Once I arrive to work at CCTV Headquarters, I make my way to a newsroom in “Tower Two”.
This tower is treated as the lesser of the building’s two legs. One coworker who carries around a handheld air quality tester recently noted to me that Tower One has much cleaner air. That’s where management offices are housed.
When I first got here in 2016, I wondered if the newsroom would be a caricature of a tight-assed commie environment, with humorless Party hardliners stomping around everywhere, giving gimlet-eyed glares at everyone as they tried to spot hints of subversion. A strict camp for party doctrine.
But it has turned out to be the opposite. My early impressions of my colleagues were of how overwhelmingly sweet they were. Calm and smiling, just as purely pleasant as can be.
An inside look at our new studio ahead of a major relaunch at the beginning of 2017, with a new lineup and name: China Global Television Network. This studio is said to be among the best in the building, originally intended for the flagship Mandarin news channel, the biggest channel in the country by far. But it sat idle for at least a year before we took it over. They got spooked by some early technical glitches and didn’t want to risk the full move from the organization’s old HQ on the other side of town. It’s also said that Pres. Xi doesn’t like this building, as he’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t like “weird” architecture. He visited the old HQ, not the new one, when he did a state media tour early this year, sending a pretty clear signal.
So we got the spaceship. It’s one of those studios where sometimes the shot will move to a camera where you can see the newsroom on the other side of a glass wall. In other words, it frequently catches me sitting at my desk or standing around joking.
I later learned this set was designed by Jim Fenhagen, considered among the best in the US broadcast business. He did the sets for many well-known American shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and ESPN’s SportsCenter. It is flashy, but I have to say, and many have also noted this: The layout of the newsroom is maddeningly stupid. It was clearly designed by someone who knew nothing about news operations, and who favored style over substance (although one could argue that makes it perfectly suited to the environment). Every day we work to overcome the physical realities of this newsroom.
If anything, the atmosphere is too lax, and I found myself early on wishing to see displays of the authoritarianism I’d heard so much about. There is almost no dress code. Nearly everyone wears jeans and t-shirts. Women at times wear outfits better suited to a nightclub.* Men might wear gym clothes. Women and men alike can be seen wearing sweatpants and looking like they’d gone from bed directly to work, with their hair standing up in the back.
People lazily shuffle down hallways. Slackjaws look at you if you walk past them briskly. Their heads turn automaton-like toward the strangely purposeful movement passing before them. Eyes stare blankly. “Duuuuh.”
No one appeared back then to give any thought to standards or accountability. If it wasn’t one of the handful of items the bosses considered gravely important, such as whether we can say “Chinese mainland” or “mainland China”, it didn’t matter. (It’s the former, and if you don’t see why, you’re not alone, but you can get fined or fired if you slip up enough times on these things. Meanwhile, factual errors go on day after day and no one says anything.) I dreamed of a Communist Party technocrat with dictatorial powers descending into the newsroom and browbeating everyone into shaping up or face murky consequences.
If it’s a caricature of anything, it is of the sloppiness that organizations are expected to have under a communist system: with no profit motive, managers and workers have no incentive to improve or do anything they’re not explicitly told to by authorities. It gives credence to the criticisms.
The main manifestation of the authoritarianism is in the form of the laoshi, which translates to “teacher” or “master”. They are charged with ensuring nothing politically incorrect, in the severest sense of that term, goes on air. They review all the scripts (after they’ve been edited by members of the foreign editing staff), looking especially at wording on sensitive topics like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Communist Party affairs, and the president of mainland China.
They are all older men, semi-retired, usually from Xinhua News Agency, the country’s main wire service (like the Associated Press if it were controlled by a single ruling political party). Contrary to what one might expect, they are invariably sweet and jovial to be around. They’re as effusively warm toward me as any beloved grandfather would be.
One laoshi made a joke that cut right to what he thought, correctly, was my American perspective.
“Be careful,” he said as we walked back from the baikaishui room, where workers get hot water for their tea. “There are Communists all around here. You’ll be brainwashed.”
I burst out laughing. Three years later it still ranks as the one of the funniest moments of my time here. Perfectly timed. I’d only been on the job a week or two, and he knew I was still evaluating the place, still trying to understand what kind of environment I’d put myself into this state-run media giant of Communist-run China. Poking fun at our anti-Communist hysteria of the past, and thus disarming me.
But his joke also touches a subtler point: No brainwashing is needed in this society. Brainwashing aims to change one active mentality to another. But people here largely just go along with what they have been presented their whole lives, unquestioningly, uncaringly. They trust the government to keep them safe and prosperous, and that’s all they care about.
It’s probably no accident he is adept at disarming people with a well-placed comment. It’s rumored that he’s a former spy.**
The Kafkaesque Workplace
The security at this government building is strict. Besides being the nerve center for the tightly controlled communications that go out to the masses, the campus also houses some sort of mini military base. Soldiers issue forth from it to jog around the building and do morning calisthenics. Camouflage army trucks park there.
The entrances to the campus are guarded by formally uniformed soldiers with pistols on their hips. Your work badge has to be shown to a series of these guys, before swiping it at an electronic baffle gate just inside the entrance. If you lose the badge, it’s a more serious offense than letting a factual error go on air. You’ll get a small fine and consternation from managers. Factual errors, on the other hand, tend to go unnoticed.
To get around, you walk through nondescript metal gray hallways, pass through strange geometric areas. Everything is cold, unintuitive. It feels like a modern art museum. Like a sniffy architect was allowed to run unchecked. (More descriptions, images of the architecture.)
There also are areas where the leaning nature of the towers or the preference given to elevator space over workspace creates awkward pinchpoints that no architect who had people in mind would ever allow. There are hallways that may not have been designed to be used as hallways, though they are in places that call for one. These are narrow areas between the outer glass-and-steel shell of the building and an inner wall. The path might only be a few feet wide. Some are so narrow that your shoulders touch both walls as you slide through. You end up with dust on your clothes. One is so narrow that you have to shuffle through it sideways.
If you get off on the wrong floor or end up somewhere you didn’t plan to be, the smart thing to do is go back and start over. Don’t try to improvise and get to your destination by a new route from here. I once ended up in a basement level where the hallway was nothing but off-white metal doors everywhere you looked — including the elevator doors I just exited.
Then you have to figure out the elevators. I swear this multi-legged building is more elevator shaft than workspace. You’d think its secret purpose was to serve as an elevator demonstration center. Yet it’s rare that all the main elevators are in operation at the same time. This leaves you in the frustrating situation of always waiting for elevators even as you stare at a wealth of them.
And there are all sorts of mysterious black elevators tucked away from main traffic, in barely lit hallways, in back corridors. Some I see maintenance workers use. Others I have never seen used at all. Some are for VIP use only, I am told.
One elevator just outside the newsroom is in a special two-leg mini hallway. The elevator door is the only thing in this hallway. The walls and elevator door are black. Metal blast doors are at either end. Once in a while, they are closed, magnetically. They seal off the hallway from floor to ceiling. It means someone important is here and needs to go up and down. Maybe it’s the head of the organization. Maybe it’s a government official. We don’t know.
Just what did the creators of this building expect would be going on here? It’s home to a media organization but has features befitting a national defense center. It also has an elevated helicopter pad on the roof. Between that and the active military compound also on the campus, you wonder if it was designed to also be a backup command center in the event of an attack or other national crisis.
It’s hard not to think the obvious: that this is exactly what you would expect a 21st century Communist propaganda machine to feel like. You’d think they would anticipate that and design it to counter such an image. But the true nature of a thing always has a way of showing itself. This building feels this way because it is this way. It would still feel this way if it were housed in warm wooden contours. The people behind it could have set out to do everything possible to create the opposite impression, but somehow by the very act of doing that they’d still arrive here.
*An American coworker who’s been here for a while said that a few years earlier a style of dress prevailed in which women wore skirts that were so short their underwear was often exposed, somewhat intentionally. So you had a situation where in the supposedly professional setting of a major country’s international broadcast newsroom all these young women (women in their 20s make up about half the staff) were going about their work with their panties showing.
**He used to work in Chinese diplomatic offices overseas, including consulates in the US. We get along well. He likes striking up conversations with me. “Gary, have you ever used drugs?” he asked point blank one day, as we sat next to each other at our desks. The directness of it had the air of a well-worn technique. It froze me cold and my eyes got wide for a second before I settled back in, and I could tell from his unchanged, slightly bemused but very focused expression that that’s exactly what he knew I would do.
We also had friendly (if limited) talks about our different political systems. He insisted that the decay that happened to Detroit “never would have been allowed to happen in China”. Talk to me in a few decades, when China’s industrialization has aged, and we’ll see if that holds true. Many of the laoshis, I should note, had foreign posts as well, though not for the diplomatic services, but for Xinhua News Agency. Outside critics have accused Xinhua of being a cover for China’s spy activities.