November 20, 2013
TV: champion of the people with a blurred picture
At the end of
October, a young journalist in handcuffs, green prison jacket and a freshly
shaved head appeared on China Central Television, the state-owned national
broadcaster, and confessed to taking bribes in exchange for writing negative
articles about a large Chinese company.
earlier, the newspaper that employed Chen Yongzhou, 27, had published front-page
banner headlines calling for his release, while human rights groups had
mobilised to defend him. But after his admission on national television, the
issue quickly died away.
Mr Chen’s is
the latest in a series of televised
public pre-trial confessions that
have aired on the CCTV in recent months and have included British and US
citizens being paraded before the camera to admit their crimes.
performances, reminiscent of an earlier age in which political “struggle
sessions” and show trials were the norm, have raised concerns inside China about
the damage that they cause to the government’s stated goal of improving the
rule of law.
But they have also
raised an important question about the role of the state broadcaster and the
balance it must strike between being a global media organisation, a commercial
moneymaking venture and a political mouthpiece for the ruling Communist party.
The question is
increasingly important to multinationals such as Apple, KFC, Volkswagen,
Starbucks and Samsung, which have all been targeted in the past year by the
broadcaster and accused of varying degrees of malfeasance or unfair practices
in the Chinese market.
For major global companies,
understanding why they have been singled out and on whose orders is crucial to
avoiding one of the most dangerous pitfalls that can befall their businesses in
In a recent book
entitled Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television,
author Ying Zhu says: “CCTV is full of serious-minded creators who regularly
experience bouts of self-doubt, philosophical ambivalence and in some cases
She also describes “certain
common themes, about ideals distorted or altogether thwarted by commercial and
Founded in 1958 as the
country’s first TV station, CCTV did not convert to colour or extend its
programming beyond a couple of hours in the evenings until the late 1970s.
As late as
1978, fewer than 10m Chinese people had access to a TV, but today CCTV boasts
more than 1bn potential viewers for its 45 channels that broadcast mostly soap
operas, historical dramas and variety shows.
The broadcaster now earns
billions of dollars a year in advertising revenue and its direct funding from
the state accounts for a relatively minor part of its annual budget.
But it remains a
vice-ministerial level government department and is always led by a senior
Communist party official who has worked his way up through the party propaganda
The boss of the network,
Hu Zhanfan, raised eyebrows in 2011, not long before he took the job, when he
declared that the “first and foremost social responsibility [of journalists] is
to serve well as a mouthpiece tool; this is the most core content of the
Marxist view of journalism and it is the most fundamental of principles”.
According to current and
former CCTV employees, the constant and pervasive censorship and political
orders make it easy for individuals to become jaded.
So when they are
presented with the opportunity to make money through unethical or, in some
cases outright illegal deals, the temptation is heightened by their sense of
“The corruption inside
CCTV is extremely serious,” says Hu Yong, an associate professor at the School
of Journalism and Communication at Peking University and a former CCTV
employee. “For example, [CCTV employees] will blackmail interviewees by
threatening to expose them publicly or they will become public advocates for
their interview subjects in exchange for economic benefits.”
Shi Feike, a senior
journalist who once had close ties with CCTV, has a more nuanced view.
“The corruption inside
CCTV is not necessarily more serious than in any other monopolistic state-owned
enterprise in China,” he says. “There are many highly professional and ethical
staff working at CCTV and the situation varies depending on the department, the
channel and the individual programme.”
CCTV said: “CCTV has
strict requirements regarding its employees’ professional ethics, and employs
comprehensive disciplinary measures to restrict their activities.
“No matter if it is
reporting on Chinese companies or foreign companies, our station always adheres
to the principles of objectivity and fairness.
“If you pay attention to
our station’s programming, you will find that our station broadcasts a large
quantity of supervision type and exposure type programmes, and most of them are
about Chinese domestically-produced products and brands.”
In the wake
of serious food and product safety scandals, CCTV has taken on the role of
self-appointed public watchdog, with a focus on the transgressions
of multinationals operating in China.
weeks, the broadcaster has targeted smartphone maker Samsung for
allegedly unfair after-sales policies, while earlier this year it directed
similar charges against Apple that
prompted the company to apologise to Chinese consumers.
such as KFC, McDonald's, Volkswagen, and Walmart have
all been targeted by similar reports that appear to concentrate less on large
Chinese companies, in particular state-owned monopolies that are often derided
by consumers for their substandard products and services.
“The reasons for this
bias towards reporting [negatively] on foreign companies are complicated;
sometimes it is political as in the case of Google, often it is rent-seeking
[trying to force large companies to buy advertising or pay bribes] and
sometimes it is just the path of least resistance,” says Mr Shi.
“They cannot touch state
enterprises because they will be censored so it is much safer to beat up on
foreign companies. It will get on air without any trouble [from the censors]
and it will gain support from nationalists.”
The negative campaigns
do not always have the desired effect.
October, CCTV aired a seven-minute segment lambasting Starbucks for overcharging Chinese consumers for its coffee.
With more than 1,000
outlets across China and plans for the country to become its second-largest
market after the US by next year, Starbucks wants to avoid a fight with the
propaganda apparatus at all costs.
But on this occasion the
reports were mostly greeted with derision rather than outrage from the wider
“Coffee is not a
necessity for life, the price is determined by the market and it is up to
Starbucks to charge what it wants,” said one user of China’s Twitter-like Weibo
service whose message went viral. “If CCTV really cares about high prices why
can’t they pay attention to prices that are actually related to people’s
Xinwen Lianbo: China’s Top Gun of news
Nowhere is the tension
at CCTV between idealism, politics and commercial imperatives more obvious than
at 7pm every night on its “Xinwen Lianbo” main news programme, which all
regional television stations in China are required to broadcast.
A popular Chinese joke
says that if anyone were to rely on this show for their information about the
world they would come away with the following impressions:
After the first 10
minutes, which invariably features the activities of senior Communist cadres,
they would believe that China’s leaders were all very busy.
The next 10 minutes of
the half-hour broadcast would convince them that everyone in China was happy
and prosperous, while the final segment would lead them to understand that
everybody outside China was living in an abyss of suffering and extreme misery.
The format has barely
changed in three decades, and the broadcast remains one of the most important
ways for the Chinese government to issue decrees and political messages to the
But in the age of social
media, the show has borne the brunt of popular cynicism and ridicule over state
control of information.
Ordinary netizens are
quick to jump on mistakes or inconsistencies, such as when the show focuses
heavily on negative events in western countries but ignores similar stories at
In 2011, a report about
a new Chinese fighter jet showed the aircraft blowing another one up with a
missile but ordinary viewers soon worked out that the footage in the news story
was in fact taken from the 1986 Hollywood movie Top Gun and the featured fighter
jet was American.