This past week, journalists at a newspaper in southern China openly protested the censorship of a New Year’s editorial that called for political reforms. Though such protests might seem surprising to Westerners who assume Chinese media is one big state mouthpiece, in fact it’s a symptom of one of China’s most interesting and fast-growing tensions: Citizens are demanding more openness from Chinese media and government, while the ruling party fears that ceding too much control will create political chaos.
In China, no media entity is bigger than CCTV (Central China Television), the country’s mammoth state-run national network. CCTV reaches more than a billion viewers, broadcasting documentaries, comedies, drama, and journalism.
Who produces CCTV’s news, and what constraints do they face? In “Two Billion Eyes,” published recently by The New Press, Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at City University of New York, offers a rare inside look at the journalists of CCTV, who work under intense political and financial pressures. Zhu, who grew up and graduated from college in China, spent three years reporting her book, winning the trust of journalists who talked candidly about the frustrations of trying to produce first-rate journalism while staying within the party’s boundaries.
In one example, she describes CCTV’s initial coverage of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province: She found its unsparing portrayal of the horror to be a “redemptive” moment for a network that is widely seen to have helped cover up the SARS epidemic in 2002. But as propaganda officials began getting involved, Zhu wrote, reporters were forced to focus on the “heroes” of the earthquake, and ignore issues such as inadequate building codes and local corruption.
Zhu spoke with Ideas by phone from New York. This was condensed and edited from multiple interviews.
IDEAS: You call CCTV a “hybrid” operation. What does that mean—is it a company, or a state mouthpiece?
ZHU: It is state owned and controlled, yet financially self-reliant....CCTV is considered a public TV like PBS or BBC in its public service mandate, but is financially self-reliant like US commercial networks such as CNN or NBC....So it has to respond to the marketplace, but ultimately the party has the final say.
IDEAS: What is the attitude among Chinese citizens toward CCTV?
ZHU: CCTV has largely become irrelevant to the young and also the educated population, which has mostly opted for the more open cyberspace....Yet TV remains the party’s most manageable vehicle of cultural engineering.
IDEAS: What about the hundreds of millions of people in the countryside?
ZHU: It continues to be part of the daily experience of most people in the rural areas. This is their routine. They turn on CCTV. They don’t feel motivated to look for other information. They’re not as suspicious as the urban population.
IDEAS: In your book, the journalists express very familiar ideals of openness and the importance of impartial information. Where are they trained?
ZHU: Most are educated in the top communications colleges in China, and many have also gone abroad, such as in Britain, to study television journalism.
IDEAS: Were the CCTV journalists you spoke to nervous about being quoted?
ZHU: It took me, really, a couple of years to get through to them. You have to establish trust and rapport, and the fact that I am from China and share a similar cultural background and upbringing really helped.
IDEAS: It sounds like you found some corruption.
ZHU: Corruption is a way of life [in China today], and journalists are not outside of that toxic environment.
IDEAS: How does it play out?
ZHU: You cover a news event, and you get a red envelope with cash. Or you see something corrupt, you get paid to keep your mouth shut. Journalists are not a highly paid profession. This is lucrative under-the-table money.
IDEAS: You also mentioned a government directive that undermined investigative reporting.
ZHU: In 2005 a new policy was issued that forbade “cross-regional reporting,” in which journalists from one geographical jurisdiction report on the goings-on in another region. News media regularly employed this jurisdictional trick to pursue hard-hitting stories (and higher ratings) without upsetting party officials in their own region....City and provincial leaders pressured top propaganda officials to curb the practice, and in 2005, Beijing issued its directive, which undermined watchdog journalism and granted local officials near impunity from press scrutiny.
IDEAS: You identified self-censorship as a problem among Chinese journalists.
ZHU: I use it as a descriptive term. I don’t mean to be judgmental or critical....Maybe better to say “to be very cautious”....I do understand, on a very very personal level, the struggles they went through because it’s precisely the struggle I went through when I was in China. I left China because I couldn’t handle being there anymore. I was eager for a breath of fresh air.
IDEAS: Given this level of control, right now the only place to get reliable news is in cyberspace?
ZHU: Right now the Internet would be the place. You have to try to “climb the wall” (install software to get by the Chinese censorship restrictions) to get the truth.
IDEAS: Were you worried Chinese authorities will retaliate, like by keeping you out of China, for writings they don’t like?
ZHU: Every time I enter China there is always a concern whether they will stop me at the border. Absolutely. Do I feel like I was watched? Yes, absolutely. I was watched, I know for sure.
IDEAS: How do you know?
ZHU: [laughs] I can’t really get into all the details....Being from China, I somehow know where the boundary is. If I want to continue going back and forth to do productive work...I have to walk a fine line. There’s a certain amount of self-censorship on my part as well.
IDEAS: Are you an optimist or pessimist about the next five or 10 years in China?
ZHU: I go back and forth between being optimistic and pessimistic. But overall, I’m optimistic. Change is unstoppable because China has opened its doors. You can’t close it again.