Two Billion Eyes, the Story of CCTV: Q&A with author Ying Zhu

Ying Zhu is the author of a new book on China’s state-owned television network, China Central Television or CCTV. Two Billion EyesThe Story of China Central Television is the story of CCTV as the personal stories of the people of CCTV which the author engaged with via extensive interviews. Yet it also paints a complex picture of the network that has become an archetype of the Chinese model. Two Billion Eyes is published by The New Press and will be available on 2 October 2012.


In October 2011 Hu Jintao declared a ‘culture war’ in which the West was trying to pollute and divide China. A crackdown on foreign shows on CCTV followed. CCTV went through various stages in its development, from a propensity towards greater and lesser reform. How open do you think is CCTV currently towards foreign programming and ideas?

There is no doubt that CCTV must measure, and is indeed part of China’s overall political and cultural climate, which fluctuates ever so frequently yet all the while driven by strong nationalistic sentiment. Overall, though, CCTV has moved in recent years from aggressively adopting foreign program formulas and formats towards consciously building its own brand, a phase not necessarily motivated by political concerns alone. As CCTV tries to exert itself onto the world stage, it has to create its own identity. Not every move Chinese media make can be looked through the prism of political pressure alone. CCTV is a commercial network with global ambitions, albeit backed by strong state support.


Why do many people within CCTV look back nostalgically at the years 1991-99 when Yang Weiguang was president of the network? Was it because Yang was a consummate ‘sage leader?’

Yang enacted bold reform agendas, essentially introducing the market mechanism into CCTV’s programming and personnel management. News programs that were more attuned to popular concerns emerged as a result. What he did was actually in sync with China’s overall economic reform agenda during the period that pushed for marketization and commercialization. Yang was methodical in his approach, carefully calibrating what was permissible while following his acute professional instinct. Yang appeared to be a passionate news person who genuinely enjoyed the network he was delegated to lead and cared about what was put out in the name of CCTV. Perhaps due to his age, which was pushing retirement when he stepped down, Yang did not see CCTV as a stepping-stone towards something bigger on the party hierarchy. He is a “sage leader” in the sense that he knows how to rally support from both within the network and from the Party leadership in carrying out his ambitions for CCTV. He was trusted by the party and loved by his people at CCTV.


The way it reported the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 gave CCTV wide acclaim. Yet four days after the quake, despite receiving praise for its coverage from the government, CCTV subtly changed the way it covered the earthquake. Why did this happen?

Well the government stepped in, after the initial shock and embarrassment of the lack of a coordinated response, which was what provided that brief window of opportunity for CCTV reporters to follow their professional instinct in swift reporting. On May 14, two days after the earthquake, Li Changchun, the then party propaganda chief, phoned Zhao Huayong, the then head of CCTV, to encourage positive and uplifting coverage. On May 17, Li paid CCTV a visit, reinforcing state support for CCTV to provide sympathetic and uplifting coverage. Thus, the segment “Heroes in the Disaster” was added to CCTV’s coverage on the night of Li’s visit. News of grieving and hardship gave way to eulogies of heroes and praises of government rescue efforts. Obviously, reports of shoddy school construction and other corruption related stories were phased out. So CCTV was on a short leash then and continues to be on a short leash now.


Do you think Western observers are biased in their assessment of CCTV as a mere tool of the Chinese government?

There is no doubt that CCTV is foremost a party organ. Yet commercialization and marketization have complicated CCTV’s relationship with the Party as the network strives to maximize profit by making programs with popular appeal. Aside from certain politically forbidden and culturally sensitive topics, the management at CCTV has a lot of room to decide what should and should not be put on. And individual reporters, anchorpersons, and producers bring to program production and delivery their own professional ambitions. All of which makes CCTV more complex as a media organization than what the Western media care to acknowledge.


How would you describe the unique qualities needed by hosts and senior producers to work at CCTV?

Know the limits. Know what button to push and what button to avoid. So self-censorship remains a key to a successful career for anyone working for a state run network.


Since 2003 CCTV has faced increased competition from provincial channels, new satellite channels and from overseas media companies in China. This seems to have accelerated commercialization within CCTV. How has this affected CCTV’s striving to balance professionalism, politics and profit?

Overall, competition threatens CCTV’s monopoly, which some see as a good thing that helps to push for a more open Chinese media sphere. Some influential Chinese media policy makers and professionals I spoke to embrace competition and the market mechanism underlying it. As discussed in my book, the popular news anchor, Bai Yansong, for one, emphasized that the market mechanism has been a positive counterforce to state control. Commercialization, as he sees it, is a liberating force for Chinese media. “It is better than responding to political pressure alone. The injection of market force should be viewed as progress. The market forces us to respond to the needs of the public. When the media rely more on advertising and other forms of commercial income instead of government funding, they respond more to audiences and thus the public.”

Competition brings in program innovation and liberalization, but it also propels a race to the bottom line, where ratings become the only indicator of success and programs of popular taste reign supreme. Thus, many at CCTV consider commercialization and marketization a perilous road that is detrimental to the network’s overall program quality and reputation as a torch of China’s high culture. In fact, as captured in my book, CCTV’s excessive drive for ratings during Yang Weiguang’s successor Zhao Huayong’s reign was viewed harshly by many seasoned CCTV practitioners who saw their professional standards compromised in the rush to produce programs of popular appeal.


The reformer Liang Qichao has been described as the doyen of modern Chinese journalism. What do you think would his opinion be of the CCTV of today?

Liang and his fellow New Cultural intellectuals in the late Qing and early Republican eras emphasized communication between the authorities and the people via enlightened newsmen, thus spawning a new breed of journalists as enlightenment intellectuals. Liang Qichao proposed that the press should bring information and ideas to the public so as to supervise and mobilize public opinion and to ultimately influence government. Thus, Chinese journalists, in Liao’s conception, were independent intellectuals beholden to their cultured aspirations but not to any political directives, certainly not to market directions. So, in this regard, as the mandate of the CCTV of today is to appease the Party and the market, it is hardly a model of Liang’s notion of journalism as enlightened intellectuals who aim to enlighten both the mass and the government. Although individuals at CCTV such as Zhang Jie, the producer of News Probe, do strive to balance their professional enlightenment inclination with the demand of the market and the directives of the Party.


Your book describes how many Chinese journalists have come to place a high regard on traditional moral standards and a harmonious social order. Do you think Chinese journalism would be radically different if censorship would be ended today?

Rather than censorship directly enforced by the state, self-censorship by media professionals has been one of the principal modes of control in China for the past decade. Contradictory policies and political swings—from forays into market reform to retreats to conservatism, from initiatives to commercialize to those attacking it—have been typical of media regulation in the post-Mao era, and they have contributed to the on-the-job training of a new generation of media professionals thoroughly steeped in the fine art of intuiting what their overseers want. Besides the potential political consequences of ideologically sensitive reporting, Chinese journalists are also vulnerable to libel suits, adding another measure of caution to journalists’ self-censorship impulse. Thus, a kind of boundary-testing self-censorship has become the norm among Chinese media professionals as they try to balance the will of the Party, the market, and their professional instincts. Ultimately it’s an issue of bread and butter as media practitioners’ jobs are on the line. Make no mistake that despite institutional conversion and ownership deregulation, the Chinese Party-state still filters media content by censorship. Compulsory censorship has been imposed so that all programs must be censored before and after broadcasting. The Party has tightened its control over news materials in spite of the relaxation of operations. If the programs produced deviate from the socialist core, the producer, without any doubt, would be fired and the official in charge of censoring the program would also be fired. The system thus encourages self-censorship, and program producers are even more cautious and strict than the state regulators.

“I might not know what to do without restrictions,” one popular talk show host once told me. Self-censorship has become so ingrained in his professional code that he noted “I am so used to stopping when I still have more to say.”


How novel is the concept and application of investigative journalism in China? Considering the difficulties that many programs have had on CCTV with investigative journalism, isn’t the concept of investigative journalism extremely difficult or basically impossible for CCTV to implement?

Investigative journalism is possible to a certain extent. It’s a delicate balance/dance. Investigative journalism is very popular and in some instances very effective in fighting corruption and government wrong-doings, but what’s permissible shifts constantly so certain topics are off limits during certain periods.


What is your general impression of the people who work at CCTV? Many of the people you interviewed seemed frustrated and depressed.

Yes frustration and sometimes depression seem rampant among the brightest and most ambitious CCTV practitioners, an occupational hazard for working under constant restrictions. In the end, this book is about the various individuals who toil at CCTV on a daily basis and I came away with a sense of awe and amazement at their Sisyphean tasks.

With CCTV’s outward push in the last few years and its attempts to provide a Chinese perspective to an international audience, it claims to do this to correct the overly negative views on China from the West. Yet isn’t CCTV hobbled by the fact that it cannot really be critical of China, and thus the perspective it puts out on China is also biased, but just in a different way from the West? Your conclusions on your discussion with Yang Rui in your book seemed to bear this out: you listened as Yang made claims about his English talk show being all about fostering mutual understanding between China and the world, but you concluded that he is really interested only in safeguarding China’s image.

CCTV is a long way from being accepted on the global stage as reliable news source. CCTV has yet to establish itself as an authoritative voice on news about China. Not matter how much financial resources CCTV has at its disposal in its attempt to break onto the world stage, the very nature of CCTV as a dependent CCP Party organ restricts what it can or can not achieve. CCTV’s world reputation is intimately linked to the reputation of China on the world stage.


The youth of China has given up on CCTV. Was there a specific moment or period when CCTV lost the youth? Or was it more of gradual disillusionment and replacement with the Internet?

The rapid penetration of the Internet has eroded TV audiences, not just in China. In the case of CCTV, aggressively youth oriented popular programs from local broadcasters are big headaches for the network. CCTV has made efforts to counter-program to limited success. It is still the case that CCTV has more restrictions on what can be put on the air. Local broadcasters are on a much longer Party/state leash.


Do you think CCTV shares some of the blame for inculcating a sense of strident nationalism in Chinese people?

The two reinforce each other. Good that you mentioned the issue of nationalism, which partly accounts for the escalating hostility against Japan among the Chinese public as there seems no end in sight to tensions over a few disputed islands. People who work at CCTV can be easily engulfed in the anti-Japan wave. The intersection between Chinese elite and grassroots nationalism, and the rising wave of youth nationalism would have a huge impact on where China stands on many of the global issues. And where China stands would have a marked impact on world politics and economy.

Nationalism is arguably the most important dynamic driving the political discourse of the Chinese youth today. It has periodically erupted onto the streets of China, especially in reaction to perceived insults from Western media and governments. Historically, Chinese nationalism has driven transformative social movements from the May Fourth Movement to the Communist Revolution. In contemporary times this nationalism has been a double-edge sword, lending the Chinese state domestic legitimacy while confining its actions internationally as China tries to finesse its growing prominence on the world stage.

In contrast to the previous generation of Chinese, which soured on the nationalism that was forced on them by an omnipotent state, the new generation of educated youth seems captivated by an updated nationalist doctrine, a marriage between “wounded nationalism” and “confident nationalism.”

In March 2008, the disruption of the Olympic torch relay during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics triggered the eruption onto the world stage of a nationalistic outpouring by China’s youth. Amid the tensions, the Dalai Lama was made an honorary citizen in Paris. Thousands of Chinese demonstrated in front of Chinese outlets of the French grocer chain Carrefour in retaliation. Adding fuel to fire, some Western media footage of the Tibetan riots turned out to be out of context or location. To many Chinese, these smacked of deliberate distortions. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty added to the wound by calling the Chinese authorities “goons and thugs.” In response, a group of Beijing college students led by Rao Jin put up a website, “,” to condemn not just CNN but also perceived biases in other Western media. The site achieved instant fame and a massive following.

The united front against CNN disintegrated after the Beijing Olympics. Yet Rao’s and similar nationalistic groups still command popular and elite attention, capable of influencing public opinion. In an ironic twist, both the Chinese and US governments have aggressively courted these groups in their leverage for favourable public opinion. In January 2011, days before Hu Jintao’ state visit to the US, a group of influential Chinese bloggers was invited to the US Embassy’s Beijing Office. Among them was Rao Jin. The then US ambassador Jonathan Huntsman met with them and called for a more humanized approach to the Sino-US relationship that would make both sides see the benefits of maintaining a constructive relationship. Days later, a live videoconference was held, connecting the US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes and National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Jeff Bader from the White House’s Situation Room with a group of Chinese bloggers at the US Beijing Embassy.

The US state made a wise move to court the young opinion leaders in China. To better understand Chinese nationalism, the perceptions and aspirations of the Chinese youth, elite and grassroots needs to be further explored. This of course is a topic beyond CCTV, but a topic I’m very much interested in exploring.


Ying Zhu is Professor of Cinema Studies and Chair of Media Culture Department at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. A recipient of a (US) National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, she is the author or editor of seven other books, including “Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Cinema.” She lives in New York.



Featured image of CCTV building from Peter Hess.

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