Farewell cultural revolution, hello box rebellion

Paedophiles. Consumer complaints. Police corruption. Fake doctors and death threats. And you thought Chinese TV was all propaganda and censorship . Not so, says Kim Gordon
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The Independent Online
"Are you married? Do you have a child?" was the question that broke the silence of the man said to be China's most notorious paedophile. After weeks in prison, 25-year-old Ma Hong-yan burst into tears, provoked by the memory of his daughter's reaction to the news that he had been charged.

But the interrogator who broke Ma's silence was no police officer, but a Peking TV reporter. Xu Tao, the 26-year-old diminutive crime reporter for the regional Peking TV station, had finally, after weeks of trying, gained access to the man who had allegedly terrorised Peking for months, raping more than a dozen girls.

Xu's ability to get scoops has impressed her station managers, who, like nearly all their rivals from China's 780 TV stations, are becoming obsessed with the capitalist notion of ratings. Indeed, state subsidies of TV are now being withdrawn and reliance on advertising income encouraged.

Moreover, turgid, propagandist and rigidly censored programming is giving way to more populist and, sometimes, hard-hitting programmes - not the sort of thing Westerners expect to see on Chinese television. Broadcasters themselves are no longer motivated by simple Maoist zeal.

Xu is typical of the new generation. She is busy contemplating her latest batch of death threats after exposing a group of unqualified "doctors". Masquerading as a patient and using mini-camera technology, she got exclusive footage of the scam.

"I have been threatened many times, but bad must not be allowed to overcome good," she says. Her untraditional attitude has paid off. Last year she was named News Reporter of the Year - a signal of a fundamental change in the Chinese media.

Jia Yu-xiang, Peking TV's head of news, is also an enthusiast for "news reform", despite the extra workload it has created. With the unexpected advent of popular journalism, and the slow establishment of a civil court system, life is no longer so easy, he says. "Sometimes our reporters provoke people to call their lawyers."

He should know. He spent much of last year fighting a libel case brought against the station by county government bureaucrats after a BTV item about a state-run factory making shoddy furniture (the station won).

The advantage is that BTV's focus on crime, disasters, consumer complaints and social problems has made it one of the channel's biggest audience- pullers. There are regular local ratings of 7 million. "Social news" now has a regular strand, covering everything from kidnapped womenbeing sold as slaves, to the growing prostitution problem, to the killing of baby girls.

For China's viewers, just having these stories reported in any form is extraordinary. Since the Communist party came to power in 1949, the media has existed to promote the party line. Neither the direct voice of the people nor any expose of social ills or official wrong-doing was tolerated. For any of this to exist now on BTV is a big change - one reflected on the only national TV network, the four-channel China Central TV. This network, broadcasting to China's 850 million regular viewers, is a key state institution and is under the direct control of the Communist party central committee.

The man who epitomises change at CCTV is the presenter Shui Junyi, 32, China's Jeremy Paxman. Unlike other CCTV presenters, he didn't graduate from the Broadcasting Institute but attended a remote provincial university. He has the popular touch - informal, chatty, with a simple turn of phrase. Just the man to front the network's current affairs showcases - the breakfast programme Oriental Horizon and the evening investigative series Focal Report.

The tone of both shows is challenging. Not for them Soviet-style automaton presentation. And it works: Focal Report draws an average audience of more than 300 million.

Shui's claim to fame is his ability to conduct what are, for China, "bolshy" interviews. His confrontation with China's trade minister, whom he politely, but doggedly, pursued over concessions she might have offered to the US during negotiations over intellectual property rights, raised eyebrows. "Officials in China are unaccustomed to being questioned and don't like appearing on TV," says Shui. "Some refuse to appear at all. Others are getting used to it."

Focal Report's formula is simple: investigations have targeted numerous provincial and county officials, including a government cotton buyer who tried to cheat peasants and a county police force, which for two years refused to return a stolen car to its owner, used it and then tried to cover its tracks by altering the car's registration.

These may be small potatoes by Western standards, but they are radical in the Chinese context. "We must expose holes in the law because criminals and some bad officials do things that harm ordinary people," says Shui. "Programmes also help to inform the public and the government about what ordinary people face."

Working at the CCTV's central Peking network centre reminds Shiu that the new journalism is no underground phenomenon. Not that it could be: the government may encourage, or just tolerate, the new journalism but it has the power to halt it. It is a truth constantly underlined by the presence of armed People's Liberation Army soldiers at the CCTV centre. The soldiers, with their holstered revolvers, are everywhere, guarding all floors of the central news area and the doors of each studio.

So why is the government allowing media reform? It has to be seen to be responding to the social tension that has followed the gradual introduction of "market socialism", with its increasing inflation, unemployment and crime.

BTV's Head of News, Jia Yuxiang, says the impetus for change came with the 1990 People's Congress - China's Parliament. A year after the Tiananmen Square tragedy, delegates called on the country's journalists to increase their reporting of social problems. "Since 1989, the government has paid more attention to people's ideas and thinking," says Jia.

Some of the most dynamic responses to this shift have been in local broadcasting. In 1991, Peking's first cable TV station opened, with the express mandate to be populist.

"We had to focus our cameras on people's lives and less on conference reports," says Peking Cable TV's head of programme production, Jia Yueqiao.

The same applied to the microphone and tape recorder. The city's first non-subsidised radio station, Peking Economic Radio, established in 1990, introduced live broadcasting and phone-ins which, until then, had been regarded as a particularly dangerous form of broadcasting. "At first, all programmes and stories had to be personally approved by the station president before transmission, but not any more. We have all become more daring," says one programme editor.

But the new journalism remains constrained by custom and politics.

"For a start, there is a reluctance to criticise elders or those in authority. Obedience and respect is a deep tradition, so we can investigate and expose wrongs, but not criticise," says Jia Yu-xiang.

The distinction, it seems, amounts to a question of tone. To ensure that the overall balance of programmes remains positive, there is an unofficial quota on how many "dark side" stories can be broadcast. On Oriental Horizon and Focal Point, about a third of the stories are "dark side" stories while each 25-minute BTV News bulletin carries an absolute maximum of eight minutes of such stories.

"As reporters our purpose is not just to report the dark side for the sake of it. We do dark side stories in order to find the means to correct the problems we have found," says CCTV's Shui. But this means that intractable problems such as the chronic housing shortages in Peking or the appalling pollution caused by traffic and electricity generation are difficult to cover.

Jia has an answer: "There is no benefit to the country's development to discuss things that cannot be solved. Discussions like this waste energy and time. As journalists, we understand what is regarded as objective reporting. But we cannot have simple objective reporting. We know we are working in state news organisations, and we do not want to harm the state interest."

Although restrictions remain - most are, in fact, unspoken - many Chinese broadcasters are optimistic.

"There is going to be more and more opening up. News reform will undoubtedly continue," says Shui.

And if Xu Tao is anything to go by, Chinese journalism will continue on its populist path. Her interest in the West is strictly tabloid. Take the Charles and Diana story.

"Women viewers in Peking love Diana," she says. "We think she is so noble. How can the British press treat her so badly?"