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

Xia left CCTV in 2000 to experiment with running a lifestyle channel leased from Beijing TV as a private contractor, an opportunity that gave him the freedom to run his own media entity. He emphasized that his freedom was worth the price of losing CCTV as a major platform. He reminded me that his former CCTV colleagues have little moral or professional control working for CCTV.

When I relayed this to Chen Xiaoqing, CCTV's director of documentary programs, there was a touch of sarcasm in his response: "I hope so, though probably not. I feel that the old Xia's spirit has actually been straitjacketed today. His trademark sharpness and precision are all gone now. He caters more than he had to before. You have to cater [to sponsors] if you want to do projects. There is no way out. The difference is that instead of serving the party-state, you're now at the mercy of money. Perhaps we all need to find places that are right for us as individuals."

Perhaps this was an overly harsh assessment of Xia's recent career move, but like Xia, Chen is not someone who minces words. Chen is a man in his mid 40s, a decade younger than most other middle managers at his level. In 1989, after completing his master's degree, Chen joined CCTV's Local 30 Minutes, a curated program that showcased local documentary productions or productions about local events. In 1991, he was sent to report on flood-control efforts in southern China. There he shot The Story of a Lonely Island on location. The film became China's official documentary entry at that year's Cannes TV Festival. Encouraged by the success, Chen started to toy with the idea of making an independent documentary about migrant workers from his hometown who worked as nannies in big cities.

The film, A Faraway Home in Beijing came out in 1993, bringing both fame and financial backing for Chen's work. His next project, The Dragon's Back, about rural school dropouts, came out in 1995 to more critical acclaim. Chen suffered bouts of depression while he was making Dragon. He was clinically depressed for a year and half, losing his sense of purpose and questioning why he would want to continue working for CCTV. He seemed to have come out the other side of depression with a firm grasp of the limitations and imperfections of contemporary Chinese media, and the implications of those conditions for his own life as a media professional. Resigned but not jaundiced, he is among the most thoughtful and clear-eyed people I talked to.

Though Chen hinted in our early correspondence that he'd rather not discuss his depression, by the time our appointment arrived, I could hardly fail to address the issue, since it had already become apparent from background research and in previous interviews that CCTV is full of serious-minded creators who regularly experience bouts of self-doubt, philosophical ambivalence, and in some cases, like Chen's and Cui Yongyuan's, clinical depression. Certain common themes, about ideals distorted or altogether thwarted by commercial and political pressure, were also emerging. I broached the subject with Chen with an open-ended question: "Are you happy where you are?"

"Doesn't matter. Work is work." He shrugged. "I'm the employee, so my loyalty lies with my employer." With a palpable disenchantment in his tone, he continued, "Prior to 1999, I thought I was part of the collective ownership of the network and worked hard to make the network better."

CCTV's accelerated commercialization since 1999 troubled Chen. "National TV should represent the nation, not the moneyed interests. Now it all depends on who can sell more products and cater to more viewers. You're rewarded based on the amount you sell and bring."

Are there many others who share these feelings about the state of Chinese television?

"Certainly," Chen said. "Mine are hardly radical. Many have written articles and spoken to journalists about this. I don't usually do that."

Perhaps the then incoming new president would protect quality programs from the ratings war?

"It all depends on whose criteria we are talking about, quality-wise," Chen said. "Quality according to the state machine, the general public, or the social ideals of intellectual circles?" he asked. "They are not equivalent."

Chen regards his documentary program as a kind of gateway toward high-culture television in China, the most nimble vehicle for ideas and information that would otherwise scrape against too many political and commercial barriers to make it to the air. In every other type of programming, he complained, the road is already laid out for you, especially the news. "No need for you to look for news, because news outside the boundaries does not exist. ... You say whatever you are told to say."

I asked if the program he produced was in sync with his ideas about programming and life in general. Chen answered for his generation rather than himself. "I think that our generation was brought up to love what we do and that what we do becomes part of who we are." This appeared to be partly a dig at the latest generation of post-Tiananmen, post-socialist Chinese, who are less inclined to selfless service in the collective interest of the broader society. It may also have been partly an expression of generational regret and a rationalization of personal professional resignation. Certainly, Chen was not the only person at CCTV who downplayed his foiled ambitions.

Excerpted from Ying Zhu's Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television (The New Press).

This article originally appeared at Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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