Tuesday, March 1, 2022

CHINESE STATE TV REPORT ON THE UKRAINE "SITUATION"


February 28, 2022 CCTV-13 News Report on Ukraine "Situation"


by Philip J Cunningham

 

What follows is an informal look at a CCTV news report on the "situation" in Ukraine under the overbearing official guidance to make the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine as pro-Russian and anti-American as possible.   

 

The February 28, 2022 CCTV-13 news segment, which aired in between two Olympics-related stories during the eight p.m. news slot, was produced under some serious political headwinds to say the least.

 

China is leaning heavily to one side in this conflict and it isn't the side that most of the rest of the world is taking, so China's take on the topic merits some attention.


China's official position, reflecting the view of its top leader, is still pro-Russia and still seemingly indifferent to the fate of Ukraine, despite boilerplate affirmations of belief in territorial integrity and the sovereign rights of nations which China prizes greatly in its own sphere. 

 

News reports thus reflect a precarious balancing act, one that may prove to be impossible to sustain, in which China wants to safeguard its trade interests with the world  while supporting Russia in a war of invasion that has the world on edge.

 

It's not surprising that CCTV television, which is a state-run organ in an authoritarian system, should reflect the views of the paramount leader, but it  had until recently a reasonable amount of leeway in producing news reports that could boast a modicum of journalistic credibility in addition to serving a propaganda purpose. 

 

News reports on Ukraine, which out of a misplaced deference to Russia still do not employ the word "war" or "invasion" continue to reflect the spirit of the February 4 meeting in Beijing between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. During that meeting on the cusp of the Olympics opening, the two leaders co-signed a 5000-word declaration of a partnership with "no limits" which is now seen as having effectively given Putin the green light to wage war on Ukraine. It is not clear how much Xi Jinping knew of the invasion plans, but it was probably presented as an action that would be quick and successful, the folly of war-makers from time immemorial.

 

What is evident, in the timing of things at least, is that Russia's plans for war, something that US intelligence had been ominously warning of since late last year, were neatly adjusted so that the bombing did not begin until the day after the Beijing-hosted games, a showpiece of Xi Jinping's tenure in office, had been successfully concluded. 

 

It is still not known what Xi Jinping was fully on board with Putin's invasion plans, or whether he was played by Putin. Either way, China has stood firmly by Russia since the invasion began.

 

Given Beijing's lack of transparency, China-watching is at times like reading tea-leaves, looking for patterns, signs and indirect indications   that reveal the import of decisions made behind closed doors, and the possible opposition to such policy in the population at large.  

 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the media refused to describe it either as an invasion or a war. This was painfully evident in the contortions of Foreign Ministry spokespeople who had to walk this linguistic tightrope from day one, and while government PR flaks are good at playing with words, the impossibility of the task made it hard for them to find the right balance.

 

Ditto for television news.


On the last day of February, I tuned into Chinese state TV to see how they were selling the story, a massive, breaking story that producers were under pressure to tell without making Russia look bad. The invasion was being called the "Ukraine situation" and officially described as "a special military operation."

 

The 12-minute news segment covered a lot of ground but also had enormous blind spots and seemed disjointed due to having to navigate around politically taboo words and ideas. Nonetheless, it managed to convey a great deal of information nonetheless.

 

The news update opens with the good news that Russia and Ukraine are engaged in peace talks. 

 

Of course peace talks imply that something less than peaceful is going on, but in keeping with protocol, war is not mentioned. The report includes extensive video coverage from venue in Belarus, including shots of delegates arriving, gathering and leaving the session.  

 

The Ukraine delegation is shown making a dramatic arrival by a group of camouflaged military helicopters.

 

The gist of the news was that there was no news. It was simply a start. “When two sides sit down and negotiate, already that’s a good result.”

 

Ever since Xi Jinping issued a boilerplate call for peace talks and negotiation, the positive coverage given to the no-results Belarus event fits in with China’s vision.

 

The Russian position was summed up as a demand for the recognition of Crimea which is clearly a misleading simplification.

 

Ukraine, on the other hand, was fairly described as asking for a cease fire and withdrawal of troops.

 

We are further told the talks went on for five hours and a second round of talks is set for March 2 at a site on the Poland-Belarus border.

 

Next up is the Putin-Macron phone call. The call is summarized while background footage scrolls from the war zone, with billowing smoke, charred vehicles, broken down trucks, etc.  Russia’s demands are characterized as calling for unconditional safety and legal protections, along with deNazification, (it’s a weird word in Chinese, too) and disarming Ukraine forces and strict neutrality. Only then can there be peace. 

 

Despite the delusional demands, the Russian side is described as being "open-minded in attitude."

 

Ukraine Prime Minister Zelensky is quoted as saying the talks had no result, with background scenes of burnt-out vehicles.

 

The next news item is the emergency meeting of UN General Assembly in New York.

 

During the voice-over, the background jumps between scenes of the UN and Ukrainian refugees huddling in the snow.

 

It’s portrayed as one of those humanitarian disasters with no one to blame.

 

Secretary General António Guterres is shown speaking in his own words, making a heartfelt plea for peace, saying “it’s never too late for good faith negotiations.”

 

“Good faith” is the operative word there, but such nuances go unnoticed as his message about humanitarian aid is paraphrased to shifting scenes of polices checkpoints, bombed out apartment buildings and a what must be for the average Chinese viewer, a shocking scene of an aerial attack on a residential section of Kharkiv.

 

Next is a veritable war of words between the representatives for Ukraine and Russia at the UN, but the voices are muted and filled with voice-over, though the emotion on the face of Ukraine representative Sergiy Kyslytsya is striking even with the sound muted.

 

Although not shown in this TV segment,  Sergiy Kyslytsya’s moving speech to the General Assembly was an instant classic for the world media. It starts in English, as he compares Putin to Hitler sitting in the bunker waging war and then switches to a heart-wrenching tale spoken in Russian, in which he reads aloud the last message home by a Russian  soldier, a message recovered from the young man’s phone just before he died.

 

“Mama, I’m not in training camp like I told you, I’m in Ukraine, there is a real war, we are bombing all the cities, even civilians, we were  told they would welcome us, they fall under our vehicles, they call us “fascists.”

 

Even the US news couldn’t do justice to that short of running the whole speech, but what we get on CCTV is that the ambassador objects to the escalation of Russia’s threatening behavior and his call for Russia which he decries as crazy and calls on the UN “to halt its activities.”

 

Up next is nemesis Russia UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who awkwardly presided over the Security Council Sessions, and who is here paraphrased as saying Russia’s actions have been distorted, Russia is not looking to occupy Ukraine and merely wants to free the oppressed people in Ukraine, and he said to be accusing Western countries of making trouble, lying, and shamelessly supplying weapons, threatens NATO along the lines it is better to “look before you leap” which is rendered in the Chinese idiom, “think three times before taking action.” 

 

China UN Ambassador Zhang Jun is then heard in his own voice, reporting on the peace talks, saying talks are the way to go, the way to solve the problem.

 

Then back to a voice-over on China’s position, about the need to forestall contradictory methods and a worsening situation,  and then the deck is cleared to state China’s principled position for peace, dialogue, sovereignty, mostly boilerplate words, and not without a touch of hypocrisy, but the words are easy to tune out. What’s more compelling is the video roll,  a stunning glimpse of the battlefield, of a war unfolding, of billowing smoke, blown up vehicles, rocket fragments,  incendiary bursts in air over Ukraine, broken tanks by the roadside and abandoned mud-covered helmets.

 

Then it’s back to China representative Zhang Jun who speaks in his own words, wishing for "long-term peace on the European continent."

 

This is followed a short clip of Vlodymyr Zelensky signing documents requesting admission to EU, but the narration reminds the viewer this won’t happen soon and if it did it would vex Russia.

 

Then there are pictures of EU HQ, saying that weapons are being supplied to Ukraine, cut to Moscow, then a vivid aerial shot of long line of Russian vehicles on a road and in a village in Ukraine, obtained from high-altitude surveillance, then it’s an impressive shot of the Kremlin, then it jumps to a picture of NATO head Jens Stoltenberg in the context of a narration about military supplies, and then a scene of  equipment pallets being loaded on a plane, the cargo described as anti aircraft missiles.

 

The EU is said to be calling for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, but as the Beijing studio reporter intervenes to points out, EU aid to Ukraine makes things difficult for Russia.

 

This section wraps with a brief standup in Brussels, the Europe based CCTV reporter saying EU moved to give military support to Ukraine while peace talks were going on, so things just got more complicated and the prospect of a peaceful solution is now more distant.

 

Next, the focus moves to Lviv, where CCTV reporter Yang Chunli is conducting impromptu interviews in English with people at Lviv train station, waiting for what might be the last train out. Among those hoping to leave, he talks to an African medical student, whose family ordered him home, and an Arab student who calmly speaks of constant bombing, tanks in streets, hiding in subways.

 

The roving reporter follows a young Ukrainian woman who is trying to flee with her mother. He learns they are looking to catch train, to go to Finland, and since they keep moving away he gallantly offers to help them carry their luggage, so the cameraman follows him, suitcase in one hand, microphone in the other, traipsing over train tracks in the snow. He doesn’t obtain an interview, but at least he gave her help with her luggage and in parting he kindly tells her to “take care, take care” in US-accented English.

 

Back to studio, it’s talk of sanctions, Russian banks, Russian stock market, precipitous ruble drop. The report doesn’t explain that Russia has been banned from flying over Europe, but it does say that Russia has banned 36 country flights from using Russia airspace. That’s hard to understand out of context, but enough to perk viewer curiosity I would think.

 

More scenes of Moscow, including the Bank of Russia, and a retail bank branch.

 

What is called an invasion in the plain words of the Western media is carefully de-fanged and euphemized as a mere "situation" in Chinese reports, or more formally as “the Ukraine-Russia conflict.”

The description is passive and shorn of context,  as if it was just one of those things in which both sides are equally responsible.

 

Putin’s quote on “empire of lies” gets the bold letter chyron treatment in the next section which shows scenes of Moscow and then cuts to footage of Putin at the long, long table addressing seven nervous-looking officials at the far end of the long, long table. Putin is accorded the dignity of speaking in his own voice, with subtitles, and he rambles, without notes, talking about finance and Econ, reminding them to remember what he said, and then the famous phrase:   

 

“Western society is an empire of lies.”

 

Over to more stock footage of Moscow, nicely composed shots, and then we learn that Russia is fully prepared for lengthy sanctions. The Russia-NATO conflict is seen as core issue, and things are going downhill because of the unfriendly actions of the EU. Why, you can’t even wire money out of country anymore.

 

CCTV then shows Putin press secretary Dmitri Peskov (Putin is presumably in his bunker at this juncture) complaining about unfriendly EU sanctions.

 

Overall, there is a lot in this broadcast on CCTV’s dedicated news channel for the average viewer to digest. And while the lack of context might induce a certain amount of head-scratching about closing airspace and freezing bank accounts and EU arming Ukraine, it’s pretty clear it’s a big deal.  

 

The tone is mild and controlled and pervaded with a respect for the Russian point of view that you’d be unlikely to encounter anywhere in the “free” world.

 

CCTV is state TV and state TV is in the business of making China, the Chinese Communist party, and its paramount leader look good, so it’s hardly a surprise that China should be cast as the enlightened and concerned bystander, an emphatic force for peace, a wise proponent of peace talks and and a believer in negotiation, and somewhat less plausibly, a hatred for economic sanctions.

 

The news report has holes big enough for a truck to drive through.  It has obvious evasions and scripted omissions and the proscribed use of euphemisms due to political pressures from above that force CCTV and its vast information collecting network to reduce a dirty, brutal, unprovoked, one-sided invasion by Russia into Ukraine as a mere “conflict.”

 

But there’s plenty of material to chew on, too.

 

In a nation full of educated and savvy citizens where tea-leaf reading is a high art and necessary skill when it comes to deciphering the news, the CCTV report provides a lot of residue, tantalizing clues and far-flung leaves to ponder.

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the 2/28 CCTV news show, aside from its seamless global reach, with correspondents on the scene in five countries, was the inclusion of pictures that didn’t always match the words.  Sometimes the visuals seemed to stand in direct contrast to what was being said. Inadvertently or on purpose?

 

Were the pictures put there to tell a story that words were not permitted to express?

 

Even on a good day, Chinese news shows tend to jump around here and there, the narration can be overbearing or clumsy. It’s not uncommon for the party line script to have only a tangential relation to the loosely-inserted visuals, let alone reality.

 

The pictures that went with the news story included CCTV’s own camerawork, some of it quite good, and also excellent footage from international news feeds. The image and the script were of a different caliber and sometimes out of sync, so the pictures tell a story in their own right.

 

Although CCTV’s in-house editing technique can be confusing to someone raised on the grammar of American TV news, it has an idiom of its own, one that its regular viewers learn to make sense of, which is not to say it’s always honest or uniformly well done.

 

The national TV station's flagship evening news program at seven p.m. is especially very stiff and wooden, replete with leaders pointing at things, voiced over speeches, and the ritual introduction of news stories in accordance with a leader’s rank in the party hierarchy, and by the time that, and some domestic reports are done, there’s at best a few minutes to cover the rest of the world.

 

CCTV-13 is a big improvement over CCTV-1 if it’s news you’re looking for, in the same way that various popular newspapers are an improvement over People’s Daily; though the old stalwart media mouthpieces have a role to play when it comes to discerning which way the wind is blowing, and I’m not talking about the weather report.

 

The "situation in Ukraine" report described above ran about twelve minutes, more air time than many US stations could afford to devote to one topic, and it presented news in a way that people outside of China would readily recognize as news, though they might not agree with what it was saying.

 

The producers were given ample resources to tell a complex story, and although it was spotty in places, due to different notions of best practices and of course politics, considerable effort went into making it a fairly comprehensive report on the news of the day concerning Ukraine.  

 

Wide-ranging in geography and scope, with on-the-scene reporters in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Belgium and the US, it shows that Chinese TV has made great strides over the years even though things have clicked into retrograde mode under Xi Jinping.  

 

What I found even more striking was some of the B-roll visuals was used to illustrate the story. The pictures make it pretty clear the war’s a war, even if the news presenter can’t say that. And the sweep of the story is such that bespeaks its own importance, as it touches on multiple countries and scenes of violence and iconic international institutions such as the UN, NATO, EU. The pictures drive home the point that Russia is opposed by many countries and it’s not hard to conclude that Russia as a big part of the problem.

 

But Xi Jinping seems so afraid of offending Putin that he talks about Ukraine in the same dithering, indirect way that Japanese emperor Hirohito was famous for.

 

For example, in the readout from the Putin-Xi phone call of February 25, Xi is quoted as saying "recent dramatic changes in the situation in eastern Ukraine have drawn great attention from the international community."

 

Well, I guess that's one way to describe a war of invasion, but why is the one man in China with the most freedom to speak being so opaque? 


Chinese are educated by history to be sensitive to suppressed stories and half-told stories and stories where you have to connect the dots. Chinese know that Japanese right-wing crackpots deny the Nanjing Massacre and even go as far as denying that Japan ever invaded China. As some Japanese textbooks put it, Japan “advanced” onto the mainland. Or Japan introduced peace to the Asian continent and maintained order with its Co-Prosperity Sphere.

 

So I don’t think the state-mandated euphemisms for war and invasion are fooling many people, though that’s precisely the kind distortion that is being generated by apologists for Russia right now.

 

In some ways, Chinese TV viewers are more sophisticated at parsing the news than their American counterparts. Chinese don’t expect the unvarnished truth, they have grown up with propaganda, they know their government is lying half the time, and they make the necessary mental adjustments.  

 

Americans in recent times only really began to understand that dynamic under Trump and the effects of Fox TV,  though traces of the problem can be found throughout American history.

 

The CCTV 13 news report on the evening of February 28, 2022, evoked an ambivalence about what’s going on in Ukraine, wiggling and wriggling in keeping with the weak logic of the government’s stated pro-Russia position. 

 

In this hastily-assembled and politically whitewashed program, there was still a considerable amount of usable information to digest, information that raises more questions than answers,  and learning to live with questions is probably a good thing in a place where you can’t easily get the truth straight up and simple.

 

Chinese TV news viewers are primed to live with such ambiguity, but the ambiguity in this case is creaking from internal contradictions and China's complacent fence-sitting is hardly sustainable, even allowing for the leeway the TV news gives the government. 

 

China needs to come to terms with a shocking land war that it may have inadvertently enabled, and do the right thing as a reasonable member of the international community.

  

There are hints of China wanting to break out of isolated foreign policy corner its leader painted the nation  into, and hints of things crackling at the seams could be seen in the necessarily timid and anodyne narration of the Ukraine invasion news segment which had difficulty saying the obvious but was fortified by shocking pictures showing the audience things with a clarity that the thousands of carefully-scripted spoken words failed to achieve.