The first main post on this blog has been behaving oddly the last few days, displaying an uncanny resemblance to computerized vote counts in some US elections. When more votes are entered or more people click on a link, we normally expect the total figure to rise. Don’t Drink the Toothpaste, however, suddenly dropped 50 hits… and then then fell by another 40 or so. At this rate it will soon officially become the most unpopular post on this blog.
I had a day off news on Thursday, so I didn’t notice that the mainland media had finally reported the suicide (or…?) of Tianjin CPPCC chairman Song Pingshun - only a month late. Overseas media had already been given this information the week he died, though there seemed to be some disagreement about how and when it happened. Most of the stories relied on Hong Kong reports. Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao was probably the main source of this news for mainland readers. Now that the CPPCC is holding its latest meeting in Beijing the public here can finally be officially told by Xinhua. Song has been stripped of his party membership. That’ll teach him.
During a conversation in Beijing one night, I said: "Have you heard what the foreign media are saying… that X has happened?" I can’t remember what X was - it doesn’t matter. The other person said, "That’s not possible. If that had happened, we’d know. Things aren’t like they used to be. The media isn’t like it used to be. We’ve got Phoenix."
Another night a year or so earlier, around half past one in the morning, a reporter phoned in his copy about a mining disaster in Jiangxi. It was short - just a preliminary outline before he filed his full report. But it was good. I changed two words, deleted another - purely for grammar.
The next day, a European film crew that had just arrived in Beijing turned on the TV in their hotel room and watched that reporter’s full story on CCTV-9. What they saw changed their minds about China. They didn’t know that anything like that could be broadcast here. Their ideas about a monolithic country run with an iron fist and a media that dished up a daily diet of pure propaganda were overturned by a single one-and-a-half minute report. They would have to rethink all their previous assumptions.
In November 2004, one of China’s biggest ever mining disasters happened in Shaanxi. Media from all over the country went to cover it. Locals told reporters that fires had broken out in part of the mine a week earlier and that efforts to extinguish the flames had failed. Older, more experienced miners refused to go back into the pits until the fires had been put out. And anyway, the mine had already surpassed the limit of its annual production before it was required to close operations for safety checks. The mine bosses ordered the workers to go back underground and dig coal - if they didn’t, they’d lose their month’s pay and their year’s bonus. So the miners went back to work. 166 of them died in the explosion.
Many Chinese papers reported this, including the China Daily. Among the reporters who went there was one from CCTV-9. He filed his report that included a soundbite from a local who spoke of some of these things. I saw his script in the line-up, ready for broadcast. And then I saw it disappear - replaced by an anodine take-video that said nothing. That voice from Chenjiashan was never heard on CCTV-9.
When the reporter got back to Beijing, I asked him what had happened. Someone at the station had got worried - thought it might get them into trouble, so they played it safe. He told me that when he talked to the people of Chenjiashan, they were furious with CCTV for broadcasting lies, covering up the truth. They weren’t talking about CCTV-9. They weren’t watching the English news. They were talking about CCTV as a whole, in the language that mattered to them - Chinese.
If that European film crew had been in Beijing on that particular day and turned on the TV, there would have been no challenge to any of their assumptions. They would have read in the foreign media about the criminal negligence at the mine - and seen CCTV covering it up. They would have left with their previous beliefs about China confirmed.
"The media isn’t like it used to be. We’ve got Phoenix."
The head of Phoenix Satellite Television, Liu Changle, told the Liberation Daily last week, "they don’t tell the whole truth about the real situation, leaving you wondering what it is they are talking about." (AP translation in this report. Full interview in Chinese here, via eastday.)
He was talking about the mainland media as a whole, but his words apply to some media more than others.
As the Shanxi slavery scandal rumbles on, some papers and some TV stations can say that they investigated. They can say they told the truth and that maybe their reporting might possibly make a difference - be a force for change, a force for good. Those papers and stations know who they are. Those who did not investigate - who instead chose to stay silent, and therefore complicit - they know who they are too. Some served the people. Some served themselves.
Those who serve only themselves will one day collapse. The boy who cried wolf too many times was not believed on that one day when a wolf really appeared. There is an inverse version of that boy - the media that keep saying that everything is wonderful, and always try to hide the bad. Those who do this are simply not believed, even when there really is something good to cheer about.
Phoenix is not perfect. Who is? But if Phoenix were to launch an English-language channel, could CCTV-9 survive? Possibly yes, since Rupert Murdoch has cleverly invested in one and formed a partnership with the other. But the leaders here should remember that Fox News’ "fair and balanced" programming has achieved its financial success by exciting young male extremists in America, while doing immeasurable damage to America’s image in the rest of the world.
China has so many people who care. It has so many talented people. So many journalists who produce good work and so many more could do the same if they were encouraged, rather than threatened with the possibility of some arbitrary fine, demotion or dismissal.
Despite these disincentives, many continue to produce good and useful work. But too often the result of those ever-present threats is that writers don’t care what the public wants and needs - they care only about filling their quota and writing what they think the leaders want to read, see or hear. Wang Xiaofeng wrote about this "the leaders wouldn’t like it" phenomenon in the context of entertainment, but it applies just as much to the news. If the leaders really insist on their media being a dead thing, something of no use whatsoever to the people, fine - let them set up their own TV stations and publish their own newspapers for their own private enjoyment. But let them pay for it with their own money, not with the taxes of the people.
Al-Jazeera swept through the Arab world, angering just about every government and satisfying the needs of its ever-growing number of viewers. The day it finally launched its English channel - that was a very exciting day. I’m told that some people who went to work for Al-Jazeera’s English channel are unhappy and are starting to leave. Perhaps they forgot that they were employed to help give the world an Arab voice, not another British one.
The world needs to hear Arab voices. It needs to hear African voices. It needs to hear Asian voices. It needs to hear voices from the biggest country in the world - China. The world needs to hear what Asians think, what the Arabs think, what Africans think - and it needs to hear these things from Asians, Arabs and Africans, not just from Westerners who give their own interpretations. The days when the West thought it could tell the rest of the world what to do and think are, and should be, over. The West does have some good things to offer the world, but more than anything else now it needs to listen and learn. But what will it listen to? Who will it learn from? Unless a credible voice speaks to it, how can it be expected to understand? You cannot just talk secretly to other governments. You need to speak to the people.
No voice is credible if its only purpose is to be "The Happy News" - the news where nothing bad ever happens except in other countries. But that, it seems, is what too many leaders want.
This country is overflowing with talent. For centuries, China led the world in technology and invention. It will again. The richness of its philosophy continues to inspire people. And its international media could tell the world what China is really like - the good and the bad in all its complexity that defies simplistic generalizations. It already does this just a bit, but nowhere near enough.
Why would anyone want to only hear what outsiders say about China, when they can hear what the Chinese say themselves? But when will they be given the chance to hear that Chinese voice properly?