Tuesday, March 15, 2022



CCTV's Rem Koolhaas-designed flagship tower in central Beijing


By Philip J Cunningham


If you build a dazzling new flagship building in Beijing and a well-funded network of shiny TV studios around the world, will journalism follow?


Not necessarily.


China spends an enormous amount of money on media but has little to show for it. CCTV television news reports in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, have been deceptive at best, straining under a mix of guidance from above and reflexive self-censorship. 


The result is news that not only lacks news value, but news so skewed from the truth that one knows less, not more, after watching it.


Not that it would cost much money to remedy -- just a poster board and a brave staffer willing to stand in front of the camera to protest the propaganda would be a bracing good start. 

Russia One producer Marina Ovsyannikova protests the untrue news


Chinese state TV reports on the war have been eerily in lockstep with Putin-directed Russian propaganda, which is problematic enough, but at times they have gone even further, bending over backward to present Russia in a good light, not just by parroting Russian propaganda, but in some cases, outdoing it.


Dubbed a “special military operation” in propaganda-speak, the invasion took place on the heels of Putin’s much-heralded February 4 visit to Beijing during the Olympics. The adulation and self-celebratory scope of Chinese TV Olympic reporting was such that concurrent US media “noise” about an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine was dismissed as misinformation, ill will or sour grapes. There's truth in the saying that people only hear what they want to hear. 


That clouds of war were gathering over the Russian-Ukrainian border was never really allowed to register in Beijing, instead such reports were ridiculed and dismissed.


I have written in detail elsewhere about how Chinese state television, under pressure to be pro-Russia and anti-America, scrambled to come up with explanations for the abrupt non-invasion invasion (the term “invasion” was scrupulously avoided in deference to Moscow.) 


From day one of the war, CCTV reporting was  twisted and contorted, by commission, omission and misdirection. The shocking Russian invasion was never once condemned or even lightly chastized. Indeed, it was coldly deemed to be a matter in which the Russians "had no choice."  


Through verbal acrobatics and convoluted logic, Russia's war of invasion was instead decreed to be the fault of NATO and the US. 


Consider the example of the bombing of Kiev TV Tower which CCTV news show video footage from, but deceptively suggested was not a direct hit, and not carried out by Russia, only for Russian media to admit to the surgical attack aimed at the TV tower just hours later.


China Central Television’s clumsy and deceptive coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine is troubling in and of itself, but it is part of a larger retrograde move to more censorship, rather than less. Also troubling is the rise of the Xi Jinping personality cult, a Stalinist innovation that propped up Mao way beyond his "best by" date,  and caused untold harm to the Chinese people. The cult was carefully eschewed by Deng Xiaoping and it was not applied to his hand-picked successors. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were powerful but beholden to collective leadership and term limits. The blind adulation of Xi Jinping, his "no limits" friendship with Putin, and the "no limits" extension to his tenure is really bad news for China.  


Things have gotten so bad, gone so quickly retrograde, that Xi Jinping's rule makes the turn-of-the-century reform era looked positively engaging and bubbling full of promise. Before Xi, earnest efforts were being made to bring China, and its flagship television station, up to an international standard, to join the world, not an axis against it.


I spent a considerable amount of time in the corridors and studios of CCTV in the early 2000's as a Knight Journalism Fellow and Fulbright researcher. At the time of my media research, the party still had a very strong editorial hand, but something close to real journalism was also possible, on an increasingly wide range of topics. At the time, CCTV's broadcasting center was located on Fuxing Road near Yuyuantan Park, appropriately within view of Beijing Television Tower. 


My visits to the belly of the beast of China's broadcast empire came at the invitation of veteran CCTV producer and former Brookings Fellow, Li Xiaoping. She asked me to make suggestions, contribute memos and attend strategy meetings. Among other things discussed were ways of raising the standards of CCTV's news talk shows, which at the time were almost entirely scripted, taped, edited and censored.


The move from canned programs to live broadcast  was part of an internal push to present news more efficiently, if not more compellingly, and once the decision was made to move in that direction, the role of in-house censors was reduced. 


Li Xiaoping invited me to appear on what I was told was the first, or at least one of the earliest  live news programs done at CCTV. It was exciting, and while it quickly became apparent that untoward expression could be hemmed in by the strategic choice of discussion topics, the anchor's interventions, and framing of the narrative, I was almost always allowed to speak my piece.


During breaks in my academic schedule teaching media studies in Japan, I was frequently invited as a guest commentator at CCTV, including the flagship English language program “Dialogue,” and a number of other live specials covering cultural events, historic commemorations and China’s space program.

The first program I did on Dialogue was instructive in how taboos are enforced and violated. The show was devoted to a discussion of Mao Zedong and I was forewarned not to talk about "Mao's women." But when host Yang Rui asked me about "Mao's swimming" I misheard the question, so we sort of stumbled on the topic anyhow. We had a similar contretemps on the rise of Bo Xilai, who was then at the height of his fame and power. Words were said and words that weren't supposed to be said went uncensored, and that was just par for the course of live TV in that period. 


Only once, when I got into an argument with a member of the PLA brass about the China's naval activities in the South Sea did the program get trimmed. It aired live, there was little remedy for that while it was happening, but it did not get re-broadcast as was the usual practice.

During the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, at which time China was under some pressure to embrace press freedoms, I found the provisional, and fleeting, opportunity to talk about taboo topics such as dissident Wei Jingsheng, the Dalai Lama and the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, but the discussions were kept short by a host eager to change the topic.

That's admittedly not much of a breakthrough, but nowadays it's hard to find even a narrow shaft of daylight between the party line and what studio guests are permitted say. 


The window in which such topics could even be breached on Chinese TV has gradually closed and for the most part has remained closed ever since.

The beginning of the end came after the 2008 Olympics, when China's pride-obsessed ruling party was less eager to please, and the world, engulfed in economic turmoil, was no longer watching.


Although my association with CCTV as guest commentator was irregular and conducted entirely on a freelance basis, I made a number of good friends there and it was gratifying to see state TV broaden its editorial scope in the years when such broadening was possible.


The youthful, free-thinking, energetic staff who were vying to produce quality programs in the spirit of journalism were up against tall odds even then, but they were free to be creative and skirt around constraints as best they could.


There was a whiff of change in the air, and things were really were looking up for while, during the late Jiang Zemin, early Hu Jintao years, at least up until the 2008 Olympics, after which things got tight again.


For a span of a few years, intrepid reporters and producers were tackling what had previously been forbidden zones. Chinese TV was never entirely credible, and it always suffered by its association with the canned propaganda of the Xinwen Lianbo evening news show at 7 P.M. 


But just as semi-autonomous newspapers broke free of the yoke of People's Daily, TV news was no longer tightly moored to the evening propaganda show. In the margins and in unexpected corners, journalists were at work doing journalism and things did get measurably better, both technically, and in terms of expression, perhaps best described as more freewheeling than free. Each month saw little breakthroughs, not just in using satellite links and state-of-the-art studio equipment, but in tackling topics that previously could not be discussed comfortably on air.


The changes were incremental, perhaps not as substantial as I thought at the time, but it was a whole different world from China’s airwaves in 2022 under paramount leader Xi Jinping. Although technical developments have continued to keep apace with state-of-the-art practices, editorial control has tightened and over the last decade, and any serious movement in the direction of truly free speech tends to get nipped in the bud.


Worse yet, CCTV has further debased itself by taking on the cringe-inducing role of being an abject accessory to punitive and coercive measures, such as forced on-air confessions of dissidents, prisoners in cages and critics of party power.


Even the relatively “international” CGTN broadcast network, a billion-dollar boondoggle designed to “tell China’s story to the world” is only free to do credible news when the story is of tangential interest to the party. I knew senior staffers at CCTV in Beijing who thought the glitzy outreach overseas was a waste of money until the day that journalism could be practiced at home.


Just as the Internet has proved to be as much a tool for control and oppression as a tool for liberation and freedom, so too TV has proved itself malleable and capable of being twisted to serve bad ends. Despite well-coifed anchors and trendy graphics and a network of studios that spans the globe, China state television, the only game in town, is clearly not ready for prime-time.


If surveys of China’s citizens sometimes yield shocking results, by which a majority support Russia in its war against Ukraine, for example, or groundswell of anger at the US for secretly running non-existent bio-weapons labs in Ukraine, it is because the average viewer is woefully out of the loop. When it comes to consumers of CCTV News, there's ironic truth in the adage, "the more you watch the less you know." 


If China's good citizens are lost in a sea of lies, it’s in part because Chinese TV has skillfully led them there.  


Day in and day out, the world's most populous nation is being spoon-fed lies, distortion and even hate. There are many factors involved in this, but centralized TV news is a central part of the problem. 


There probably won't be any disruptions to CCTV news broadcasts as was recently witnessed in Russia, when a prime time news program was interrupted by courageous staffer Marina Ovsyannikova who stepped into view of the camera holding up a poster that said "No War." 


As oppressive as Russia is, it's even harder to imagine anyone doing that in today's China, though there were some notable acts of journalistic defiance during the Tiananmen demonstrations three decades ago. 


Nowadays CCTV news presenters and producers just plod along, as timid and meek as ever, dutifully carrying out orders, telling the news not like it is, but as the party elders tell them to tell it.