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Changing CCTV's Conservative News
Summary:Reforms are planned for Xinwen Lianbo, the national news show which draws a huge but dwindling audience every day at 7pm.

By Zhan Jiang (展江),  a professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University

EO Online

Translated by Zhu Na

Original article: [Chinese]

 A few years ago I expressed my views about CCTV’s national news program Xinwen Lianbo (Network News Broadcast) in an interview that was later made into a “comic dialogue” by the media. There was an offensive line: "Xinwen Lianbo is very good, but I don’t watch it”. In my opinion, Chinese media has already showed its diversity, but it seems that Xinwen Lianbo will never change, in other words, it is the last element of the Chinese media to change.

However, this program, which has a major propaganda role in an age when news and propaganda exist side by side, has already received an order to reform. This makes me feel a little excited - could the order be a response to the public’s criticism? Or could it be that my “comic dialogue” played a bit role?

I am only an ordinary teacher, and don’t know fully what makes Xinwen Lianbo change or the direction of that change. If I had to guess, then I would say the basic motivation is public criticism and the commercial force of audience figures, but a new approach from high-level authorities might be the immediate cause.

It has been more than 30 years since China’s reform and opening-up. The wave of liberation at least broke through the shackles of Chinese people’s thinking deep inside. If someone nowadays uses mass media in the way that a preacher uses a pulpit, the contrast with the contemporary media will makes him look ridiculous.

When things that people privately know to be false are promoted as genuine in public performances, it’s not just intellectuals and ordinary people who seek alternatives, but also more and more officials.

In Premier Mr. Zhu Rongji’s recent book, there are many references to CCTV, especially the program Focus which he specially supported.

It’s probably embarrassing for Zhu Rongji to mention Xinwen Lianbo, but the book includes “a speech at a discussion with the crew from Focus” (Oct 7 1998), whom he told, “in the past we often said propaganda work should be ‘mainly focusing on positive reports and propaganda achievements'." What does it mean to ‘mainly focus on positive reports’? Does it mean 99% should be positive? How about 98%...80%?”.

This made Focus successful, but it also brought a problem: the praise-oriented Xinwen Lianbo and the muck-racking Focus each occupied half an hour of prime time, making clear the contrast between two programs that both supposedly represented “Chinese characteristics”. At that time some local officials’ preference was to appear on Xinwen Lianbo and withdraw from Focus, meaning that they tried everything they could to get on Xinwen Lianbo, and used a variety of means to try to kill off stories that were set for broadcast on Focus.

Of course, as long as Zhu Rongji was Prime Minister, it wasn’t easy for them to withdraw from Focus. And in the spring of 2004, Focus was allowed to devote 50% or even 70-80% of its airtime to public opinion and supervision. But since autumn 2004, it has been in a weaker position, with some so-called “revelations” exposing nothing and making the program even resemble a different take on Xinwen Lianbo from time to time. I learned from indirect sources the reason why some of Focus’s investigations weren’t aired, not because their facts and claims were wrong, but because of the power of the people they exposed.

Therefore, for Focus, the direction of reform is very clear, which means returning to the era of Zhu Rongji. Just as what Zhu said: ”if there is no such program (like Focus), people’s voices won’t be heard, then where is the democracy? Where is the supervision by the people?” But in recent years, Focus has lost its voice. It is clear who is benefitting and who is suffering, and conflicts will only grow between officials and ordinary people.

But how should Xinwen Lianbo make the change? It’s a tough question. In order to break its much-mocked sequence of, “busy leaders, happy Chinese people, and chaos abroad,” I am afraid it cannot ignore Hu Jintao’s instruction to “act in accordance with the news communication laws”. It cannot avoid negative news, and it needs to more consideration to news values, and not just change its appearance.


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