time. The idea was that CCTV would provide raw footage to Tokyo where it would be combined with NHK footage, re-edited, narrated and transformed into “real” TV, though the results were decidedly mixed.

I had been hired by NHK on the strength of my China freelance reporting during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that they had wanted a journalist. I was being offered opportunity to helm a politically sensitive Sino-Japanese co-production, but there were mountains of political correctness to take into account.

As I subsequently wrote in numerous memos to NHK brass, including a note to the chairman, even superb production values can’t save a basically flawed product. I made specific reference to the nationalistic bias of certain news reports on Japanese radio and TV, where I freelanced, and on China Now, where I was a staff producer. If you add propaganda to news you still get propaganda.

Even when CCTV provided raw footage that was truly moving or newsworthy, the pressure to produce something that neither side would take strong exception to put me in a bind. The few times China Now managed to make a pointed edit or powerful turn of phrase, complaints from Beijing and Tokyo were sure to follow, each side conveniently blaming the “gaijin” to preserve the tenor of Sino-Japanese amity. My unique opportunity was mission impossible, the news magazine had to be unnewsworthy to succeed.

Even when China Now was not as anodyne as its sponsors intended, both sides had something to gain. Chinese TV was still in its infancy compared to Japan’s sophisticated industry, there was much to learn, at least in production terms, and Tokyo saw it as means to foster goodwill in Beijing while obtaining for NHK increased access to China in terms of footage old and new, obtaining exclusive rights to certain coveted archival materials while winning permission to film in sensitive border areas.
I left China Now, turning down a salary increase and new contract, when I discovered it was being used as a conduit to move cash payments and Japanese researchers unrelated to my show into China.

A decade later, I found myself again at the gates of CCTV, this time at the Beijing headquarters offering a journalism seminar under the auspices of America’s Knight Foundation. During a talk attended by the production staff of Dialogue, I urged going live and presenting diverse viewpoints to boost the program’s journalistic merit and credibility. A long silence was followed by an unexpected invitation. "When would you like to be on?”

Soon after I was under the lights talking about everything from Mao, Taiwan, human rights, NGO’s, espousing views on a wide array of topics, the only coherent thread being my own idiosyncratic take on things, one individual’s tentative exercise of press freedom in a sensitive environment. That many of my views might be described as leftist was initially reassuring though later disconcerting to my hosts, because there is little that is leftist about China today, even though Chinese like to think of themselves as being somehow more progressive than Americans.

China benefits greatly from being slightly different from what foreigners think it is, either because it is changing so rapidly that old assumptions no longer hold, or because it is so good at throwing up illusions that foreigners find engaging. Expecting tight controls when I first got to CCTV I found the range of speech on CCTV’s premier talk show to be refreshingly open. I was never told what to say or what not to say with one exception, and that was on one of the early live shows.

Minutes before the studio lights went one and the cameras started to roll, I was treated to one of those inimitable and mildly intimidating Chinese compliments which can be read in multiple ways, redolent of inclusion and exclusion, encouragement and enforcement.

“You are the first foreigner invited to talk on Chinese TV about Chairman Mao in a live, unedited broadcast.”

As I took my place facing the immaculately groomed host at the glass table in the main studio, after an admonition to turn off my cell phone and a brief brush over at make-up, I sat in silence trying to gauge the import of the veiled warning implicit in the “first foreigner” compliment. Being bestowed with the status of “first” this or that is not without hidden baggage. It is not so much a tip of the hat to assimilation as a reflection of how cunning and parochial China can be even in this global era.

I thought of Sidney Rittenberg, an American communist resident in China since the 1940's who had risen to great heights at China Radio before finding himself imprisoned in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He had achieved notoriety as a “first foreigner” in many categories real and contrived, but what really got him in trouble were his outspoken broadcasts on radio.

Being asked to talk about a perennially sensitive topic was as much a bind as a breakthrough in part because it implied a kind of trust. Was I being trusted to talk freely or did being first imply something else? My worst fears were driven home just minutes before show opened when the host whispered to me. "Please don't say anything about Mao's women. This is about his political legacy."

Blame it on the studio lights, but I was sweating by the time the countdown to the live broadcast began.

Host Yang Rui opened the program with a short introduction about Mao’s life, spoken in his naturally authoritative, stentorian voice. His English is astonishingly good, so it must have been my nervousness that caused me to mishear the first question.


“Hello, this is Yang Rui, welcome to Dialogue…”What do you think about Mao’s women?”
"Mao's women?"
“Yes.”
“Mao’s women?”
I paused. Why was he putting me on the spot with such a provocative opening? Was it a trick question? A loyalty test?
"Yes. In the Yangtse River."
"Oh, you mean Mao swimmin'? You mean, like, Mao’s symbolic swim in the river, like in the Yangtse at the start of the Cultural Revolution?"
“Yes.”
“Oh.”
It was an awkward start to doing live political commentary on China’s state TV, but the cameras kept rolling and Dialogue now goes live as a matter of course.

What I like about CCTV is that they are willing to try new things, pushing boundaries both technical and political. Fully cognizant of the limits and dangers of state TV, which is to say cushioned by a bureaucracy that tolerates mistakes that would be intolerable in the West or Japan (especially sloppy production values) the staff is ever-vulnerable to being fired for crossing, inadvertently or intentionally, ever-shifting political lines.

Strangely enough, that creates a kind of laissez-faire attitude. As a result of production values that are part spit and polish, part spit and scotch tape, you have an operation that does not lend itself to be taken terribly seriously, with the serendipitous result that you see weird and wonderful glimpses of reality that are hard to find elsewhere. Everyone makes mistakes, many Chinese speakers mispronounce, every show could be the last show and much of it is compelling and real.

Much of the success of Dialogue can be traced to the hard work, political perceptiveness and improvisational skills of host Yang Rui, whose stentorian voice and attention to detail makes him a television natural. Last year he was in the midst of doing a show on candidates for man of the year in China, drawing from a list of political celebrities feted by the mainland media.

"How about coal miners?" I said, frustrated by the confining narrative frame, deliberately going off topic.
"What?"
"Coal miners. We sit here, under these lights, all this electricity, we all enjoy the benefits of the power, and they are dying, 30 or more a week. Coal miners should be the men of the year."

And to Yang Rui’s credit, he threw away the script and we talked about the plight of coal-miners instead of the rich and famous.

The fact that Dialogue is English language TV means much of what is said on air goes in one ear and out the other of China’s more xenophobic censors, mostly monolingual old-time ideologues who can’t very well vet the program unless it is taped and translated. Given the ephemerality of the live format, old time ideologues are unlikely to tune in, let alone pick up on tongue-in-cheek humor and ironic nuances.

Another reason why Dialogue can provide relatively free discussion space in a relatively unfree political environment is due to its judicious and diplomatic selection of discussion topics; they can’t control how a “typical freewheeling American,” as they have pegged me, will answer any given question posed on live TV but they pick and choose the questions. I was pointedly uninvited from a show during Hu Jintao’s visit to the US for fear I would make waves by being too critical of the Bush administration. Thus it gave me satisfaction to be invited on during Bush’s visit to China, and again after his State of the Union speech last January. I didn’t pull any punches, causing an exasperated producer to express the wish that I tone down my criticism of Bush since “America is important to China.”

To be fair, it is part of Dialogue’s brief to cover international affairs with diplomatic sensitivity and aplomb; the views expressed by the host and Chinese government guests are not necessarily the voice of China but may easily be perceived as such. Yet many government-linked speakers are a delight to be on with, the cautious but erudite Iran specialist Ambassador Hua Liming comes to mind, while other guests, usually the ones who demand all the questions in advance, are more interested in monologue than dialogue.

Early on I objected to the inquisitional tone the program sometimes assumed, and refused to answer the oft-asked, “We Chinese, you Americans” type of clichéd questions typical of co-host Tian Wei. As a guest on the show, I felt I brought credit neither to CCTV nor myself unless we avoided ethnic stereotypes and cultivated an atmosphere that expected and accepted a wide range of views

But for every misstep and clunky moment, there have been wonderful moments when a true conversation takes flight, steering clear of cliché, party line and national stereotypes. While I have been vocally critical of Tokyo’s foreign policy on the show, I have introduced a number of Japanese guests to Dialogue. Yang Rui, like most Chinese I know, has a short fuse on the topic of Japanese revisionism; his family suffered terribly during Japan’s war of invasion. Yet I urged him, when he was playing the role of host, not to say things like “that Koizumi guy” but to remain as neutral as possible for the sake of balance and maintaining an atmosphere conducive to discussion. Thus I was pleased to meet Yang Rui in Kyoto last month when he visited Japan as the guest of one of the Japanese professors who is now a regular commentator on the show.

In my eyes, CCTV first started to look like a real news station during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, at least in terms of its Mideast coverage. It’s vaguely demeaning, if not insulting to both sides to say America has gotten so bad as to make China look good, but that dynamic cannot be completely discounted. American TV is more free, but not free of nationalism. Chinese TV is blatantly nationalistic at times, but China is at peace with the world and studiously keeping a low profile, if only for long-term strategic reasons, in this golden age of trade.

In the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, CCTV gave a handful of Americans like myself a chance to say things that prime-time American TV, still in the US-flag-on-the-lapel stage, was not ready to hear. I paraphrased Churchill, calling Bush’s plan to attack Iraq the “wrong war for the wrong reasons at the wrong time” and was invited back to do a show after the war commenced, in which I expressed my view that France and Germany were true friends of America because they didn’t blindly follow Bush like Blair did. More recently I have found occasion to speak out against possible US intervention in Iran, while urging China to play a more constructive role. As for the likelihood of a US attack, I said if someone wants a fight they can usually find a fight. It would take something as little as a leaf from an Iranian tree blowing over the border to get tensions up.

Chinese TV has also given me the opportunity to express very personal opinions; when face to face with a Chinese general I used the obscure and somewhat baffling language of American counterculture and pacifism to make my point. When asked about tensions in the Taiwan Straits, I criticized the missiles on both sides, when asked Hiroshima, I said no city ever deserves such a fate, when the topic was nuclear proliferation, I talked of Dr. Strangelove. Pacifism and cultural irony are not part of the Communist Party’s vocabulary and it allows me to stake out a little space of my own in an intimidating environment.

Dialogue’s strength as the credibility anchor for CCTV 9 rests largely on the grit and integrity of its anchor, his preparation for each show and his hard-talking approach.

But domestic topics remain touchy and Chinese guests remain nervous about talking openly, partly out of habit, partly because they have a nose for political winds undetected by foreign guests. And if that isn’t enough to worry about, they have to manage fine distinctions in English, a language as different as can be imagined from what they are accustomed to.

When I wrote about communist-party-newspaper-editor-turned–communist-party-critic Li Datong, a CCTV producer pulled me aside, asking me if I wrote the article. I said I did, adding that I found Li Datong to be a great journalist. He smiled, saying he thought so too. On several subsequent occasions, I quietly suggested a show on the Tiananmen demonstrations, which I had covered as a freelancer working for ABC and BBC in 1989, but judging from the gap-jawed reaction, it won’t happen any time soon.

Despite the party-enforced intransigence on Tiananmen, a stain that won't go away, I have seen dozens of other television taboos fall by the wayside, but CCTV, like a dragon shedding scales, is still recognizably a dragon. Dialogue is a bit like BBC’s Hard Talk with Chinese characteristics, which makes it frustrating at times, but along with unevenly observed and sometimes clumsy efforts to promote a Beijing view, there exists an unexpected degree of freedom to talk in-depth and in detail about thorny political issues such as North Korea, Sino-Japanese historical disputes, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, atomic proliferation, substantive topics that more commercially-driven channels would find difficult.

The atmosphere at CCTV News is laid-back, almost somnambulant at times, and not the sort of nail-biting news operation I’ve seen in other world capitals. Just as China is a nation full of first time drivers, TV talk shows are full of people making their first time appearance on TV. Perhaps out of necessity, CCTV is a patient teacher, giving the newcomer time to adjust, and tolerant of little technical mistakes that might provoke a summary firing elsewhere.

China’s English-language TV channel also gives a fair number of foreigners the chance to appear on TV, some of them neophytes, others quite skilled on camera, in roles ranging from weather caster to cultural tutor, from news commentator to news anchor.

The station’s high hopes for international programming not only remind me of NHK during its internationalist heyday a decade or so earlier, CCTV is actually more international in the sense that there is less of a glass ceiling. At CCTV people of diverse racial backgrounds are put in front the camera in contrast to NHK’s overtly Japan-first attitude, which consistently relegates non-Japanese to invisible roles.

Even CCTV’s English news, which relies on foreign wires and video for much of its content, though guided by government policy, has seen it fit to hire dozens of foreigners for narration and on-camera news-reading, most notably Edwin Maher, a former weather caster from Australia. During my time at NHK foreigners were put on air too, but only if they looked passably Japanese, that is to say “Asian in appearance” as specified in the Japan Times classified ads. The foreign anchors were Japanese-Americans from Hawaii.

In the decade since I was hired by NHK to help CCTV, the latter has indeed learned much about “real” television news, while NHK, if anything, has been locked into a retrograde pattern. The controversial “ethnic cleansing” of foreign employees at NHK after a change in station leadership and more recently political pressures from right-wing politicians such as Abe Shinzo, who instructed NHK to cut stories on things like wartime comfort women while jacking up the volume on reports with an anti-communist slant, has taken a visible toll on the product and morale at Japan’s number one broadcaster.

If NHK reeks of bureaucratic meddling and sometimes outright historical revisionism, CCTV does too, but there is a countervailing momentum that is forward-looking, bristling with change and hopes for more change. Symbolically, the international transformation of CCTV will be complete in the next year or so when its current headquarters, a dull modernist monolith typical of the late communist style is replaced by a provocatively costly pretzel-shaped building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus.

But that’s just how things look on the outside; the facelift could augur a period of change or disguise the fact that very little is changing. For CCTV building news credibility is a taller order than building a new skyscraper. If and when CCTV rises to the challenge of good journalism and viewer trust, it will not be on account of its brassy new building but tough, dediciated individuals such as Yang Rui who work tirelessly to improve the news in every little way they can.


On the day when NHK's inquiring television crew paid a surprise visit to CCTV to measure their rival’s progress in international broadcasting, and happened to catch me in the hot seat, we had a chance to chat briefly after the show. I was impressed with the humility of the Japanese producer who said that he wanted to take a close look at the success of CCTV’s Dialogue since “NHK is under-performing in its international programming.”

The innovations of CCTV, once a student of NHK, are now of compelling interest to the teacher. Given recent political tensions, it is reassuring to see that Japan and China are continuing to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

(The author has worked in television and film in China and Japan since 1986)

Philip J. Cunningham