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?”
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?"
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.
"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