This story is all over the China-hand blogosphere, and is so strange that at first I was sure it was a joke. But apparently it isn't. It involves the man below, shown in a WSJ screen shot, and here is the background to understand the fuss:
- CCTV-9 is the English-language channel of China's state-run TV network, and as such is a fascinating real-time window onto the face the government wants to present to the outside world. It is different from CCTV America, the relatively new network that, especially when covering happenings in any country other than China, has been doing a (surprisingly?) good job of presenting "real" news. When CCTV America switches back to taking feeds and programs from the mother ship in Beijing, the difference is noticeable and very interesting.
- A program called "DIALOGUE" is the high-end prestige jewel in the tiara of the CCTV-9 lineup. Its aspiration is to be seen as a combination of the Charlie Rose Show, the old William F. Buckley Firing Line, and Ted Koppel's Nightline, with perhaps a dash of the author-interview segment of The Daily Show. Each evening's half-hour program is about some worthy top-of-the-news topic, and two guests -- usually one Chinese and one foreign, sometimes with additional commentators -- are matched up to exchange views. If you watch CCTV-America in the US or CCTV-9 in China, you'll see round the clock ads for it, with lofty references to the crucial importance of open exchange of ideas.
- The hosts and moderators of the program, a man named YANG RUI and a woman named Tian Wei, are big fish in the China-hand media world. They run the show in English; they have traveled and (at least in Tian Wei's case) worked in the US and Europe; they pride themselves on their international contacts and views; they have many friends and acquaintances, including me, in the foreign-Sinophile community.
Now, the tricky part. Many foreigners who have been on the show know the experience I had during my few appearances, early in my time in China. When you're on the set before the show begins, there is a lot of light and non-dogmatic chat with the hosts and the other guest(s). But once the show begins, the tone often shifts, with an opening question from the host on the lines of: "To our guest James Fallows, I must ask: do you not agree that the United States is being unfair and unreasonable in the demands it is making of the Chinese government? Especially considering its many failures at home and its relative decline in standing in the world?" Then once the show is over, it's light, easy, non-agitprop chat again.
The first time this happened to me, I was startled. But as soon as I thought about it I realized: this is the tightrope you walk inside a state-controlled news network. To the show's credit, it allows the foreigners to reply in kind and and to challenge the terms of the question. And often it broadcasts the show live, with limited real-time control on what a guest might say. (On the other hand, since it's in English, the audience inside China is limited.) I was on the show three or four times, usually during US-China meetings or controversies. I found the whole experience educational, as part of my ongoing "this is China" immersion, but eventually I decided this was not a sensible venue for me. I know that many foreigners in China have considered doing anthropological studies, or satiric novels, about the kind of "foreign experts" that CCTV is most comfortable having as frequent return visitors on the show.