Eye of the Tube: Behind the Scenes at Beijing’s TV Network

By Christine ChiaoMarch 16, 2013

Two Billion Eyes by Ying Zhu

WITH TWO 230-METER TOWERS connected by a cantilevered 90-degree row of offices, the Chinese Central Television main building looms impressively on a campus the size of 37 football fields to the east of the Forbidden City. At once postmodern and austere, the near $1 billion Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren design flexes CCTV’s preferential status as the direct platform of the state. To Beijingers, the building is otherwise known as da kucha, or big boxer briefs, for what its two-legged form calls to mind. This is just one image of CCTV offered up by media studies scholar Ying Zhu in Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. Zhu’s book deftly portrays a complex network that could be said to have its feet planted in two different places: it is paradoxically still a Party organ and now also a for-profit outlet.

The China-born, New York–based Zhu is a media studies scholar with years of experience in the field, affording her the necessary guanxi, or social ties, to connect with prominent names at CCTV and to track regional success stories like Hunan Satellite Television (HSTV). A specialist in contemporary Chinese cinema and media studies, Zhu puts her understanding of Beijing journalism to good use while navigating sensitive topics with the people she interviewed for Two Billion Eyes. Of the one-on-one trust she was able to gain, Zhu writes that her subjects “were surprisingly frank about supporting political reform.” Even the host of CCTV-9’s Dialogue Yang Rui — a known rabble-rouser on the current events program akin to Piers Morgan Tonight — ended up convinced that Zhu “understood what it meant to be practicing media in China.”

CCTV is China’s only national network in a four-tier hierarchy followed by provincial, county, and city levels — a position that translates to unrivaled access under the aegis of the state, but with its share of consequences. More closely scrutinized by both the government and ordinary viewers than any other network in the country, CCTV (sometimes called “Hee-Hee-TV” because of how scrupulously it follows the official line on many issues) has had to appease the market while dealing with a decline in state subsidies since the mid-1990s.

These layering dualities have placed CCTV, Zhu writes, “at the intersection of official discourse and popular discourse, constituting a critical site of negotiation between the two.” It manifests what Zhu calls a quasi-public sphere, which “compels the state to actively cultivate and incorporate public opinion into a more overtly deliberative policy-making process.” She argues that we need to see these elements as comprising the variegated striae of a media landscape too often considered homogenous by international commentators.

Zhu began collecting material for her book in 2008, around the same time that a massive earthquake hit Sichuan and plans for the highly funded Beijing Olympics went into high gear. Each course-changing event provided Zhu a window onto the network, and she in turn uses major events to lay out both a backdrop and a measure of CCTV’s recent evolution. In her interviews, Zhu practices a hybrid of ethnography and investigative journalism. While at certain points she is a full participant in the conversation, counterbalancing others’ opinions with her own views and doubts, she also allows for certain narratives to stand alone, with her notes on culture and politics for context. Throughout, there is a concerted effort to encourage a dialogue on the role of media, leaving more questions than definitive answers.

While opening new threads of discourse, Zhu also addresses prominent criticisms of Chinese media. And there is one issue on which the author takes a clear stance: CCTV possesses both the talent and the technical capabilities required to actualize its desire to be a 21st century, worldwide media powerhouse. For nearly a week after May 12, 2008, anyone who tuned to CCTV for news on the earthquake in the Sichuan county of Wenchuan was given near-unfiltered coverage. It was a window onto an outlet that was clearly primed to “work by international standards, when free to follow their own instincts.” The state is shown as a key reason why the network has not delivered this kind of coverage more often.

Some Westerners may find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which a censored media can be beneficial to the public — much less develop into one that could thrive on the global scene. Zhu asks her readers, however, to consider that the Chinese media professional’s purpose may be in “mediat[ing] between state and society.” Chief among the differing philosophies between Chinese and Western media is its relationship to the state; the journalist undertakes a different role than that of the “watchdog” of the West, where media’s main obligation, in theory, is to investigate issues on behalf of the individual. As Zhu points out, decades of media studies research show that the lines between informational and editorial content are often blurred even in the West. Zhu tells us that “at a minimum the news media are powerful ‘agenda setters,’ effectively telling people ‘what to think about,’ if not what to think.”

In comparison, the reader meets CCTV news media professionals who imagine themselves, more or less, to be “enlightenment intellectual(s).” They have appropriated “enlightenment” as an ideal to pursue, seeing journalists as at once “independent intellectuals and champions of the public’s right to know.” This is an archetype modeled after a hybrid of investigative journalism and the tradition of public service imagined by leading reform-minded intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s like Liang Qichao. A Confucian scholar turned reformist, Liang founded and wrote for some of China’s first modern periodicals. His version of the press would inform the public, while encouraging them to vocalize their opinions to the government.

Each interviewee’s definition of enlightenment can be traced to his or her distinctive professional purview. For News Probe producer Zhang Jie, it takes on the pedagogical goal of promoting good citizenry. Whereas he and fellow producers Xia Jun and Liu Chun select topics meant to “encourage grassroots reform efforts,” the experience of enlightenment is by no means one-sided: while working on a story about two newly appointed local officials in Chongqing, Zhang witnessed the practical possibilities of democracy. The young men organized an effort among several villages to fundraise for the building of a much-needed bridge across two rivers to the local school. They sought to offset the per-family donation by using less expensive construction services, which helped reduce the amount of CN¥60 by half. A system of checks and balances was also established with four treasurers, each elected from a participating village, to watch over the expenses. When the bridge was finished, each villager received CN¥9 back, easing a tense relationship between the local government and the villagers. Their success inspired nearby villages to follow suit. Eight years later, the fundraising efforts for public works of these villages had not only continued, but had grown larger than the national budget allotted to them. In Zhang’s view, “the Chinese people could be entrusted with self-governance.”

Zhu also introduces notions like “equilibrium, [which] in the Chinese lexicon is about promoting unity, order, and a fundamental faith in the national project.” CCTV producer Wan Wei incorporates this ideology in The Lecture Room, a program that features scholars demystifying classic literature and philosophy. His approach is emblematic: “Traditional Chinese culture, speakers with strong personalities and unique insights, and opinions that, so long as they do not oppose the party-state, do not need to adhere to orthodox scholarly positions.” As a public classroom, the show invited viewers to reacquaint themselves with the classics and stirred passionate debates among members of academia. By creating a space that is at once critical and ostensibly unthreatening, Wei transformed the low-rated program into a smash, garnering book deals for at least two of the guest scholars.

Still, Zhu acknowledges that framing oneself as an “enlightened intellectual” might be a way for groups who “know that at the end of the day they are still Party propagandists” to maintain some dignity. Many of them are educated at Beijing institutes; others have studied abroad; and all of them are keenly aware of their roles at the network and their relationship to the audience. They are candid about working through censorship (whether state or self-directed), which is more decentralized and chaotic in practice than in name alone. As Zhu explains, Party memoranda often supersede statutes and laws. Authority becomes less clear even within the agencies that regulate the media: Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television (MRFT), precursor to State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, and the Propaganda Department.

On the ground, journalists, producers, and media executives are left to interpret what is essentially “an informal regulatory practice that results in frequent, disruptive regulatory fiddling.” The push-pull of these forces requires CCTV journalists, producers, and executives to constantly seek new means of negotiating the limitations of being in this type of limbo. One such case is former CCTV head Yang Weiguang’s maneuver past both the MRFT and the Propaganda Department to air a 12-episode documentary on Mao Zedong in 1993, during a time when his legacy was undergoing review. To circumvent nervous CCTV bureaucrats sensitive to the climate, he brought the documentary to Bo Yibo, a Politburo member, whose support allowed it to be shown on Mao Zedong’s 100th birthday.

Frequently antithetical to the desires of the state, the market response is swift in showing its approval or lack thereof, translating to dismal ratings and ad sales. Despite Li Yong’s cachet as “king of pop TV,” his talent show Dream China was a flop compared to HSTV’s all-female singing competition Super Girls. The success of Super Girls “sent a shock wave through CCTV leadership,” with the language of internal communication reflecting a deep-seeded anxiety over threats to its commercial position. The addition of market considerations, as Zhu would come to find, serves as both a professional stressor and strategy. It takes a toll on network professionals like Zhang or talk-show host Cui Yongyuan, or the documentary director Chen Xiaoqing; all have suffered varying bouts of insomnia, anxiety, or depression.

Their vulnerabilities unveil the fissures of Chinese media in practice. Up until Two Billion Eyes, the view of Chinese media has often been limited to books that focus on the media simply as state institutions, rather than as the curious paradoxes they have become. Zhu expands the periphery of our vision via her interviews and research: The interviewees are shown as both coloring within the lines and constructing their own distinctive guilu, or professional code of conduct, and engaging in some cases a struggle toward a greater purpose. Airing such conflicted and compelling voices from those on the Chinese media frontlines, Two Billion Eyes is essential to moving our discussions of how journalism is practiced in China beyond the level of abstractions.


LARB Contributor

Christine Chiao is a freelance writer. She has covered food for publications like L.A. Weekly and has worked in media on both sides of the Pacific.


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