One of the most useful tips in the not-always-reliable Rough Guide to China 2002 edition concerns Chinese television. You would, it points out, have to be desperately bored to resort to it for entertainment. Well, I have to confess that very occasionally, when I am extremely bored in hotel rooms or at home, I do find myself watching CCTV9. I’m not proud of it, and it never lasts very long, but there is a certain perverse fascination with some of the ‘useful idiots’ that present the shows. Unlike Edgar Snow and the British spy circle, however, I think it probable that a lot of the people on CCTV9 genuinely are idiots. At least you can say with some certainty that people like Snow, Burgess and Maclean were extremely intelligent individuals who had probably drawn some of the right conclusions about their own societies; they just seem to have been tragically misguided about the nature of the regimes they crossed over to (with the possible exception of Israel Epstein, who as far as I can tell was a great deal more Chinese than anything else). However, the ex-pats on Chinese TV are not quite in their league.
You have this guy, for example, who preens and stammers his way through some pretend economics programme, accompanied by a Chinese woman whose attempts to pronounce the word ‘aluminium’ brought tears of pity to my eyes – although I hasten to add that he didn’t do much better. There is a young American woman who, during an incisive piece I saw on the important subject of how mobile phones, like, exist?, and how, like, people in China use them?!? changed her clothes no fewer than seven times, which is more costume changes than in an average Kylie Minogue concert. Then there is a fairly geriatric guy who provides the links between the domestic news (propaganda) and the foreign news (footage from international news agencies with all the interesting bits cut out), and whose exclusive qualification for the job seems to be an Australian accent. Also, viewers are treated to the sight of a team of wide-boys in ill-fitting suits who tell us about China’s weather. They do it surprisingly quickly considering the size of the country. They also bounce in a jolly and wide-eyed fashion around the screen, and I could try and think of something nice to say about them but to be absolutely honest what most comes to mind is the word wankers.
I have to admit that with a lot of these people I don’t actually know what their voices sound like, because I find the only way I can abide CCTV9 is with the sound turned right down and the PC picking its way through my Kate Bush mp3s. The full stereo effect of the programmes is a bit too much to bear.
It would be interesting to know whether or not any of these people have ever worked in news media before. I suspect that in most cases they haven’t, partly on the basis of this very enlightening, often hysterically funny and surprisingly moving account of behind-the-scenes life at CCTV:
We lead a broadcast with a Xinhua item stating that 2,500 people have died as a result of the Falun Gong’s influence. The writer makes a mistake, it’s read on the air as 25,000. I’m the only one to notice, because it happens I read the same item that morning in the China Daily. We strike out a zero for the next broadcast and never hear from the audience or management. We report on an 8:00 a.m. broadcast that China will definitely launch a manned space mission in 2003. On the noon broadcast, “the launch date is still uncertain,” and the writer tells me it may be years away. Once again, writers of the source material at Xinhua or CCTV-1 are unavailable or irresponsible and there’s no one in our newsroom who knows or cares enough to pick up a phone for clarification. We don’t strive for it either; just change the story according to the latest copy and trust that no one expects any better.
The question I’m interested in is what happens when they leave China. Do they then try and put their journalistic experience to good use and try and find work in the media? Apart from the ignomy of working for an organisation called CCTV (“what, you were a Security Guard?!?“), there is a world of difference between the Disney Channel or CNN on the one hand, and totalitarian state media churning out nothing but state propaganda on the other.
Actually, on that last point about CNN, I suppose on the face of it they could always try applying for a job there!