In a Changing China, News Show Thrives With Timeworn Ways

Xing Zhibin, left, and Luo Jing anchor the 7 p.m.
Xing Zhibin, left, and Luo Jing anchor the 7 p.m. "Network News Broadcast" on China Central Television. (By Jin Ling For The Washington Post)

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 23, 2007

XIALU, China -- Wei Yi, a Beijing-based reporter for China Central Television's main news program, stood with his microphone in front of a little stone monument at the entrance to Xialu village. Against a backdrop of orange trees, he told millions of Chinese viewers how a government initiative had recently improved farmers' lives here with construction of new roads.

"Convenient transportation was made possible by this stretch of road that was just finished this year in the village," he intoned. "Outside merchants can now quickly ship out freshly harvested fruit." Later, viewers were presented with images of several dozen peasants, shovels in hand, working in unison on a new road.

Wei's Dec. 23 report from southern Guangxi province was hardly an accurate one -- the road he touted, farmers here said, had no connection to the new government initiative. But the broadcast probably pleased propaganda officials. They had helped organize it.

In the face of radical economic and social changes over the past two decades, the choreography of news has helped China retain its monopoly on power. All television stations and newspapers remain government-controlled; news reports are routinely organized by propaganda officials and bolstered by interviews with local Communist Party secretaries.

The Internet has created some openings for disseminating uncensored news. But on the opposite end of the spectrum is the official 7 p.m. "Network News Broadcast," the government's flagship program. It has long occupied a status all its own, confined to old-style Communist orthodoxy with a tenacity that has its anchors looking like holdouts from the 1970s and its reports on public affairs like a party bulletin board.

"Network News Broadcast" has become one of the world's most watched news programs. CSM Media Research, sponsored by CCTV, said its surveys show the 7 p.m. news has an average viewing rate of 11.5 percent. According to official statistics, that means as many as 135 million people tune in any evening.

Leadership appearances on the program have followed the same script for years: The party chief, currently President Hu Jintao, is invariably shown first; followed by Wu Bangguo, head of the National People's Congress and the party's second-ranking member; followed by Wen Jiabao, premier and third-ranking member; and so on down the hierarchy. Each leader is allocated a certain number of seconds in front of the camera, Chinese media experts say, with the time for each one carefully regulated by the party propaganda department.

The main anchors -- Xing Zhibin and Luo Jing -- sit stiffly and stare straight ahead into the teleprompter, as they have for years. Alternating for each news item, they read carefully from a text vetted at midafternoon by senior CCTV and party propaganda officials, their colleagues said.

Luo, whose hairline has receded over the years, decided at one point he wanted to change his perennial pompadour but was denied permission by his superiors, according to the Southern Weekend newspaper. Apparently aware of their reputation as stodgy, some of the program's employees reportedly sang a self-mocking song at last month's CCTV Spring Festival party. "No programs are not excellent. No audiences are not loyal. No interviews are not comprehensive," the lyrics went.

Despite the party's strict censorship, some provincial television stations and even other news programs at CCTV have slicked up their presentations, making "Network News Broadcast" look increasingly dowdy by comparison. Nevertheless, it goes out at 7 every night across the country unchanged, relayed by stations in a nationwide hookup that presents a daily picture of life according to the Communist Party of China.

Zhan Jiang, dean of the Journalism and Communication Department at Beijing's China Youth University for Political Sciences, said the 7 p.m. broadcast seems to have been reserved as a last stand by conservative party propaganda authorities reluctant to see the old ways disappear. "We have already provided you with a lot of opportunities," he said he imagines them pleading. "Why can't we save the 'Network News Broadcast' as the last one of our programs?"

When Hu took over as party leader in 2002, academic researchers said, he urged more reporting from the field and more direct broadcasting of people's words, rather than the voice-overs that are standard practice. But he has done little to update the 7 p.m. program's appearance or rigid adherence to party themes, they said, leaving responsibility to mandarins under the leadership of Li Changchun, the party Standing Committee member in charge of propaganda.


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