Party TV

China Central Television is the most important television network you’ve never heard of, but not for long...

Just before moving to China, I was given a gift: TV-B-Gone, the universal remote control that can turn off any television. Invented by the hacker Mitch Altman, the little clicker sheathed unobtrusively in a black plastic shell has saved my sanity in the empty bars and midnight laundromats of Brooklyn, but it proved powerless in Chinese airspace. I was forced to watch CCTV.

The state-run behemoth China Central Television (CCTV) is the most important television network you’ve never heard of. Its dominance in a single market—which happens to be the world's most populous country and second-largest economy—is almost inconceivable in a Western media landscape fragmented by cable and competition. Its current audience is bigger than all the major American and European networks combined. And if the Chinese government has its way, CCTV will soon be as inescapable around the world as it is in China.

CUNY media professor Ying Zhu’s new book Two Billion Eyes, the first English-language account of CCTV, shows how the network has overcome a steep learning curve, but argues that CCTV can never achieve its global ambitions while remaining the loyal voice of an unreformed Chinese state. Zhu's introduction to the network—ably researched, compelling if sometimes leaden—is an indispensable guide to the Chinese media landscape, and not such a bad vantage point either for understanding China's distinctive, evolving hodgepodge of mercantilism, communism, and capitalism.

CCTV was launched in 1958 as Beijing Television, just after Chairman Mao’s thousand flowers and hundred schools of thought had already withered. It gradually supplanted the state-run radio stations that had once blasted nonstop Maoist hymns, patriotic power ballads, and shrill exhortations at all hours, whether you wanted to hear them or not. More than just a television station, CCTV became a vital conduit for the Party’s “thought work” (sixiang gongzuo). Today, as when it was founded, CCTV reports to both the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a formal government entity, and to the CCP’s shadowy Propaganda Department. If you're wondering what's up with the Orwellian name, the Chinese word for propoganda, xuanchuan, has fairly neutral connotations, making little distinction between “propaganda” and “publicity.” And to a CCP traditional, there's nothing wrong with a little propaganda anyway.

How has CCTV transformed itself from a stale, subsidized mouthpiece into a profitable multinational media company? The transition Zhu describes is remarkable by any standard, but quasi-monopoly status has helped. By law the only national broadcaster, CCTV rakes in billions in advertising revenue every year; Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble are among its biggest clients. With 24 different stations, international channels in five languages, and over 10,000 employees worldwide, CCTV is heeding ex-President Hu Jintao's exhortation to “go out,” spearheading the Party’s drive to rack up soft power around the globe by expanding China's reach into “culture industries.” The network aims to shape the narrative on China but has bigger, Al Jazeera-like ambitions as well: to break the Western monopoly on international news and public opinion and become a CNN or BBC with Chinese characteristics.

In February, the network began broadcasting live from a massive new bureau just a mile from the White House. A Nairobi studio opened a month before that, and new production centers are slated for Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. There are recent partnership deals with Reuters, the Associated Press, and NBC, and the network’s audience outside China is now pegged as high as 125 million, centered in the farflung Chinese diaspora. Meanwhile, as Foreign Policy reports, “cut-rate prices on syndicated articles and news footage have made Chinese media outlets a popular source for media organizations in developing nations.” CCTV’s expansion comes just as other Chinese state media organizations are also going international. Xinhua, the state-run news agency, has hung up its (enormous) shingle in Times Square and the official China Radio International now beams out of Boston.

Zhu tracks CCTV’s rise through the network's increasingly sophisticated coverage of landmark events. Its first-ever live broadcast of a news event was only in 1997, for the momentous occasion of the Hong Kong handover (“reunification” in Chinese). By 2008, CCTV was offering impressive “saturation” coverage of the Beijing Olympics. 842 million people tuned in for the opening ceremony alone, constituting what the New York Times called “perhaps the largest television audience in history for a single event,” noting that CCTV is “smashing ratings records everywhere.” Thirty-four million Americans watched NBC’s coverage, in comparison. Perhaps even more impressive was the network’s pace-setting coverage of the devastating Sichuan earthquake earlier that year — by Chinese standards, writes Zhu, it was a landmark in uncensored, rapid-fire reporting.

That’s not to say that censorship is receding. Live coverage is still a tricky business for totalitarian media. CCTV cut short its live broadcast of Obama’s first inaugural address when he uttered the phrase “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism.” The Olympics broadcasts in 2008 were “live” with a mandated 10-second delay, giving the censors time to handle any untoward incidents. Nor do CCTV anchors have much to say about Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, or the Dalai Lama, apart from the occasional, spirited denunciation.

No wonder foreigners and educated urbanites prefer to get their news from more adventurous print outlets, blogs, and raucous social-media sites like Weibo (the Chinese Twitter). As pervasive, creepy, and flawed as the closed-circuit surveillance system with which it shares an acronym, CCTV is still an uncanny mirror of the regime it serves, the purest televised expression of the Chinese Communist Party. Slick touches can hardly mask the unrelieved dullness of the CCP doctrines rehearsed daily by the anchors, whether it's Jiang Zemin's lackluster “Three Represents” theory, Hu Jintao's meaningless “scientific development view,” or the bromides of “harmony” and “stability.” The obsession with GDP and production metrics, at any cost, follows in the worst traditions of communism and capitalism. With the chaos of the cultish Mao years still a living memory, characterless, technocratic conformity is the ideal.

Still, two-thirds of all television hours in China are spent watching CCTV, even though there are over 3,000 other stations to chose from. The directors, producers, and hosts at the center of Zhu’s narrative “struggle just as much with the tyranny of ratings as with the tyranny of the state.” CCTV continues to define what China watches. For one thing, that means the 1930s and 40s on endless repeat: the heroism of the Long March and Yan’an, the evil machinations of the Japanese, the duplicitous Kuomintang, the drama of land reform. The actors who routinely play Mao, Zhou Enlai, and the rest of the gang are now so familiar to Chinese viewers that they seem like family, cherished legends etched into the national consciousness.

Chinese Opera — beloved of bird-walking, tai chi–practicing old timers — gets a channel of its own. CCTV-Agriculture and Military can be counted on for the latest soporific bulletins on China’s heroic arms buildup and irrigation techniques. There are martial-arts period dramas, Korean soaps, yuppie sitcoms, and breathlessly narrated NBA games. Chinese rappers, surrounded by pitiful breakdancers, are more likely to riff on the daunting national college entrance exam than to boast about gang affiliations. Existential Hong Kong thrillers get a happy ending on the mainland, where ambiguity is under suspicion. Rural types still have a taste for vaudeville-like revues — traditional “crosstalk” routines (xiangsheng), folkloric song-and-dance numbers, snake charmers, and so on — of which the end-all-be-all is the annual Spring Festival Gala, an extravaganza of feel-good Han kitsch and one of the most-watched television events on the planet every year.

If the dominant notes sound sentimental and patriotic, the SARFT cadres wouldn’t have it any other way. China is supposed to feel like the '50s, newfound affluence stirring a genuine enthusiasm for washing machines and kitchen appliances while super-scripted anchors wax earnestly about new dams and roads. Authorities work hard to maintain this whitewashed, antiquated image. SARFT recently banned all “overly entertaining” programs, including reality TV, dating, talk, and game shows. The kind of thing Zhu describes as “an obvious giveaway for CCTV,” the ban strikes particularly hard at commercial upstarts (and CCTV competitors) like Hunan Satellite TV, made famous by its sleazy reality TV hits Super Girls (an American Idol with Chinese characteristics) and Ugly Wudi, an Ugly Betty clone.

Online games can no longer be adapted into television series. Historical programs on the revolutionary period are enjoined to make a clear distinction between heroes and villains. No foreign productions during primetime, cartoons only at certain times, ads cannot interfere with the news, Chinese regional dialects are banned in favor of the national standard — on and on the micromanagement goes. Censorship practices are even more elaborate and secretive, as CCP directives frantically try to keep pace with the news. Zhu reports the estimate of one CCTV host that approximately a third of all CCTV programs are actively censored, but self-censorship usually does the trick.

Not that everything CCTV touches automatically turns to agitprop and “enlightenment journalism.” One learns a great deal about China and the Party from watching CCTV's Chinese channels, and international coverage follows the Chinese tradition of nei wai you bie—literally “inside and outside are different”meaning that coverage of news beyond China's borders, without a direct connection to Party priorities, is more likely to be decent. Inside China, the network deserves credit for such key CCTV programs, valuably dissected by Zhu, as the investigative news magazine Oriental Horizon, Half the Sky (a window onto the equivocations of Chinese feminism), and The Lecture Room, a short-lived forum for public intellectuals which satisfied the country's burgeoning heritage craze.

Individual CCTV productions such as the searching documentary River Elegy, produced right before the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, have crystallized the national mood and become central documents of the contemporary Chinese experience. And Zhu identifies undercurrents of thoughtful dissent and frustrated idealism among CCTV insiders like documentarian Chen Xiaoqing, who cites the Annales School and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl as influences on his work. Zhang Yue, one of the first women to have her own show on Chinese TV, succeeded despite “looks and manner [that] were way out of the usual comfort zone for CCTV management and audiences.”

But recently CCTV's most high-profile project has been a building, not a program. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the network's new headquarters in Beijing — an angular steel loop known locally as da kucha, “the big underpants” —became an instant icon of China's rise and a measure of its daring. Then, on February 9, 2009, just three months before completion, the building suffered a massive fire. Celebrating Chinese New Year, CCTV employees were holding a fireworks display within the compound itself when the inevitable happened.

Many Chinese, safely anonymous on the internet at least, reacted to the blaze with derision, seeing in it a symbol of CCTV's hubris and incompetence. Meanwhile government officials attempted to bury the news, ordering “no photos, no video clips, no in-depth reports,” according to a leaked memo. With its compliance, CCTV failed one of the hardest tests a news organization can face: reporting on itself. Almost four years later, the headquarters have still yet to open. In lockstep with the regime it serves, CCTV seems unlikely to make fundamental changes any time soon. Growth and more growth is the only imperative, coming soon to a living room near you.