Our attention is first commanded by a sound vaguely resembling a gong. A flash of deep blue follows, and a graphic movement unfolds. It’s 7 p.m. and time for Peoples China to sit down to watch the news. There’s no glamor here, no middle-aged beauties like Jan Tennant, no sexually provocative types like the late Jessica Savitch. China’s chief newsreader is about 45-years-old and faintly dowdy. She’s always neatly turned out (though sometimes with a few rumples), and she does wear lipstick. But her normal on-air wardrobe is a mannish suit, complete with tie. (In China, when women wear men’s clothes, they are usually just that, right down to the zipper in front.) She spends a good deal of the newscast reading from a script-there are no teleprompters sitting in front of a blank blue background. Rarely, if ever, are her items punctuated with slides or chroma key. The first half of the 30-minute newscast is usually devoted to domestic matters. And, as the western viewer quickly comes to realize, domestic Chinese news gathering is dominated by a commitment to “good news.” In fact, Hu Yao Bang, general secretary of the Party, has decreed that all internal news should be 80 per cent good and 20 per cent bad. Television news tends to be 99 and 44/100 per Cent pure, a task made easier by the observed fact that everything seems to occur at an endless succession of meetings: of the Party, of the State Education Commission, of the esperanto society, of the Shijiazhuang local merchants society. When there are visuals they are inevitably long shots of large groups of men sitting at large tables with large tea cups in front of them. From these meetings we learn that a steel plant has ove rfulfilled its quota, or that millions are now speaking esperanto like natives, or that the local merchants of Hebei province are rolling in the money.
While the subjects’ lips are moving, it is extremely rare for the viewer to hear what they are saying. The “voice-over” is king (or queen) here. (One reason is the variety of dialects in the country: leaders such as Hu speak Chinese with a heavy Szechuanese dialect, which most Beijingers find incomprehensible. Another reason, it seems, is simply that China’s producers prefer the voice-over, even when the voice is over singers.)
Suddenly we are shifted from meetings to an Anhui coal mine, celebrating some unparalleled new achievement. Tons and tons of coal rollout of these clean, well-managed shafts and everybody is smiling. But again all is silent except for the ubiquitous newsreader who rapidly reels off the statistics of success. Then, if we are really lucky, we are taken to a local market, where peasants are buying, selling, touching, and tasting pigs’ heads, guts, feet, tongues, and ears-a good news vignette to show us the vast array of meat products available to the average Chinese on the free market. The camera work is usually remarkably good, certainly up to CBC and CTV standards.
What we don’t see is that day’s public trials for an assortment of accused criminals, people ultimately found guilty of everything from massive fraud to rape and robbery. (This is not to say that such events are not reported to the public at all, it’s just that television cameras never seem to be there.)
While China appears on TV as a kingdom of heavenly peace and harmony, the rest of the world arrives in Chinese homes in a hellish state of chaos, mayhem, violence, flames, and sudden death. The second half of the 30-minute newscast is international and the service used is the infamous British VIZNEWS, the cheapest service available. It’s not so much that the Chinese producers want to portray the rest of the world as hell; it’s just that VIZNEWS itself sees the world as a crazed inferno. Propaganda points are easy to come by.
Chinese television news thus presents a remarkable contrast to the concept of newsworthiness as we define it in the west. There is no evil master plan of “Newspeak” here, just a very different culture. And in spite of years of revolution followed by years of purging of the “olds,” there still remains in this country a respect and craving for harmony, for dignity, and for recognition of those who are older, and who are in positions of authority. This, unfortunately, often leads to dull, somber, colorless journalism. (The “fortunately” part is that the Chinese are not ready for CityPulse or Eyewitness news.) The average consumer seems to want his or her heavy dose of factual and statistical information. That, however, appears to be changing: more lively, people-oriented, non-institutional news is beginning to emerge, in print if not on screen.
For example, the prestigious Party Central Committee organ Ren Min Ribao, (the People’s Daily) has dropped in circulation from nine million in 1981 to a mere four million today. Other staid voices of State and Party have also suffered serious losses in readership. Millions of people are turning to bright journals such as the Beijing Evening News, with its features, profiles, and lots of local news. And the Chinese love magazines, everything from the Red Flag, the Communist Party journal of theory, to the enormously popular Women of China, to the more esoteric Chinese Literature. (The popular sports magazines provide the prudish Chinese with revealing looks at the comely torsos, legs, and bums of both men and women.) There is also a thriving business for the “unhealthy publications,” those dealing with stories of two-headed animals, quack cures, and endless Kung Fu tales.
Recently, investigative journalism has been given a life. In print journalism at least, even in the old mother People’s Daily, there have been numerous exposes of party corruption, state fraud, and official excesses. Last June, for example, that paper reported in great detail a case of police brutality against a lawyer in Fujian County. The police used an electric prod on the young man simply because he was a lawyer and because he had demanded to see their identification papers. The deputy police chief was arrested. The Beijing based Workers Daily exposed an elaborate scheme of self-promotion by leading functionaries and department heads of the huge Xishan Coal Bureau in Shanxi County. In Shanxi province, the People’s Daily correspondent dug up a horrifying tale of a senior Party official using his position to demand sexual favors from a young female secretary. Even in the Pollyanna world of television there has been a certain toughening of attitude.
As China opens its doors to the world, look for more and more domestic “bad news” coverage. The Chinese want to learn from the west, and they realize they may have to accept some of the “negative” aspects of westernization, including western journalism. The media in China will remain for a long time in the “service of national goals,” but there is no doubt that “national goals” are being re-evaluated in such a way so as to provide for development of a more relevant and popular press.
Gerald B. Sperling is a professor of journalism and political science at the University of Regina, and Maggie Siggins is a Canadian author. Her latest book is A Canadian Tragedy: Joanne and Colin Thatcher, A Story of Love and Hate. Both currently work and live in China.