I spent the afternoon today at CCTV headquarters in Beijing. Standing in Master Control, I could not help thinking that this was some kind of science-fiction fantasy movie. One program on all of the 19 free-over-the-air CCTV channels and a stark, white on black graphic on every paid service or entertainment channel saying that, during these three days of national mourning, no entertainment programming will be shown.
In the West, we often describe this kind of governmental control of information with pejorative sentiments and, just as often, we fly the flag of the First Amendment with more than a certain arrogance. Perhaps under different circumstance, we might be able to say that CCTV was simply the propaganda arm of the Communist Party in China – not today.
CCTV Deputy Editor-in-chief, Yuan Zhengming and I spent quite a bit of time together this afternoon and he was rightfully proud of the work his extraordinary organization has accomplished this week. They’ve been live with continuous coverage, in several languages, for over 180 hours and they are not stopping anytime soon. Some of the stories are a bit sensational, some are heart tugging, the music choices and graphical sensibility is non-Western in the extreme. But, on balance, the coverage is extremely transparent.
We see the good with the bad. Yes, there are stories that cover how each Province and their respective officials are taking their flags to half-staff. But they are not the bulk of the programming. The people of Wenchuan are in terrible need and CCTV is covering how China and the world are responding.
Yesterday at 2:28pm, the exact moment of the Sichuan earthquake one week earlier, the entire country stopped, every driver blew their car horn for three minutes and every worker came out into the street and stood at attention. The sound may have been remarkable but the show of solidarity was truly overwhelming.
Almost every building has a donation box, most guarded and almost all with large books with red pages and a Chinese calligraphy brush to record your name and the amount of your donation. Everyone is donating. China is mobilized behind this cause and you get a sense that though sad, their resolve is absolute.
The truth is, CCTV didn’t have to work very hard to show their leadership in Wenchuan – they were all there immediately. Premier Wen Jiabao was there, ministers were there, party members where there doing what leaders are supposed to do in a crisis – leading! And, CCTV was right there to cover it. This stands in stark contrast to how our leadership handled Hurricane Katrina and nobody had to make that point out loud here today.
Is this the new face of Chinese Television? Time will tell. But one thing is clear. CCTV has taken us places no government information office controlled propaganda machine could ever let us go. They’re proud of it and we should all applaud their efforts.
To make a donation to the Sichuan Province Wenchuan Earthquake Relief Fund please click here.