Wednesday, March 2, 2022

THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY SIDE OF CHINA'S TAKE ON UKRAINE

Beijing studio report on "Ukraine Situation"
 
Some thoughts on Chinese TV coverage of the invasion of Ukraine
 
by Philip Cunningham 
 
 "Russia Defense Ministry claims Ukrainian troop access to Sea of Azov is blocked"
 
 

Presented here is an illustrated summary  of "Morning News of the World," a Chinese state TV news report that aired on March 1, 2022 about the "situation" in Ukraine.

 

The CCTV-13 news broadcast described below wrestles with the challenge of reporting on a war of invasion that cannot be described as a war of invasion. The acrobatics and obfuscations vary sufficiently in the course of this morning news segment to illustrate the good, bad and ugly sides of state-run TV scrambling to cover a complex story under strong political guidance. 

 

This is not to disparage Chinese journalists, many of whom are seasoned professionals, and it's worth noting that the individuals reporting from inside Ukraine show bravery and resourcefulness as well.

 

Chinese TV news reports about world events, typically anchored from a desk in a studio in the architecturally-distinctive CCTV building in Beijing vary from brief bulletins to in-depth presentations lasting  ten minutes or more. There has been no round-the-clock reporting on Ukraine, but despite the inherent political sensitivities, and the necessity of foreign news taking back seat to domestic concerns, it has generally been treated like the big story it is.

 

The March 1, 2022 morning news report on Ukraine gave considerable play to the February 28 peace talks held in Belarus which accords with Xi Jinping's guidance that negotiation is better than fighting, although the Chinese leader, who signed a joint declaration with Vladimir Putin on February 4 on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, has yet to speak out against Russia's blatant violation of international norms of sovereignty with its heavily-militarized invasion of a neighboring country.

 
 

CCTV news posts young reporters all over the world, some under the rubric of CGTN,  and if and when a story permits a local stand-up, there are staffers in place to report from the field, though of course they are under pressure of orders and guidance from above. 

 

In my own frequent visits to the CCTV newsroom in Beijing between 2001-2010 when I was a freelance guest commentator on a news talk show, I was impressed at how young so many of the staffers were, and also impressed with their intelligence, talent and grasp of what constituted good news, even if they weren't always allowed to practice it.


 
The initial round of peace talks in Belarus was at the top of a news report about Ukraine that was book-ended by a story about the just-passed Beijing winter games and another story about the upcoming Paralympics.  It was also the only feature of the news show that could be presented with modicum of journalistic integrity, because it showed the Russian side's willingness to talk, which is an accord with China's preference for peace, though it also serves to combat the notion promulgated in the Western press that Russia invaded Ukraine, because the word "invade" is never mentioned.
 
CCTV staffers in Belarus did stand-ups, got establishing shots of the peace talks venue, before and after shots of the conference room, and acquired some dramatic footage from their Belarusian hosts showing the arrival of the Ukrainian delegation by military helicopter. The small amount of unscripted chatter was mainly about hopes for peace which is all within accord of the supreme leader's ardent "desire" for peace.

  
 
CCTV reporter on the ground in Belarus
 
 
Ukrainian delegation shown arriving by helicopter










    
Meeting hall in Belarus awaits the arrival of Russian and Ukrainian representatives

 

In the studio, the images projected on the wall behind the announcers varied during the program, and I thought it interesting that the war seemed to intensify as the show went one, starting out with a view of cloudy urban skies in one image and moving on to an almost apocalyptic view of smoke, fire and rubble in a bombed out war zone. 


"The Ukraine Situation"

In contrast, the previous day's green-screen background was artful collage of the White House, the Kremlin and NATO headquarters, which is more typical of news illustrations in peace time, though the image of the three key players gave Ukraine no agency at all except perhaps as the bystander or proxy in a tug-of-war between the more powerful forces represented in the picture. 

 

The nail-biting drama of the UN Assembly meeting where Ukraine's representative compared Putin to Hitler in a florid fashion was nowhere to be seen in CCTV’s report from the UN, though a great deal of CCTV in more normal times consists of detailed reporting about meetings. Clearly there is a taboo of sorts on meetings in which there is sufficient discord to provoke visible emotional display. 

 

Indeed CCTV may be the world's leader in covering meetings because the Chinese communist party is obsessed with meetings, including the two big meetings going on in Beijing this month, but even the most important meetings rarely go unscripted or allow actors, even high-ranking officials, to speak in their own words. 

 

The coverage of the UN Human Rights meeting in Geneva on March 1, 2022 also showed signs of in-house censorship. The viewer would not know from looking at the CCTV’s coverage that nearly everyone in attendance protested when Russia Foreign Minister was beamed in on screen to join the conference remotely. 

 

There was a disruptive walk-out, but this did not make it on the channel 13 news. The camera angles were cropped in a way that made it look like Sergei Lavrov's presentation was the highlight of the meet.


Cropped view of the human rights meeting in Geneva

"EU is supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons due to their crazed Russophobia"

 


The news show then moved on to a dramatic story that was widely reported elsewhere. It showed the bombing of the main television tower in Kiev, an act designed to strike terror in the heart of television journalists everywhere. This ought to be especially eerie in China which, having developed so much of its urban infrastructure under Soviet tutelage in the 1950s and beyond, has similar television towers in every city, and which, until recently, were the tallest structures in all of China's big cities.  


CCTV News in Beijing used to be located in plain view of its television tower, though most operations have gradually moved to the fancy new crooked skyscraper during the last ten years.


Beijing Television Tower


 "In crossfire of fighting, a bomb struck near Kiev TV Tower"

 

One only has to examine the video itself to realize there's something wrong with the Chinese explanation of it being caused by an unknown blast near the tower. The tower was hit, a direct hit, and it was not crossfire (which would presumably puts half the blame on Ukraine itself) but a targeted attack on a vital element of Ukraine's communications infrastructure. 

 

The Russian side admitted to the attack that China TV tried so hard to minimize, saying the tower was hit directly in a way designed to reduce collateral damage. Was CCTV trying to show "good will" towards Russia by carrying water on its behalf? If so, the attempt to whitewash failed. According to most reports, including the Russia-friendly ASB News, there were two rocket strikes; one a direct hit on the tower, and another in the vicinity of Kiev’s Holocaust Memorial. Five citizens died in the combined strike.




  
 
 
The next section of the news presents footage from Russia's Defense Ministry. This is significant for two reasons, the Russians realize they have lost the narrative and are trying to win viewers with images that bolster a pro-Russian point of view. The footage is reminiscent of the work of embedded journalists in other wars who work under the expectation that they won't bite the hand that feeds them. 
 
There are several shots of Russian generals in a command center with dozens of what look like live video feeds, emblematic of war in the 21st century, and the image of the stout Russian commander with the be-medaled chest sitting in a soft, oversized chair in the war room adds a comic Dr. Strangelove style vibe to tragedy that has mostly consisted of grim footage from the field.
 

The footage supplied to China by Russia's foreign ministry doesn't begin to account for the horrific bombings and loss of life from the cross-border attack, but it does give a Russian point of view to some battleground scenes, especially the helicopter footage, in which rifle-toting Russian soldiers are seen flying low over the Ukraine flat lands and villages in an attack helicopter. At the end of the sequence they jump out of the copter, guns at the ready, in a way that's reminiscent of Hollywood's many helicopter-themed Vietnam War scenes.

 

"Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine is proceeding apace towards it goals"



Russia-sourced video of a Russian soldier on a helicopter awaiting deployment

View from inside the attack copter

  
"Russian Defense Ministry footage"     

 

 

The single most sinister aspect of the news on March 1, 2022 was an ugly deception designed to cast doubt on the victims and exonerate the perpetrator.  

 

The CCTV news report included video footage of the shocking missile strike that hit a big administrative building in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. It is a shocking shot, the wanton destruction from above of a beautiful old building, and it has gotten extensive exposure on the internet and coverage in major newspapers around the world.

 

The original footage used by CCTV was, ironically enough, taken from a static "CCTV" or closed-circuit television camera which captured the before-and-after of the missile strike. The missile is actually visible if the footage is viewed frame-by-frame, appearing as an elongated blur as it descends to target from a high angle.



The Kharkiv adminstrative building before and after aerial attack


The CCTV news chryon that accompanies the picture of the destroyed building below claims that the source of the bombing is unknown, but the voice-over cites an unnamed "Russian media source" saying that Russia didn’t do it, alleging that it couldn’t have been done by Russia because the strike approached the building from the unlikely direction of the northwest.


"It is not known who bombed this government building in Kharkiv"


The Russian “fake news” report went on to insinuate that the bombing was done by Ukraine, essentially blaming the Zelensky government for a false flag, a self-goal, but for what purpose is never explained.

This odious interpretation gives comfort to the criminal invaders and makes a mockery of the Ukrainian people who are watching their cities get destroyed by a foreign power in real time.