I spoke to the Financial Times for an article on China’s Communist Party-controlled international broadcaster CGTN.The article was five months in the making. The Financial Times eventually spoke to 12 former CGTN employees like myself. I was the first person the reporter spoke to, and got the ball rolling on bringing others in as well. My decision to go on the record also encouraged others to do so (though most dared not). Here is an excerpt:
The primetime English-language news show by China’s state broadcaster was about to go on air when a copy editor in Beijing was handed a script that needed an urgent last-minute polish. Gary Anglebrandt’s job at China Global Television Network was to check for errors in grammar and spelling before passing the text to the on-duty laoshi — teacher in Mandarin — who controls all copy for political correctness before anything goes on air.
You’ll never see CGTN come out and announce that it takes orders from the Communist Party of China, but it’s clear in the workplace who’s running the show. Party materials made specifically for CCTV (of which CGTN is a part) employees are littered throughout the newsroom.
I took some as souvenirs of my time working there.
A certain American-right-wing propagandist might be interested in this image of a certain Chinese government propagandist. This is Liu Xin, a CGTN show host, as shown in the March 30, 2018, edition of Dian Shi Sheng Huo, a Communist Party of China newsletter for CCTV employees. It recognized her as a “top ten” host and applauded her work in telling China’s story.
It’s very satisfying to at last be able to put up this post. It is full of — gasp! — messages against China’s central government. I visited Hong Kong in late November, about a month before leaving China for good. There I was able to take many photos of graffiti and other anti-government messaging put up by protesters.
I used to loathe puns, but as a reporter and assigning editor I was grateful to have copy editors in my corner who could turn a phrase or come up with something clever on the spot for a headline or title.
So I made a conscious effort to get better at them and become a more well-rounded copy editor. I learned that it’s the hokiest ones — that is, safe for all audiences — that are the hardest to make. Anyone can make a stupid sex pun.
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.
CCTV Headquarters has exactly the feel one would expect from a paranoid control state’s base of media operations.
The predominating experience inside is that of walking through nondescript passageways, gray in color and climate.
Sidelong glances, outright stares, and even suspicious glares from passing Chinese staffers in the halls are a constant feature of work-life. I get expect them as soon as I leave the newsroom. Even though I’m still in the work area of CGTN, the channel I work on, there will always be people immediately outside the glass walls of our newsroom who will look at me askance.
In late January, CGTN sent me to Yunnan province in southwestern China. This was as part of a “grassroots trip” to “bring foreigners a better understanding of China”. I was on a four-person crew — cameraman, planner, producer, and myself. We were joined by crews from CGTN’s other foreign language channels: Russian, Arabic, Spanish, and French. There were about 25 of us in total.
CGTN regularly holds these trips to China’s farther-flung regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet. The tours are meant to give the impression that they in involve genuine in-the-field reporting. Not coincidentally, these regions are where China draws the sharpest rebukes internationally over its oppressive policies. They are home to many of the country’s “ethnic minorities”, as opposed to the main Han ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population.
Yunnan has a natural, exotic beauty. It abuts the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is known for its rich diversity of plant life. We traveled mostly by bus through the mountains and lush valleys of this subtropical region.
Our job at CGTN is to tell a “different narrative, from a Chinese perspective”. In Yunnan, we would gather a trove of cheerleading propaganda material. Look at how wonderfully “upgraded” these ethnic people’s lives are under the able and benevolent hand of the Han-led Communist Party. They have been lifted out of an elemental existence, with their colorful cultures intact.
The organizers took us to see economic and infrastructure improvements in villages, markets, farms, and factories. All carefully managed. The crews get footage of anodyne cultural performances and traditional life while smiling foreigners talks about how charming it is. Pure propaganda. This is to better ensure that the foreigners on staff actually believe the Party line. Presumably, they also hope we will carry these positive observations back to our homelands and media jobs someday.
We intruded on people’s lives everywhere we went, even in their homes in some instances. Local officials awaited us at each spot to help orchestrate the coverage. We filed off the bus to watch people weaving, making wicker, tending to donkeys, working sugar cane. Villagers and officials dutifully showed us their traditional ways and said what they were supposed to say. Their lives are great and their way of life protected thanks to the central government.
The Chinese staff, it is worth noting, largely are not fooled by any of this. Some of them seem to take it harder than the foreign staffers do, cringing at the euphemistic “grassroots”. The Chinese word jiceng (基层) could also be translated as “basic level”, conveying typical central government paternalism. If it had a symbol it would be that of a Beijing official patting a peasant on the head. When they say “grassroots” in English to me, they do so with a pained expression as though expecting a disapproving reaction. Not all Chinese, even those who work in the propaganda machine, mindlessly swallow the state’s messaging.
Despite my jaded view, the trip did provide me with memories that will last a lifetime and a view into a different part of China, if for no other reason than it finally got me out of Beijing. A big part of that came from two days at the ancient salt village of Nuodeng, for which I have made a separate gallery.