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Behind the scenes at China TV: soft power and state propaganda

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.

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WeChat Censorship Example

Last June, I sent my friend in China a voice text while I was back in the US for a visit. I ranted about annoying people in my home state. (I was on a short kayaking trip, and while transporting a kayak someone intentionally ran over my paddle that fell onto the street.)

My message rambled into talk about living in China, and in the process I mentioned Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

Surprise, surprise — it never went through. And the “resend” button that usually appears if it’s a network issue never popped up either. I checked with my friend when I returned to Beijing and even looked at his side of the thread on his phone. Nothing had ever appeared on his end.

On my end, the message just pulsed ominously. Almost two years later, it’s still doing the same thing.

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Communist Party workplace materials for CCTV employees

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.

"CCTV Party-Building"  an "internal" publication put out by China Central Television Communist Party Membership
“CCTV Party-Building” — an internal publication put out by the China Central Television Communist Party Membership Committee
Subtitle says (roughly): “Keep up with innovation and struggle” “Strive to create a world-class new mainstream media”
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Liu Xin named a ‘top ten’ host by CCTV’s Party Committee

Liu Xin named a 'top ten' host by CCTV's Communist Party of China Committee; as seen in the March 30, 2018 employee newsletter distributed at headquarters in Beijing
Liu Xin named a ‘top ten’ host by CCTV’s Communist Party of China Committee. From the March 30, 2018, employee newsletter distributed at headquarters in Beijing.

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.

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A Glimpse of Hong Kong Subversion

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.

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Last Storage Trip from Beijing

I stepped outside on Christmas Day 2019 to a gloriously foggy morning. I was overjoyed. Fog is my favorite weather.

“Ah, that’s right! Michigan has weather! This is why I moved back.”*

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Gallery: China Zun

This building has become in my mind a symbol of my time in Beijing. It’s the first thing I found myself absorbed in when I first arrived. It’s across the street from where I work and was right outside the window of the first place I sat down at there, at a little hallway table meeting with an HR person. It was visible from the roof of the first apartment building I lived in, where I’d go at sunrise to stretch and drink coffee. It’s visible from my current apartment.

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Street Banner Exhortations

Throughout China’s capital are red street banners with white lettering urging people to be more civilized, root out dark forces, not smoke, and engage in better behaviors.

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Gripping Collections of Packaged Foodstuffs

A special edition Japanese brand DyDo soda with Dragon Ball Z character Detective Conan (according to a cursory online search). Some people even sell empties on eBay.

One day I noticed I had a long-running habit of photographing packaged food items. These photos run back to Jecheon, South Korea, 2003. Others were taken in Detroit, 2013 and 2016. Most were taken in Beijing in recent years.

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Pocket Documentary: Commute to CCTV Tower

Stuck an old iPhone in my shirt pocket and hit record for my commute to and from work. That’s it. Raw, simple way to preserve a period in my life and to give the curious an idea of what it’s like to commute in Beijing by shared bike.

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Tiananmen Ride

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while: Stick my phone in my shirt pocket and let it record while I ride a bike through Beijing traffic.

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Early Workplace Impressions

The old CCTV News control room, or “gallery” as it’s called internally

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.

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Views of CCTV Headquarters

Window view from CCTV Headquarters with side of tower in frame

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.

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Love Letter to a Storage Yard

Every time I fly back home, it takes a full day just to leave the Detroit Metro Airport area. This is despite having two cars nearby. They’re at a storage yard only four miles away, but getting them requires going through an elaborate operation involving hiking and hotels.

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Views from My Cell

My second apartment in Beijing is, despite its sometimes prison cell-like feel, much better than my first. It’s tiny but was redone from floor to ceiling before I moved in. The floors are covered in big marble-like tiles that are so polished and new they have a mirror effect. The cupboards and sinks and windows and everything are new.

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Life in China 3

Images grabbed from day-to-day life in the capital
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Sightings of Unusual English Arrangements

Tantalizing description of a dish in one of the canteen lines at CCTV headquarters, Beijing, Sept. 2016

Examples of unusual arrangements of English I have come across throughout my time in China, and a few from past years in South Korea.

I always stress that I highlight these creations not to mock them but to bask in them. I appreciate their existence in the same way as encountering something striking in nature. These outcroppings of a global consumer society are something that past peoples didn’t get to enjoy and future ones may well not either. They are to be celebrated!

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Knees-Out Biking China

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Beijing Bike Rides

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“Limited Capacity for Civil Conduct”

How public rules are expressed in China.