By Austin Dean
Chinese Central Television (CCTV) likely provides more news to more people than any other media organization on the planet. As a 2012 book, which Christina Chiao reviewed for this site in 2013, put it in its title, CCTV, across its various channels, has the attention of “Two Billion Eyes.”
Recently, though, CCTV is making headlines as well as presenting them. A few weeks ago, Bi Fujian, long-time host of the network’s much watched and much mocked annual New Year’s gala, was taken off the air after a video emerged that showed him making snide remarks about Mao Zedong during a private dinner party whose attendees included foreign as well as Chinese guests. Before Bi’s off-hand comments, “at least 15 senior network employees” had “disappeared into the maw of party and state detention,” as part of a wider crackdown against corruption at the network.
It does not matter with this crackdown whether you make your living behind or in front of the camera. Last August, Liu Wen, the head of the documentary channel was detained on charges of financial misdealing. At nearly the same time Rui Chenggang, the striving, smarmy, arrogant and abrasive host of an interview program on the CCTV finance channel was arrested and charged with corruption. No one has heard of Rui’s whereabouts since then and no one seems particularly interested; he was hardly a popular figure. After his downfall, one internet forum even asked the question “ Why Do So Many People Hate Rui Chenggang?”
In the midst of this tumult, when every month seems to bring more upheaval, it is worth taking stock of which people at CCTV aren’t being accused of crimes or misdeeds. Approaching the topic from this angle almost immediately leads to the figure of anchorman Bai Yansong who has been a mainstay on CCTV for nearly of two decades.
That type of longevity might lead you to believe that Bai owes his position to simply being a Communist Party flunky who produces unwatchable shows that incessantly regurgitate the party line. In fact, the opposite is true. Bai’s programs, particularly his most recent, Xinwen 1+1, are about the only things you run across while surfing across various CCTV channels that might cause you to say: “I’m surprised he just said that on TV.”
The son of university professors, Bai grew up in Inner Mongolia, attended the Communications University of China, and then went to work at a newspaper after graduation. In the mid 1990s, he took up his first important role in front on the camera hosting the popular show Oriental Horizon. A string of on-air successes followed.
He seems to have been one the first people to use the current omnipresent catch phrase, “The Chinese Dream,” in a venue outside of China, giving it a decidedly person twist rather than the national one it so often has in official propaganda these days. Invited to speak at Yale University in 2009, he chose as his theme “My Story and the Chinese Dream Behind It,” stressing the significance of his personal story in a way that was seen by his critics as insufficiently muscular enough for Bai’s critics. They see him as inculcated with “the sort of insufferable, pretentious attitude that the liberal ‘elite’ media take toward the rest of the country.”
Bai billed Xinwen 1+1 as the first live news talk show in China. Airing nightly, each episode features a half-hour, in-depth look at select issues. This format is much different from most of the news available on Chinese television. The topics are wide-ranging, from pollution to corruption in the Chinese soccer league (Bai is a huge fan) but usually center on public policy problems that need to be addressed. One recent episode explored changes in the ways that people obtain driver’s licenses. When a hot topics emerges, Xinwen 1+1 is sure to cover it. After the Fast and Furious-style crash of two luxury cars in Beijing, Xinwen 1+1 devoted an episode to the question of how a pair of supposedly unemployed young men could have been driving such expensive cars.
On air Bai combines piercing intelligence with controlled aggression. His show mixes background video, interviews with relevant experts, and commentary by Bai or one of the show’s other hosts. Bai has the unique ability, honed by years of practice, to never stumble over or flub his lines. The result is to give him an authoritative air, often making him seem more competent and in control of the subject matter at hand than the experts he interviews. The momentum of the show builds over the first twenty minutes and by the end Bai’s final comments usually fall somewhere between anger, indignation and a call for action. It is these remarks made in the final few minutes that will make you think: “I’m surprised he can get away with saying that.
As he told media scholar Ying Zhu, author of Two Billion Eyes, he is able to make his provocative end of the broadcast comments because “someone else above me makes the decisions to let me have the platform to say what I consider sensible and wise. My position is not granted solely by the audiences.”
The larger point here, of course, is that people choose to work for change in different ways in China, some of them by staying inside the official system of government ministries, state-owned corporations and other government institutions. Bai, despite lucrative offers from other organizations, has opted to remain within the system (tizhinei) and stick with a particular institution: CCTV. This makes him different from both those who choose to leave the system and also, so far, makes him different as well from those who, as recent headlines remind us, are taken out by force. His route is different, too, from that of those who select never to enter the various government organs and remain outside the system (tizhiwai).
Making predictions is always a tricky business, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra allegedly said) and especially about China (a place that continues to undergo so many changes). If I had to make one about Bai Yangong, though, I’d say there’s a good chance that, as daring as some of his comments may seem and as many people around him are disappearing from the CCTV fold, he’s not going anywhere.