—- Some True Words for This Era
By Wang Qinglei, published: December 9, 2013
On November 27th, 2013, I finished all of the paperwork and walked out of China Central Television’s east gate, the place where I had worked for ten years. It was the coldest day in Beijing since winter began this year. The only warmth I was able to feel was from the comment an old, retired “auntie” made as I walked through the resignation procedures: “Ten years! You left your youth behind with CCTV and they are letting you go like this?” Who would have thought, in ten years time, what moved me in the end was the sigh of this old woman whom I did not know at all. Despite the mental preparation I had weeks to make for this moment, I was still surprised by the sorrow I felt, bleaker than that cold wintry day, as I walked out of the CCTV main entrance. Or, it was perhaps a profound aching for a far-off, unattainable, spring.
Ten years would not be insignificant to anyone’s life. For me, these were ten years that made me and turned me into a news media professional. But at the same time, the stifling environment of this place also contorted me, making my work here an unceasing struggle and agony. In the past couple of weeks, many coworkers gave me phone calls or WeChat messages, and even some reporters whom I had never crossed paths with during my ten years, sent text messages, to express their shock, anger, disappointment, or even cursing, and of course also good wishes of the most sincere kind. They were all bewildered how the episode had come to this end. Long-time co-workers lamented with me, “Over all these years, there have been editors, reporters, producers, and directors who have been suspended because of stories, but you are the first producer who has been fired for speaking your true feelings! What is wrong with CCTV these days?” Actually, the reason, as well as the logic, is very simple: kill one to warn a hundred. The leaders know very well that there are many people at CCTV who think like me, but I was just the one who dared to speak out, that’s all. This is the method they can use to fetter everyone’s thinking, futilely.
The cause of all this was the Weibo posts I made in August this year when the Ministry of Public Security was cracking down on internet rumors. At that time, Public Security Bureaus across China used all kinds of charges (disorderly behavior, public security penalty, illegal business operation, slander, etc.) to round up “big rumor mongers” without clear legal bases and legal explanations. As they occurred, I questioned such practices: While there is nothing wrong with cracking down on internet rumors, you must do so in accordance with the law and you must let the law determine the guilt, otherwise power is overstepping the authority of the law. It was not until several weeks later that the Supreme Court was finally forced to produce a rule, but the rule of “500 reposts” [that constitutes rumor mongering], hurriedly produced, was laughable and unreasonable.
It was during this period of time that CCTV, the mainstream media of the nation, disregarded the procedural justice of the law itself, shouting and beating the drum from the high ground of morality. Using pictures, shots, and commentary in place of law to imply that some internet celebrities were “big internet rumor mongers” and to presume they were guilty. Even more excessive was that after the internet celebrity Xue Manzi was detained for soliciting prostitutes, the details of his visits to the prostitutes were aired for an unprecedented three minutes on CCTV’s prime time evening news broadcast without the least bit of apprehension, appalling the general public.
In a Weibo post that “only I could see” [when Weibo posts are censored, you can still see them on your own account but other users are unable to view them] I wrote: “The past two weeks have been disgraceful for our CCTV workers, standards for news have been raped repeatedly by those in power: we avoided legal principles, setting in motion machines to promote a crackdown on internet rumors; we used Li Kaifu’s Weibo screenshot to imply Big Vs were big rumor mongers; we displayed the details of prostitution in news broadcasts, causing the public to reprimand and deride us; we use the pubic instruments of the media to ruthlessly bombard the misconduct of a single person… The integrity and professionalism in the news has vanished totally and completely.” Many of my coworkers from the station were in my WeChat circle and were disgusted with our own reports. One co-worker said: “I don’t know how I can allow the women and kids in my family to sit in front of the television while we broadcast these kinds of details (about Xue Manzi soliciting prostitutes).” In private, co-workers were discussing: “When an American [Xue Manzi is an American citizen] visiting prostitutes in China getting on the evening news (xinwen lianbo), is this a disgrace for America or for China?”
I worked in the news commentary department for ten years, a place that was once called the Yan’an [延安, the Mecca of the Chinese communist revolution] of Chinese news. The professional news media standards that I have accepted there made me have no choice but to express resentment at the kind of news that was coming from my own hands. Why was the China Youth Daily (《中国青年报》), also a state-owned media outlet, able to utter a rational voice when faced with this kind of campaign-style law enforcement? The media is not a court of law, what basis do we have for exceeding our boundaries and passing judgment on who is a big internet celebrity and who is a big rumor monger? As a celebrity, if Xue Manzi in involved in some sort of scandal, of course we can report on it to a reasonable extent, but what is the purpose of hitting him from an intense, subjective point of view with ulterior motives? Our bosses have always criticized “tabloid style news,” but how come when we need it, we are more degraded, more obscene than the tabloids with no regard for the sentiments of the masses? Where are the news standards and professional philosophy that we have so tirelessly upheld?
Regardless of what others do, I am unable to, unwilling to, and will not, keep silent — I do not wish to be a so-called “mature” person.
Up until the day I left, CCTV had not told me exactly which one or several of my Weibo posts violated the station’s Weibo Management Regulations and its Disciplinary Management Regulations, which regulation in specific it was that I violated, and what kind of bad social influence my posts had had. Based on what regulation did they deal with me in this way? They told me to go look it up myself.
As for the baseless charge of the so-called “being out of line with the propaganda talking points of CCTV” and the Weibo Management Regulations, I have always thought they were totally ridiculous. According to the law, according to journalistic principles, was there anything I said that was inappropriate? If you recognize that the problems I pointed out are problems, then who should be the one reflecting on these issues? How is it that a news media that criticizes freedom of the press in Western countries all day long would adopt foreign media’s social media rules for their journalists and use them on CCTV’s own reporters when they are needed to keep its reporters in line? Compared to other countries, we don’t have freedom of expression; under such circumstances, we also prohibit reporters from expressing dissent. Is this not selectively neglecting the fundamentals and pursuing the trivial? You may say I need to take responsibility for my actions and bear the consequences, then will you be taking responsibility for reports like “Starbucks prices” (星巴克价格) or “land value added tax” (土地增值税) which CCTV produced following someone’s instructions and by their arrangement? Doing so, you degraded CCTV and everyone who works for CCTV.
A deputy director of the News Center said: “We are within the system; there is nothing we can do.” He’s right. In this kind of system, people’s will power is worn down and they become accustomed to it. What kind of system is it that doesn’t tolerate the truth, that does not believe in the content of its own reports, that purges those who upheld their ideals and convictions but provides a safe haven for those who scheme for power, interests and connections?
In this system, I am of the opinion that it is the distorted people who are healthy, because even if they feel helpless, they at least know what the right direction should be and do not change their pursuit. On the other hand, the people who feel at home in the system, like a fish in water, are sick, because their reliance on it has already made them numb to the point that they submit to it completely. And they become even more conceited when they succeed in it, skyrocketing up through the ranks. Perhaps no one can state clearly what a good system is, but everyone is able to sense when a system is bad — and the current system is a terrible mess of a system. Some people will say, if you cannot stand it, you can choose to leave, right? It seems like this, but I believe that the reason many people like me came to CCTV was not for money or status, but rather to realize their own ideals. I had decided that this would be a life-long value when I was still a reporter with a salary of only 4,000 RMB per month. I accepted the firing without having talks [with them] because I did not want lower my head and compromise for the sake of survival. What would come out of compromising myself and what would be the significance of it? To continue the agony of having to submit and the reality that cannot be altered for the sake of the position and the income?
As for the CCTV leaders who got rid of me, I think that back in the day many of you were promoted step by step because you unceasingly made breakthroughs, unceasingly strived, even led the way for an era of Chinese television news. But since you became leaders, so many people who were more familiar with you than me don’t understand you anymore. Why so? Are you able to recognize the gap between the thinking and pursuits of your generation and my generation? Are you willing to sit down and earnestly listen to the discontent that so many people have behind your back, and how they have changed hearts from admiration to disdain? I can understand that your position has determined the attitude and method with which you treat me, but I hope that, in dealing with young people, while you have to do what you must do, please do your utmost to raise the muzzle of the gun by one centimeter within the scope that your power allows and leave behind some news media professionals with ideals, even if it is only one. Perhaps you will fall under pressure, perhaps you will be criticized [by your bosses] for doing so, but when you leave, you can receive people’s sincere applause and respect from their hearts!
Okay, I will stop arguing about my personal gains and losses. One producer’s leaving was not a big deal to begin with. What I really want to say today, as a former CCTV employee, as a news media professional who is passionate about journalism, are some true words that I have wanted to say in these ten years. I hope that my co-workers and those leaders who got rid of me will earnestly listen.
During the ten years when I worked at CCTV, I witnessed how this national media outlet transformed from being respected to being spurned. Nowadays, people refer to CCTV as “CCAV” [Chinese Central Adult Video] to express their disdain and mockery. Having a brand new building and new equipment, having nationwide and worldwide correspondent posts, does not mean we have everything. What we have slowly lost is credibility and influence.
In 2003, when I came to CCTV’s news commentary department, China’s internet had just experienced a test of life and death. The portal websites that had survived were poised to take off. Facing this unprecedented change and at a loss as to what to do, China’s television news began to retreat in defeat. CCTV, and its state-controlled peers, started to lose its leading role in news in the face of an open, diversified internet, because too often it was subjected to planned, selective reports. People gradually stopped believing in CCTV, stopped believing in Xinwen Lianbo (the 7 pm news broadcast), and turned their noses up at a lot of CCTV’s reports. And internally, instead of considering how it should face the news media transformations of this new environment, CCTV simply changed programming non-stop. Because of the lack of a comprehensive strategy and a line of thinking, it had thrown out a lot of good things while cleaning up the undesirable before the digital reforms of news channels in 2009. Take the news commentary department for example, in 2003 we created 15 new shows, and the only ones that have survived up until today are News Weekly (originally China Weekly) and World Weekly, two weekend news shows that take stock of current events. Other programs were short-lived either because they “hit a snag” or because they were inadequate to begin with.
Even though the informationalization reforms of news channels that started in 2009 came a bit late, they did find a style of news that could compete in the internet age. Also from 2009, CCTV started establishing regional correspondent posts and overseas correspondent posts in an attempt to expand its news coverage and minimize the radius of news reporting. Looking back, if these reforms were carried out in 2003, it might have given CCTV a chance to take a breather, but just then, the “age of personal media,” marked by the rapid rise of Weibo and WeChat, brought a new, unprecedented round of assaults when CCTV’s digital mechanisms were still plagued with problems and had not gotten on the right track. What was once an authoritative media outlet was further weakened and dissipated.
These days there are many who believe that the defeat of traditional media is an inevitable outcome of the technological revolution. But honestly, in China, this conclusion is only partially true. The real reason for the defeat of China’s traditional media, including CCTV, is not that they have no way to resist the assault of new media, but rather that, in the difficult environment of public opinion, they lack the courage to speak the truth, to be responsible to the nation and the people, thus earning the respect and trust of the public.
In these ten years, as a media practitioner, I have felt more and more agony. The topics that we hoped to report on, should have reported on, according to the standards of news, were rejected time and time again. The voice that we hoped to project, the attitudes that we hoped to express, were aborted time and time again. One leader half-jokingly said to me once: “When submitting topics for approval, consider this: by and large, what you want to report on and what you think should be reported on are the issues that you cannot report on.” For a news professional, what a cruel, straggling reality this is!
Over the course of a given year, we would receive over one thousand instructions about what, and how, news should be reported. Searching our conscience, how many of them are really for the good of the country, and how many are mixed with the needs of interpersonal, power, and economic interests of individuals, organizations and the leaders? And how many are from racking one’s brains about the intentions of higher ups and then performing careful self-castrating? Our leaders should understand that, when there is so much news that cannot be, or is not allowed, to be reported on, no one will believe the news that you do report on, because it is selected for the purposes of propaganda.
From serving as the producer of the 24 Hours show to the producer of the Face to Face show, our biggest endeavor, day in and day out, was to rack our brains for ideas and excuses on how to get our leaders’ approval for the topics that we as journalists should be covering, and then, once approved, to walk a tightrope to report on them while causing no trouble for the bosses. On the surface, it seems that at times we have had breakthroughs, but such breakthroughs were often fortuitous, and would meet their predicted fate after they were broadcast. Sometimes even if we reported on some important news, we often avoided the real problems, just finding the part on the edge of news that was allowed to be expressed, showing the outside world that we were paying attention and nothing more. While doing this, many people perhaps do not realize that we are departing further and further from the essence, and the ideals, of news reporting. We are the frog boiled in warm water that has lost the courage and conviction to jump out of it.
Of course, it would be unfair to blame all of this on CCTV. But then again, have we not become an obstacle to the marching of our era, a group of apologists with vested interests, and reactionaries who impede change? Have we taken the trust that the people have placed in us to act as a watchdog and turned ourselves into manipulated clowns? Have we continually striven and fought to maintain the dignity that a national media should have? These past several years, many media outlets around us that are also state-run have changed: although the People’s Daily still exists in the same environment of restricted speech as we do, and although it remains a mouthpiece for the party as it has been for decades, they have still taken pains to speak out on sensitive issues and controversies, publishing the voices of truth that every citizen needs to hear in these times. Back when I left China National Radio, angry at the old system, I could never have imagined that in just five years, a media outlet that was once more backward, closed-off, and irrelevant than CCTV would undergo such a total transformation. The hard work done on the Voice of China since its first broadcast is worthy of the respect of anyone who works in media. The China Youth Daily, although it is no longer as powerful as Freezing Point was once, has never blindly followed the “mainstream mindset.” They have striven to provide truthful reporting and commentary, and maintained basic journalistic ethics.
And what about us? Don’t think for a minute that digital reforms can solve all the problems. If a media outlet lacks credibility, even if it reports 24/7, how many people in these times still need to turn on their television sets to get information that isn’t comprehensive, and may not even be completely true? And don’t think now that we have Weibo and WeChat accounts, that we are “with it.” Technology may transform an era, but it is ideas that lead an era. Look at our reports from the past few years: it’s all ideology, nationalist sentiment, old news rhetoric and stances, inflexible news modalities, coarse, heavy-handed journalism methods, and the loss of journalistic professionalism. Do you think that this CCTV can draw an audience? We have commentators speaking on camera every day, but aside from the efforts of Bai Yansong (白岩松), does anyone remember any powerful, provocative, and influential commentary from CCTV in the past several years?
We cannot always lie to ourselves and others, saying that Xinwen Lianbo is the most popular program. If China’s television stations were not all required to air it simultaneously, and if people didn’t take it as a political weathervane, how many people in these times would watch it to get the news? How many young people even believe Xinwen Lianbo these days? We cannot always ask people ‘Are you happy?’ to try to get a real reaction from them. CCTV interviewers, are you happy in a society with smog, traffic congestion, polluted rivers, fake foods and medicines, unaffordable housing, prohibitively expensive medical services, and unaffordable education, where people need connections to get anything done, where officials get promoted through offering bribes, and where people do not have the rights stipulated in their own constitution? We cannot always evaluate a program and its income solely by viewership. If you make a program into something like the highest-selling but contemptible Global Times, and, on top of that, you draw viewers with a couple of empty-talking experts who provoke people with their incoherent arguments, do you not worry that people will one day abandon you? We cannot always avoid the real attitudes, emotions, and anger in people’s hearts and minds. When you don’t report or comment on them, depriving people of the channels to express them, isn’t it more dangerous to let all of that pent-up emotion fester and grow? We cannot always speak hypocritically of professionalism. Professionals are also members of society; living in everyday reality. We understand this country and society in the same way as ordinary people. The true professionalism is providing objective, fair, and comprehensive reporting, not walking on eggshells to avoid making any kind of trouble. Is that not the greatest corruption of professionalism when it is degraded to mere obedience? We cannot always think that as long as we hold fast to the apron strings of those who rule the country and avoid the people’s cries that we’re safe and out of danger. When the power structure above shows signs of change, you’ll end up being more backward than the system to which you’ve been so faithful, and in that minute you’ll become expendable, like chicken bones picked clean of meat. Wouldn’t that be the greatest tragedy for a national media?
In present-day China, working in media is like being on a treadmill. You may think that you’re always going forward, but really you’re just running in place, or even slowly moving backward when you get tired. But even on this kind of treadmill, some people are getting stronger, so that one day they can exit the room and leave barriers behind.
I don’t think that CCTV is a lost cause. Even in this difficult media environment, your conviction, attitude, and bravery can still decide your style, strength and future. On the other hand, your weakness, corruption, and conservatism can lead to your falling status, declining values, and elimination.
Ten years ago, when I became [the producer of] CCTV’s news commentary program China Weekly, we were trying to come up with a tagline for the show. Mine was, “Make history with the news.” Later, the phrase they decided on was “History, One Week and a Page.” I think that people working in journalism should have this kind of sense of responsibility for the history, the country, the society and the people. Otherwise, out of the innumerable professions on this earth, why are journalists called the uncrowned kings and why is this one profession that is held up against an ideal?
Of course, CCTV can’t be expected to improve itself alone in the current reality. Contemporary China is the best it has ever been, and also the worst. It’s continually going forward, but also continually stopping or regressing, with dangers and opportunities co-existing. In today’s China, the most prevalent phenomenon, but also the most dangerous one is a dearth of true speech!
Ordinary people say nice things in front of the cameras, but curse vehemently at home. Officials say one thing when being interviewed, but say another when chatting privately. In the media, journalists explore the so-called “positive energy” from tragedies and express so-called “rationality” when surrounded by outcries. Everyone, for the sake of survival, makes convenient choices to avoid harm. But what are the consequences? In the end, everyone becomes the victim of this “lie pass,” the rule of survival. Several years ago, after the July 23rd high speed train crash incident, I was suspended from work. I wrote on my Weibo: “What would really make China ‘stable’? Maybe we can start by creating conditions under which all citizens and government officials can speak the truth. Single-minded restrictions and censorship may bring superficial peace but would ferment bigger crises. They always say that people on Weibo are irrational, but it is those senseless gag orders that are radicalizing people. The voice of truth is the one national quality that a maturing China needs the most.
China needs truth-telling badly. People hope for it and have the right to it. People should have the right to criticize political leaders and the government. People should have the right to criticize interest groups that harm the interests of the public. People should have the right to criticize social injustice and the ills of the system. These rights should not be restricted at all! Doesn’t the Constitution say that China belongs to the people? Then why can’t people speak truth? How is a country in which speaking the truth incurs persecution able to bring security and happiness to its people?
Our post-Cultural Revolution generation has heard and seen the traumas left by past tragedies. We have also experienced social upheavals. On the one hand, most people no longer believe in those ideologies and dogmas. On the other hand, people also don’t want to force democracy through revolution for fear of the terrible price society would have to pay. We want to pursue a gradual transformation; but China’s reforms to the political system are falling far short of people’s expectations and the requirements for further development despite its rapid economic growth. Those are what we really want.
Now, a lot of Chinese identify very little with their country. They only want to make, or appropriate, enough money so they can immigrate to other countries, or at least send their children abroad. Even though they are unwilling to part with their homeland, “being patriotic” is a painful choice. But I have always thought that the transformations and pain we experience, and the injustice and suffering we endure, are what we must go through. To make the country better, one, or even several generations, are bound to be the stepping-stones.
I am no embodiment of justice, nor an anti-system hero. I am only an advocate for social change and a journalist who still holds his ground. I don’t want to see one day, when those young graduates of journalism departments enter the profession, that they point to our backbones and say, “You were the one who chose to flinch and compromise, what makes you think you can educate us on following through on our journalistic ideals?” I don’t want to see that one day when our children suffer more injustice, they look into our eyes and say, “Why didn’t you dare to speak out loud for the truth?” I don’t want to come to the day when we are old and feeble, regretting in the setting sun that China has become worse and worse because of our cowardice and the conscience-in-hiding.
I hope we can be looked upon by future generations as the generation that had the guts to be truthful and that upheld its convictions despite oppression, although we did not have to sacrifice lives;
I hope the media of this era can be looked upon by future generations as a group of idealists who searched for direction, torch in hand, in the darkness before the dawn and who trudged in the swamps, plodded on through the rivers, exhausted but never gave up;
I hope that the China of our time will be looked upon by future generations as a China that endured the difficulties and pains of change to follow the trend of the times and met the expectations of its people by making the nation truly belong to each citizen.
I have spelled out a lot of my “true feelings about this era,” and they are also agonies compressed in me. Finally, I want to thank the teams and the colleagues I have worked with:
Thank the Commentary Department for turning me from a young novice to a professional journalist and installing in me journalistic ideas that will benefit me for the rest of my life;
I would like to thank Zhang Wei, Wang Lijun, Lu Zhijia and Li Lun, some of the best producers at CCTV who have mentored me. While their names might be unknown, their convictions are hard to find in this time of ours, and they gave me the courage to keep moving forward when I wanted to give way;
I would like to thank the News Weekly where I had grown as a journalist, and where my heart still belongs;
I would like to thank News 1 + 1, I’m proud of this team, of which I was once a member, and that has upheld the journalistic standard and baseline against tremendous pressure;
I would like to thank 24 Hours, the first team that I led, also the youngest team in the Commentary Department. We had upheld ourselves to be a respectable news program;
I would like to thank the Face to Face team, with which I spent my last days in CCTV. We have stood up, and held up our positions, together;
Thanks to all the hosts who I have worked with: Bai Yansong, Qiu Qiming, Li Xiaomeng, Xiao Yan, Hou Feng, Chai Jing, Dong Qian, Wang Ning, Gu Bing, Zhang Quanling, Zhang Yu, Lao Chunyan, Ouyang Xiadan, Chai Lu, Shui Junyi, Kang Hui, A Qiu, Sun Haoyin, and more. We have tried to realize our journalistic ideals in each show we have made over the last ten years;
The directors and technicians who have put up with my bad temper in live shows and in the editing rooms, I thank you for your tolerance of a perfectionist’s fussiness;
I appreciate those colleagues from other departments who showed their care and support when I was twice reprimanded. They gained nothing for supporting me, but supported me for shared ideals. What more is there for me to appreciate than having such colleagues?
As for CCTV, I’m not inclined to thank. Looking back at the work I have done over the past ten years, I have a clear conscience, and I deserved what you have given me which did not come without pain.
One cannot choose the time you live in, but you can choose what to do to change it. Many young journalists want to “change the-here-and-now” through their reporting. No, you cannot. Your reporting may have the appearance of changing a little bit of something, but you are not changing the essence of society. Therefore, being a journalist in our time, it is more important to “influence the future,” that is, using your mind, attitude and ideas to influence everyone who may have an impact on the future, to help drive society as a whole toward a consensus. That’s how real change will come!
My leave is only an inevitable outcome, because for the time being my journalistic ideals have lost their compass here. For those of you who will come here to work, when you see the five characters of CCTV’s name, you will not only feel a dream come true but sense more responsibility. More importantly, do remember there used to be two more words before those five – China!
Like everyone, I hope to become a respectable person. My sincerest hope is that, in a future not too far from now, CCTV will become a trustworthy, influential media organization that speaks the truth for the country, the society, and the public and is respected. A CCTV like that will live up to its name as a national media outlet; only a CCTV like that can be a place where every journalist wants to work.
Chen Meng (陈虻), the spiritual leader of my generation [of CCTV journalists], once said, “You might have gone very far, but never forget why you had set out.” I will leave these words to my colleagues, to myself, to the bosses perching high above, and to everyone of our time. You might be in a hurry to get somewhere, focusing on your journey; perhaps you have to do a lot of things you have to; perhaps you are always falling short of your own expectations. But if you don’t know where the sun is, you will be putting up with darkness all your life.
If possible, free of the interference of power, I hope I can still be a journalist after leaving CCTV, because, while my path can change, the direction and the ideals remain the same, unflagging.
Goodbye to CCTV, goodbye to my ten years there. At this new start of my life, I feel gratitude and no remorse. Let this be my farewell to CCTV, also a bumpy footnote of our time. The ten years were a record of the difficult journey we are undertaking, and that of the absurdities we live with in this society. While they are insignificant, they give food for thoughts.
To me, they were a section of my life. I will move on with the indelible marks they have left on me, and I will take with me my convictions, high flying in the air, to search for “Light.”
(The lyrics of Light, a song by rock singer Wang Feng [汪峰], at the end of the essay are not translated.)
Wang Qinglei (王青雷), until late November, was a CCTV producer.
(Translated by John, Liz Carter, Yaqiu Wang, and Yaxue Cao)