Great Moments in International Journalism

Philip J. Cunningham at Informed Comment Global Affairs has a great post about Chinese State TV and their Dialogue commentary program. I’m just going to excerpt the funny and historical bit below the fold, but the rest of the discussion, hopeful and realistic, is quite worthwhile. The focus is actually on the collaboration/mutual exploitation relationship between CCTV and Japan’s NHK.

China benefits greatly from being slightly different from what foreigners think it is, either because it is changing so rapidly that old assumptions no longer hold, or because it is so good at throwing up illusions that foreigners find engaging. Expecting tight controls when I first got to CCTV I found the range of speech on CCTV’s premier talk show to be refreshingly open. I was never told what to say or what not to say with one exception, and that was on one of the early live shows.

Minutes before the studio lights went one and the cameras started to roll, I was treated to one of those inimitable and mildly intimidating Chinese compliments which can be read in multiple ways, redolent of inclusion and exclusion, encouragement and enforcement.

“You are the first foreigner invited to talk on Chinese TV about Chairman Mao in a live, unedited broadcast.”

As I took my place facing the immaculately groomed host at the glass table in the main studio, after an admonition to turn off my cell phone and a brief brush over at make-up, I sat in silence trying to gauge the import of the veiled warning implicit in the “first foreigner” compliment. Being bestowed with the status of “first” this or that is not without hidden baggage. It is not so much a tip of the hat to assimilation as a reflection of how cunning and parochial China can be even in this global era.

I thought of Sydney Rittenberg, an American communist who had risen to great heights at China Radio before finding himself imprisoned in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He had achieved notoriety as a “first foreigner” in many categories real and contrived, but got in the most trouble for his outspoken broadcasts on radio.

Being asked to talk about a perennially sensitive topic was as much a bind as a breakthrough in part because it implied a kind of trust. Was I being trusted to talk freely or did being first imply something else? My worst fears were driven home just minutes before show opened when the host whispered to me. “Please don’t say anything about Mao’s women. This is about his political legacy.”

Blame it on the studio lights, but I was sweating by the time the countdown to the live broadcast began.

Host Yang Rui opened the program with a short introduction about Mao’s life, spoken in his naturally authoritative, stentorian voice. His English is astonishingly good, so it must have been my nervousness that caused me to mishear the first question.

“Hello, this is Yang Rui, welcome to Dialogue… What do you think about Mao’s women?”
“Mao’s women?”
“Mao’s women?”
I paused. Why was he putting me on the spot with such a provocative opening? Was it a trick question? A loyalty test?
“Yes. In the Yangtse River.”
“Oh, you mean Mao swimmin’? You mean, like, Mao’s symbolic swim in the river, like in the Yangtse at the start of the Cultural Revolution?”
It was an awkward start to doing live political commentary on China’s state TV, but the cameras kept rolling and Dialogue now goes live as a matter of course.

If it wasn’t being reported here as a personal experience, I honestly would question whether it were an urban legend, it’s so perfect.

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