The Inside Story of When China's State-Run TV Criticized the Party

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CCTV's famous 1988 documentary, River Elegy, was a landmark -- and costly -- moment for Chinese media.

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CCTV newscasters at the broadcaster's Beijing studio. (AP)

In 1988, a six-part documentary series, River Elegy (also translated as The River Dies Young), shown on China Central Television, delivered a poignant and pointed message about how agricultural-based and inward-looking China came to be defeated by maritime and ocean based civilizations. For China to succeed, the documentary elaborates, it had to replace its regressive civilization with a more open and adventurous ocean culture like that found in the West. Deemed as having fanned the democracy fever among young people and therefore fomenting the 1989 student movement, the director Xia Jun was forced into an involuntary career hiatus. Xia was eventually rehabilitated and returned to CCTV in 1996 as a producer at News Probe, where he worked for four years before moving on to take over Beijing TV's entertainment channel.

I sat down with Xia at the conference room of his company, Chinese Culture Group, which takes up a section of the fifteenth floor of the Jinyu Plaza Office Building in Beijing's Haidian District. Xia looks a little pale, with a soft and slightly round physique, like many desk-bound affluent Chinese men I met whose daily routine involves more banqueting than exercising.

Like many others, Xia graduated from the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, majoring in TV news. A humanities scholar in his heart, he stayed on to enter BBI's first graduate class, majoring in history of modern Chinese literature. He joined CCTV in 1986, becoming the network's first employee with a graduate degree.

Upon arrival at CCTV, he participated in making Great Yellow River, a thirty-episode National Geographic-style documentary jointly produced by CCTV and NHK (the Japanese TV network) that celebrated the Yellow River as the origin of Chinese civilization. During the course of making the documentary, Xia was jolted by the naked poverty surrounding the crisis-ridden Yellow River. Xia grew frustrated with what he saw as the series' unmitigated celebration of the magnificence of the Yellow River as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Inspired by pioneering films such as Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth and cultural modernization movements, Xia gathered a group of like-minded young intellectuals from China's literary circle with the hopes of injecting serious cultural musing into CCTV programming. The result was the ground-shaking River Elegy, the first widely viewed Chinese documentary with hostile attitudes toward traditional Chinese culture and the legacy of the CCP. River Elegy became an overnight sensation, stirring heated debate among Chinese intellectuals, the party leadership, and the overseas Chinese community.

The River fever came to an abrupt halt as the 1989 student uprising implicated the reform-minded Zhao Ziyang, dragging down the entire reform camp. River was accused of instigating the student movement, and an intense media campaign was launched to discredit the series. CCTV broadcast a self-criticism meeting on the evening news, denouncing River as bourgeois propaganda.

With the documentary repudiated, its creators, many of them having openly endorsed the democratic movement, were purged, detained, or forced into exile. Xia was promptly stripped of major responsibilities at CCTV. Instead of leaving China like many of his collaborators, he underwent a self-imposed exile, spending the next five years roaming around China's poverty-ridden rural areas.

Reflecting upon his unexpected early fame and career at CCTV, Xia said simply, "It is fate. I had my five minutes of fame because I was at the right place at the right time. The moment passed, and that's that. It was during the optimum period when the society was allowed to open up, and media, which was influenced by the cultural fever at the time, was receptive to this type of programming. The freedom was there for the program to appear on Chinese television. It all ended after June fourth."

Xia continued, with a jaded smile on his face, "Obviously I was completely marginalized at CCTV after that, but luckily my skill and expertise were valued by other organizations so I became a floating independent producer. From 1990 to 1995, I spent five years wandering around China's rural areas, exploring topics of my own choice. I made a documentary about China's peasants in 1992 and then another six-part, two-hundred-minute one called East, which is an anatomy of ancient civilization in Asia. The documentary was never released."

Xia returned to CCTV in 1995, answering Yang Weiguang's call to help initiate the fledgling News Probe.

"Many things had changed during my five years in exile. I returned to a different CCTV, now housing celebrated shows such as Oriental Horizon and Focus. Reform and opening up had brought changes to CCTV. And I was a changed person as well. When I made River at twenty-six, I knew little about the real world. I did not have a real in-depth understanding of the many issues facing China. My years wandering around China's countryside transformed me. I experienced the real China and realized that there was a gap between my abstract notion of Chinese tradition and how the tradition is lived through real Chinese people."

He would work at CCTV for four years before leaving for Beijing TV.

"China is at a very awkward stage," said Xia. "I don't think intellectuals fully comprehend the level of China's dilemma. Urbanization and industrialization have unleashed a hard-to-tame desire for a more materialistically enriched life, resulting in vast disruption to life's natural balance and equilibrium."

It is interesting to see how Xia has moved from the position of a radical Occidentalist to someone with a self-professed understanding of the logic of China's agrarian-based civilization.

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Ying Zhu is a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, and author and editor of eight books, including Television in Post-Reform China and Chinese Cinema During the Era of Reform.

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