Thursday, May 30, 2019


Philip J Cunningham

The much-anticipated May 29, 2019 “debate” between an anchor from Fox Business News and a counterpart from China’s CGTN, better known as CCTV, was more of a letdown than a showdown, but it usefully illustrates some of the dynamics at work in Sino-US sparring. The debate was more about style than substance once Trish Regan recovered from her opening gaffe that incorrectly characterized her counterpart Liu Xin as a communist party member. Neither yielded to anger or got unduly flustered. They each put on a good show of deferential broadcast manners, a good show of little political significance.

Trish Regan and Liu Xin are both television professionals, and while their on-air styles vary wildly, one coming off as soft and seductive, the other prim and proper, they both instinctively know that looking good is part of the job. Not just in terms of makeup, which nearly all TV presenters, female and male alike, have to apply to compensate for unnaturally bright artificial light of the studio, but in terms of composure and good humor, winking to their fan base, playing to the crowd.

They never engaged one another in a sustained way. It’s not that Regan’s questions were off-topic, but there was no follow up. She could ask what she wanted, with a smile, and Liu could answer as she wanted, with a smile. A familiar game to media observers; tough questions followed by random answers.

I should know. I’ve been in the CCTV hot seat, in the same Beijing office where Liu Xin first started work. As a frequent guest and freelance “global affairs commentator” on CCTV’s long-running “Dialogue,” I enjoyed sparring with host Yang Rui, who modeled his show after BBC’s “Hard Talk,” and liked to think of himself as a tough interviewer. A consummate professional, he did his research and was well-prepared for every show.  

But as a party member--an affiliation Yang Rui was so proud of he made a point of telling me about an emotional visit to the grave of Karl Marx in London—he was hemmed in. He could dish it out, but he had to stay inside the box. I quickly learned not to be offended by his sometimes strident and accusative style, partly because it was a kind of role play--in sharp contrast with his warm and congenial demeanor before and after the show--but also because it was a cue for me go outside the box and talk about things in terms that were not available to him. He could set the tone with party-line questions, and I could answer with the implicit subversion of an individual answerable to no one.

Author talking with Yang Rui in CCTV studio

Resident in Beijing when the administration of Bush Jr. was about to launch its war on Iraq, I was grateful that CCTV was willing to air my views about the “wrong war for the wrong reason at the wrong time” at a time when much of the US media was banging the war drums. If anything, I was more critical of US policy than the Chinese pundits, if only because I cared more. The follies of US foreign wars were but egregious own-goals in a spectator sport for a nation at peace.

Sometimes I found myself standing to the left of Yang Rui on China issues as well. When he gave me a pre-scripted list of “outstanding Chinese” from which to name the “Man of the Year” (Bo Xilai and Yao Ming were the top contenders) I demurred. “How about the coal-miners?” I countered. The workers suffer such hardship, their sacrifice helps put on the lights in this studio. The host went silent. It’s hard for a man who wept at the grave of Karl Marx to argue with communism.

Although Yang Rui was familiar with my passionate involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations through talk, texts and film, I was only able to reference the event on air once during the 2008 Olympics. I had already suggested that the Dalai Lama should be invited to talk on Dialogue which provoked a wry smile and sent a few eyebrows flying, but when I breached the topic of Tiananmen, things went cold. I got only as far as saying something about the beauty red flags waving under the red sky, the inspiring, peaceful sight of seeing so many people in the street. Admittedly my comment was off-topic, so it was no surprise that the conversation was quickly roped in and redirected back to "soft power"or whatever the frame of the day was.

It’s hard to argue against a party line, so I could relate to Trish Regan's need to devise a narrative strategy to dislodge the orthodoxy of a state broadcaster. I picked up on this dynamic right away when she tried to box Liu Xin in as a party member. A strategic misstep, because in Liu Xin’s case it was technically untrue. Not that it takes a card-carrying affiliation to toe a line, of course, which Trish Regan should know as a loyal member of the Fox team. Neither she nor Liu Xin showed a willingness to deviate far from their respective editorial lines. Or to put it more cynically, you don't bite the hand that feeds.

The former beauty queen from New Hampshire fluttered her false eyelashes and pursed her cosmetically-glossed lips with aplomb, but she showed a weak command of the issues. She’s not savvy about economics or world politics and when she wings it,  she runs the risk of sounding like Trump on a bad hair day; her recent excoriation of “socialist” Denmark, pairing it with US-regime-change-flavor-of-the-month Venezuela, being a case in point.

Though anchors at TV stations like Fox work in an environment that offers constitutionally-protected free expression, this huge leg-up on the ritualistic, Leninist-style broadcasting favored in China is eroded by US partisan politics, insidious commercialism and low-brow populism. American network and cable news alike feel the need to entertain and manipulate around the clock, pandering to ever-narrowing niche audiences. How far US news standards have fallen since the days of no-nonsense coverage that addressed the nation as a whole, when journalistic legends such as Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite saw the truthful, autonomous and sober delivery of news as a civic responsibility. The news was never meant to be a cash cow for commercial sponsors.

As someone who has worked in television news for networks on both sides of the Pacific, I would not hesitate to say that American TV has generally gotten worse and Chinese TV has generally gotten better. It does not surprise me that Regan and Liu were able to meet as co-equals in this battle of the brands. Indeed, in this feeble contest at least, the Chinese side had a slight edge, because it’s hard to answer questions without talking policy, and Liu offered more gristle for thought than the airy and condescending Regan.

Fox News is not state TV, but it panders to jingoistic instincts and has been a relentlessly partisan supporter of Trump. The US President, in turn, is the TV station’s biggest fan, and looks to Fox rather than his intelligence briefs for his understanding of the world. This mutual admiration feedback loop has a craven, authoritarian flavor.

CCTV is state TV, but that is not the crux of the problem; after all BBC, and even Japan’s NHK, have done good journalism under nominal state control. But China’s news ecosystem seems to be changing for the worse.  I was a regular guest on CCTV during the free-wheeling Hu Jintao years, a relatively open time for Chinese media, and have since spoken out against the tightening of controls. It is regrettable to see a network that was moving in a cosmopolitan direction and keen on reform to suffer the editorial setbacks it has, and plain shocking to see it used for the airing of forced confessions.

If the Regan-Liu “debate” didn’t live up to the hype redolent of a prize fight, at least it was a step towards talking. Xenophobia is sweeping broadcast entities on both sides of the Pacific, but the dialogue must continue. It’s not good for CCTV to muffle itself as mouth of the party, nor is it good for US TV ownership to be in the choke-hold of a few billionaires. In both cases, a few men shape the news for the many. One need only consider the political clout of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to see how pervasive the influence of a non-elected magnate can be.

In the meantime, the Twitter quarrel of two news anchors has provoked broadcasters on both sides to up the exchange, both in terms of decorum and audience, and that’s a good thing for Sino-US relations.

Friday, May 10, 2019


Actor Alessandro Nivola plays a photographer who calls it in from Tiananmen Square for Channel Four in "Chimerica"

Split screen effects: making a thriller out of unsettling history

by Philip J Cunningham

“Chimerica” tells the story of an American journalist haunted by the memory of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The newly-released TV drama, first written for the stage by Lucy Kirkwood, bristles with provocative writing, even when inaccurate, and the acting is interesting, even when not true. Kirkwood’s adaptation for film not only undergoes the expansive transformation that takes place when a show moves from the proscenium to the screen, but updates itself politically in the wake of the rise of Trump and demagoguery on both sides of the Atlantic.

No longer a triumphalist work that pits barbaric China against the democracy-loving modern West, the new version is riddled with doubts about both sides. This much is good, but what it gains in irony and nuance, it risks losing in focus. The skullduggery and scheming between China and America is timely but not informed; the writer is quick to exploit hot topics, but it’s all headlines and no depth. In contrast, the exploration of newsroom dynamics and fake news in the four-part series is far better executed. Produced by Britain’s ITV, the hybrid product makes for good television, even if it’s not good history.

The story starts out at Tiananmen Square on the verge of a bloody crackdown and rockets the viewer back and forth to the year of the Trump-Clinton presidential race of 2016 with the dizzying acceleration of a Tesla going from zero to seventy. The safety harness that holds the implausible plot together is the dramatic focus on the photographer, ably, and amiably, played by Alessandro Nivola. His obsessive quest to find the tank man does not shed new light on the actual man in front of the tank but offers an audience-pleasing dramatic twist that invites us to think about the famous photo differently. What was in the bags he carried? What did he say to the soldiers inside the tank?
"Chimerica" speculates about the emotional lead-up to the world-famous shot

The acting is good; the earnest photographer is tested by his perky publicist friend (Sophie Okonedo) and a hard-as-nails older woman who mentors him (Cherry Jones) among other well-drawn characters. The Chinese friend of the photographer (Terry Chen) is a comforting and genial presence when speaking English. One aspect of the production that did not take well to the transition from stage to screen was the casting of secondary characters who speak Chinese to one another. The Chinese dialogue is stilted and weak; at best, it sounds like Mandarin 101, where everyone speaks super slow so as to be understood.

It may not make much of a difference to the average Anglo viewer, but to anyone with an ear for the language, let alone a native speaker, people Beijing have a distinct way of talking, and the way they talk is the national standard. It’s hard enough for Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong to get it right, never mind second and third generation British Chinese from the diaspora.

The set decoration tends to visual cliché and Chinatown bric-a-brac, but the insertion of archival footage from the real deal brings the Beijing scenes alive, especially as the crowd goes wild. Liberally lifting footage from British TV news coverage, a portion of which I contributed to working with a BBC crew on the Square on the night of the crackdown, gives the otherwise stagey drama a realistic veneer. Archival footage provides a background to the staged drama in way that is less than seamless but convincing enough for short takes. 

archival footage from 6/4
matching staged footage

"Chimerica" re-stages scene with fake tank
Footage of real tank is included in montage

It was with an unexpected sense of wonder that I watched contemporary actors walk onto the ersatz Tiananmen Square of "Chimerica." The knitting of the real and unreal was inviting enough to make me want to suspend disbelief. That such a re-enactment could win the eye of a jaded observer attests to the success of the method; it manages to convey a sense of what it was like to be in one little corner of a very big square.

There was even a scene of the lead actor being given a popsicle by a sympathetic activist, cooling off on a hot day in a friendly crowd with the same whimsical joy I experienced after a day of marching, as detailed in my book, "Tiananmen Moon."

The author cooling off at Tiananmen (1989)
A similar scene from "Chimerica" (2019)

Outdoor scenes set in China were mostly achieved with computer magic that knitted archival and dramatic footage. Most indoor scenes and some back alley scenes were filmed in Bulgaria, a far cry geographically, but not a totally uninspired choice since the dreary housing blocks where much of the ancillary action takes place reek of Soviet-style shabbiness and neglect. 

When one considers the daunting cost and the passage of time, let alone the unlikelihood of getting official permission from the same Beijing authorities who have assiduously swept the memory of Tiananmen 1989 under the rug for three decades, any re-staging of the epochal event is going to be grounded in compromise and the art of the possible.

The bar to get the visuals right remains unusually high, though, because Tiananmen Square is one of the most-photographed places in the world, and there are numerous documentaries on the 1989 uprising and crackdown. I contributed footage and photos to a number of them, and while the narrative focus varies and the stentorian voiced-over conclusions differ, there is just so much video footage to go around, and important parts of the story remain untold.

In 1990, with images and memories of the exuberant 1989 student outburst fresh in my mind, I worked with writer Ed Hume on a screenplay called “Tiananmen Square.” Optioned by HBO, it languished in development purgatory for reasons both understandable and inexcusable. In those pre-CGI days, there was no easy way to render Tiananmen Square in a believable way. Feelers were put out to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan for possible location shoots and crowd scenes, but most officials, then as now, were loath to take the chance of offending Beijing. Less convincingly, HBO argued that the film had “too many Chinese” in it to be profitable. The option played out and the film was never made, though HBO offered me the consolation prize of visiting the Moscow set where “Stalin” was being filmed in its stead, starring Robert Duvall and lots of white people.

The exciting thing about seeing the event get dramatic treatment, however belatedly, is that it opens up a whole other world of possibility, to capture things that weren’t caught on camera, to show unknown nuances of a historic turning point and the human condition in its full potential.

Due to the obsessive focus on the man in front of the tank, "Chimerica" only makes baby steps in that direction. But it’s a breakthrough, of sorts, and deserves recognition as such, since the TV and film business is so eager to please China these days that the topic is rarely breached.

A recent example of the big media chill is CBS, which just last week censored a drama that takes China to task for censorship among other things. A full 90 seconds of the “Good Fight” were cut from the episode broadcast during the first week of May this year. The allegedly offensive content, a gag song that touched on Tiananmen, among other taboo topics, was not televised. Rather than give "offense," which presumably could influence the CBS bottom line in the huge China market, CBS brass insisted on cutting a minute-and-a-half of an American drama for American viewers in America. It was replaced with an Orwellian message:

                                    This is what self-censorship looks like.

Viewers initially thought “CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT” was a joke, a gag, a wry meta-message, a scripted part of the show, but it was not.

British television has suffered its share of censorship—news touching on the IRA, MI5 or MI6 was routinely scrubbed or scrapped for years--but at least ITV has shown some gumption by airing a show critical of both the US and China at a time when others duck for cover and run from the topic. "Chimerica" throws down the gauntlet and raises the hope that other thoughtful, humane and nuanced interpretations of the history that was made at Tiananmen will follow.

Sunday, May 5, 2019


Cornell has seen many shifts in its links to China
Speaking out about the recent visa crackdown on Chinese scholarly visits to the US, Cornell-trained professor Jia Qingguo from Peking University noted that the US move reflected both anxiety and lack of confidence. Although he was addressing the trumped-up fear that Chinese students in the US  are a fifth-column influence, stealing secrets that the US security establishment, for all its prowess, is apparently incapable of keeping secret, his point about American loss of nerve applies on a more general level as well.

The US is indeed brimming with anxiety and a crisis of confidence.

How else to explain the hysteria of the wealthy, paranoid and pampered President Trump who campaigns incessantly to “build that wall” and “lock ‘em up.” To think that the man with access to the world’s most daunting nuclear arsenal finds the time to obsess about impenetrable border walls and deploying military force to stop a trickle of rag-tag, empty-handed refugees from crossing the border is crazy. US immigration and refugee processing may indeed need an administrative overhaul, but it is hardly time to cry wolf and call in the troops.

The problem is, if the same sickly mix of anxiety and failed confidence is applied to bigger issues, such educational exchange, or domination of Pacific sea lanes, or establishing nuclear deterrent, a cascade of bad choices and knee-jerk reactions could actually lead to a real war with bad consequences of epic proportions. Unthinkable though it might be to more rational minds, there are trigger-happy advisors in the president’s circle keen on provoking a hot conflict with China. On the domestic side, Trump’s reprehensibly mean-spirited advisor Stephen Miller has called for cancelling all Chinese student visas to the US, though thankfully calmer, kinder voices have prevailed, including that of US Ambassador to Beijing, Terry Branstad.
China specialist David Shambaugh at George Washington University echoed Jia Qingguo’s above-noted concerns saying “when China and the US wage a visa war against each other’s scholars, nobody wins.” Shambaugh drives home the point that tit-for-tat retaliation is harmful, though he unhelpfully squarely blames China for starting it. Be that as it may, both sides need more restraint and mutual understanding, not less, in these contentious times, if only for better informed conflict management.

Cornell University was a popular destination for Chinese scholars in the early 20th century, including the erudite Hu Shi, and it trained many top scientists and scholars from China until 1949. Chinese enrollment plummeted during the Cold War, when only a handful of scholars could get the necessary travel papers from both sides, such as the well-connected writer Jack Chen. Since the 1980's, when the flow of mainland scholars to the US resumed full-throttle after a thirty-year hiatus in the wake of the Chinese revolution, the number of Chinese students on campus has increased exponentially, and now constitutes the largest group of foreign students, numbering over 2,100 across Cornell’s various schools and colleges. 

While some petty complaints have arisen about assimilation, it’s perfectly in keeping with the university’s egalitarian charter and the realities of today’s cosmopolitan world that Chinese should be heard on every corner of campus. Chinese has been taught on campus for well over a century and plenty of other languages can be heard as well. What’s more, Ithaca landlords, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, not to mention cash-strapped divisions of the university itself, are grateful for the patronage.

As someone who first studied Chinese at Cornell and went on to enjoy foreign student life in China, I can see many interesting parallels between the somewhat insular community of Chinese students at Cornell and the often insular world of American students in China. It takes an effort not to speak one’s own language and seek the familiarity of one’s own kind, but getting out of one's comfort zone is what cross-cultural exchange is all about.

There is a great imbalance, though, and there has been from the start, between the number of Americans studying in China and vice-versa. Various efforts have been made to redress this gap, and again, Cornell University offers an interesting example to consider.

In Beijing in 2005, I attended the inauguration of Cornell’s ambitious China exchange program known as CAPS, held in the Great Hall of the People with guests including George Bush Sr. and Robert Gates. Developed with the support of Cornell alumni and benefactor Michael Zaks, and promoted by university president Hunter Rawlings, the bi-cultural bridge-building program did not live up to its initial promise. Factors in its stagnant growth included a disregard for China on the part subsequent university presidents, poor program management both in Ithaca and Beijing, and a sea change in desired destinations for young Americans. 

Interest in visiting China arguably peaked with the 2008 Olympics and has been going downhill since due to shifting flavor-of-the-month perceptions, a rise in political tension and the old bug-bear, pollution. The number of Cornell students participating in the special China-focused major has dropped to as low as five, though there will be nine graduates in this year’s class.

Another Cornell exchange program, jointly run by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Renmin University, was scrapped last year due to concerns about the lack of academic freedom in China. It’s not the end of Cornell’s engagement with China, but it does not bode well for the future.

Although there are legitimate concerns about free inquiry at stake, and a university is within its rights to disengage at will, the US should brace itself for the possibility that it, too, will be judged by its actions, and these actions may cause others to withdraw from educational exchange with the US.

The give-and-take of US-China educational exchange mirrors the larger relationship in all its strength, asymmetry and fragility. If Chinese students no longer come, either due to outright visa denial or diminishment of interest due to perceptions about the growing unattractiveness of the US as a place to study, even major universities will be rocked to the core, scientific research will suffer and collegetown shops will be shuttered left and right.

The toxic paranoia of the Trump White House is a stark reminder that over-reacting to something can make things turn out worse than the imperfect situation that is being reacted to in the first place.

This frightening dynamic is tragically evident in the US gonzo response to terrorism, which to date has led to several undeclared wars, hundreds of thousands of dead, over a trillion dollars in expenditure, the rise of the security state and the concomitant rollback on privacy and civil rights.

Racing for the exit in bilateral exchange programs puts the future of democracy at risk; it is like risking the baby for the bathwater. It threatens to take out of circulation the trust and goodwill that have helped both sides prosper and keep the peace in one of the most remarkable bilateral relationships in history.

Philip J Cunningham is the author of “Tiananmen Moon”