- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
China’s state-run media, often criticized by foreign news organizations for prioritizing propaganda over news, has come under fire from a source once within its own ranks. Wang Qinglei, a well-known producer at the state-run network China Central Television (CCTV), took to Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, shortly after midnight on Dec. 2 to post an open letter to his former employer, which he claimed had fired him (though CCTV has not confirmed this). Wang called CCTV "a disgrace" and lashed out at the censorship, selective coverage, and violation of professional ethics he had seen during his 10 years at the network. CCTV is a behemoth, with advertising revenues of $2.5 billion in 2012 and viewership in the hundreds of millions, according to an internal survey by the network.
The letter made a splash on Weibo — and censors noticed. Although they quickly deleted Wang’s original post, other users shared the letter from their own accounts; one repost racked up almost 15,000 retweets before it got the axe. Wang’s letter "has already disappeared too many times to count, but everyone continues to repost it," wrote British-Chinese writer Yilin Zhong, who also attached Wang’s letter to her comment. Liu Yun, dean of the Haikou College of Economics in the island province of Hainan, wrote that Wang’s complaints were not an attack on communist orthodoxy, but focused on problems that "someone with even a bit of a brain or a conscience can see." Deleting the letter, Liu continued, showed "a lack of self confidence" on the part of authorities. Sina Weibo also began preventing Wang from gaining additional followers; attempts by this author and numerous other Weibo users to do so failed.
In his letter, Wang complained about the heavy-handed censorship he encountered in the course of his work. He wrote that CCTV received over 1,000 propaganda orders annually, and criticized what he said was the network’s selective coverage. In China, "working in media is like being on a treadmill," Wang explained. "You think you’re moving forward, but you’re really just running in place — or even falling behind." Despite previous clashes with his superiors — Wang was suspended briefly in July 2011 after questioning the government’s handling of a deadly train crash on air — he remained at the network, where he helped produce the popular programs "Face to Face" and "24 Hours." Yet eventually, the conflict between Wang and his superiors reached a breaking point.
CCTV had, in Wang’s words, "gradually lost the public’s trust and become less influential." In particular, Wang criticized the network’s treatment of influential microblogger Charles Xue during a government crackdown on social media that began in earnest in Aug. 2013. "The media is not a court of law," Wang wrote of CCTV’s decision to interview and broadcast Xue’s confession on national television. (Xue remains in detention, though it is unknown whether he has been charged with any crime.) Wang traced his firing to Weibo posts in which he called the coverage of Xue a period "of shame" for network employees, though he specified that the post was not visible to the public and that CCTV had refused to name the offending post or posts.
Wang’s departure from CCTV is not a first for the network. Bai Yansheng, an anchor on the network’s China opera channel, left CCTV in early 2013 and explained why in a June 19 interview with the newsweekly Oriental Outlook: "You can’t do what you really want to there," he said. "I would have been ashamed to stay any longer." Bai hedged his criticisms, stating that he "could not complain about the system" and had perhaps himself been at fault for "having too many opinions." But Wang held nothing back: His may be the only such open letter written by a former CCTV employee in recent memory, and is certainly the most critical.
Despite his complaints about CCTV and the state of censorship in Chinese media, Wang voiced a belief in the network’s potential to "become a credible, influential media outlet" in the near future. But it’s unclear when or how that would happen; CCTV is still required to toe the party line and has done so with gusto in recent months. That obedience, Wang wrote, is making life in China worse: "How can a country give you true sense of security and happiness," he asked, "If even speaking the truth gets you in trouble?"