My Life and Times in Chinese TV

The tower housing the Shanghai Media Group looks like the future pictured in an old movie. The front of the building curves inward, slightly, between frames that peak in enormous antennae. Pollution has grayed its white aluminum cladding. But at the top of twenty-six stories the turquoise logo of the group shines.

The grounds where it stands, on Nanjing West Road, once lay at the edge of the Shanghai International Settlement, the port on the Huangpu River that British generals forced the Qing emperor to hand over in the treaty that ended the first Opium War. A real estate magnate named Silas Hardoon first developed this property in 1903, as part of a twenty-six acre fantasy estate. Born penniless in the Jewish slums of Baghdad, Hardoon came to Shanghai via Bombay, and died the richest man in Asia. His gardens were based on a sketch that a Buddhist monk had drawn of paradise.

My contact had given me instructions in painstaking English. I was to present myself at the SMG gate at ten. Someone from HR would meet me and take me up to the sixteenth floor to sort out paperwork. I was not to forget my passport or the three hundred yuan (about fifty dollars) that I would need to leave as a deposit for my ID.

It started to drizzle as I tramped from the subway to the wrong entrance. When I tried to shortcut across the parking lot and a man in a suit shouted at me “You’re in China!” (meaning, follow rules), I hardly flinched. I was too busy practicing the two sentences that I had prepared to say to the Communist Party official who has invited me to spend this month inside one of the biggest companies run by the Chinese propaganda department. Mr Feng I of truth am too happy to meet you! Thank you for giving me that good chance to penetrate your so excellent company!

Out back, at the proper entrance, an HR employee in a thin pink poncho was waiting for me, frowning through the rain. Introducing herself as Sunny, she led me past the babyfaced army guards, then held me back to let a pack of soldiers running laps around the parking lot grunt past. By the time I was through security and on the sixteenth floor standing still for her colleague to take my picture, the back of my carefully starched blouse was Rorschached with sweat. Sweat had curdled the vanilla body lotion on my sternum.

Sunny Xeroxed my passport and student visa and gave me a document to sign, promising in both Mandarin and English “not to do anything against the Communist Party” for the duration of my stay. Then she showed me to where I would sit. While she went to find me one of the bottles of SMG branded water that stood on each of the empty desks around me, I looked around. This was where the propagandists worked. For the next four weeks I would be one of them, but at 10.30 AM on Monday, the newsroom was deserted. So much the better. I had promised not to do anything against the Party, but my plan for the next four weeks was to be as diligent a double agent as possible. I was going to learn how rising China spins its story to itself.

After winning the Civil War, in 1949, one of the first tasks Mao Zedong set upon was to build a propaganda system. Headed by a member of the Politburo, with Propaganda and Thought Work Leading Groups at the central, provincial, city, and district levels, the supra-bureaucracy he created controlled the political department of the People’s Liberation Army, state-run sectors like culture, technology, and media, and mass organizations, like the Journalists Association. It also placed cadres in every other state agency. This spy network acted as the ermu houshe—“ears, eyes, and tongue”—of the Party, delivering directives and reporting on anyone who failed to comply with them.

Television was not very important during the Mao era. The first national TV broadcast only took place ten years after the founding of the PRC, on May Day, 1958. Beijing Television, the precursor to China Central Television launched on September 2 of that year. (CCTV has remained the most powerful broadcaster in China; today, it has forty-five channels and reaches over 1 billion viewers.) The first regional station, Shanghai TV, followed in October, with Liaoning, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces close behind. Only 26,000 TV sets were manufactured between 1958 and 1965, and most were placed in public settings, where people gathered to watch broadcasts resembling illustrated lectures that aired for several hours, several days per week.

Starting at 7 PM, after a long, static shot of Mao’s portrait with the de facto national anthem, “The East is Red,” playing in the background, Beijing TV viewers would see a talking head praising Party heroes, and reporting on visits from foreign dignitaries or the struggle of the North Vietnamese against American imperialists, occasionally cutting to official footage. Sometimes a movie about the War of Resistance against the Japanese or the Communist triumph over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army followed.

This pattern might have continued indefinitely. But economic collapse after the failure of the Great Leap Forward stalled the development of broadcasting infrastructure, and during the Cultural Revolution many stations shut down altogether. The ones that remained became less ambitious with their programming. A British journalist who visited China in 1970 recalled that Beijing TV’s evening news show devoted eighteen of its twenty-six minutes to scrolling quotations from Mao.

By 1978 fewer than ten million Chinese had access to a television. The economic opening and reform that began that year would change this. Shortly after coming to power, Deng Xiaoping announced that media would begin paying for themselves. On February 28, 1979, Shanghai TV broadcast China’s first commercial, for a health drink called Shen Gui. In the 1980s, the television industry boomed.

Competing for the first time to capture and sell the attention of viewers, channels scrambled to develop new programs. A 1985 survey revealed that now more than half of what aired in any given week was “entertainment”—feature films, sports, drama, music, and dance. Many channels experimented with “man on the street” interviews, and began borrowing international coverage from foreign news organizations. Others started syndicating shows from Hong Kong and the United States, including old episodes of Columbo and Star Trek. Although the government still owned and controlled them, for the first time, media companies could pursue their own commercial interests, and viewers could choose from a wide range of things to watch. They watched in droves. In 1989 alone, Mainland the Chinese bought 27.67 million television sets, and CCTV received less funding from the state than it paid back in taxes.

After Tiananmen, the consensus within the CCP was that loosening of propaganda controls had gone too far. The Party had to forestall demands for freedom of expression while continuing reforms to make the country rich. In the early 1990s, the Party began to sell off low-performing state enterprises and allowed foreigners to buy up to 20-30 percent of those that the government kept—including telecommunications. After unprofitable media firms had been sold off, the remaining channels and networks were consolidated, and adopted more flexible hiring and firing practices. The CCP Organization Department put trusted people in top positions. These children of military leaders, or self-made men who had built strong credentials in the bureaucracy—for example, through work in the Communist Youth League—now oversaw increasingly fluid staffs.

In 1998 the Ministry of Propaganda changed its English name to the “Ministry of Publicity.” The Chinese word, xuanchuan, does not have negative connotations; it just means “to transmit information.” But China was gunning to become a member of the World Trade Organization, and “publicity” made what the Party calls “thought-work” (sixiang gongzuo) sound friendly and open for business. Regional media companies went through dramatic restructurings to help them compete with the foreigners that the country had to let in when it did join the WTO in late 2001. By the mid-2000s, from the outside, the conglomerates that survived looked more or less like their western counterparts, NewsCorp, or Bertelsmann. But inside CCP appointees still ran things in unaccountable ways.

At first, many western observers mistook the economic liberalization Deng had started for political liberalization—or at least a step in that direction. When Rupert Murdoch acquired China’s STAR TV satellite network in 1993, he boasted that “telecommunications . . .  have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere,” only to have Prime Minister Li Peng ban satellite dishes throughout the country until Murdoch made concessions, dropping BBC channels from the STAR package. To those who had been trained to assume that freer markets always lead to democracy, the continued existence of a bureaucracy devoted to “thought-work” felt like a mystifying holdover from midcentury.

In February, shortly after I learned that I would be going to Beijing Normal University for the summer for an intensive language program, I started scheming about how to get out of the classroom and library. A friend from a more practical type of grad school, a pretty Pakistani with an Oxbridge arch in her voice who would be working at the Shanghai sovereign wealth fund for the summer, offered to put me in touch with a student from her program. His father, she said, was an important man; he should be able to help me find something. I ironed my blazer and met him for lunch.

“Culture and media!” the important man’s son laughed, when I told him my areas of interest. He seemed used to people asking for bigger favors than finding somewhere to let them work for free. But he agreed to pass on my resume. I went home and wrote a cover letter, sent it off, and after a quick ricochet of emails, received an invitation from the assistant to one Mr. Feng. Would I like to visit Shanghai Media Group, more specifically its International Channel, for the month of May?

Shanghai Media Group was one of the largest of the conglomerates that appeared in the early 2000s. It comprised 29 TV channels, 11 radio channels, 10 newspapers and magazines, 4 new media platforms, over 10 billion RMB in assets and 10,000 employees.

In 2008, the directors of SMG created the International Channel Shanghai (ICS), to help promote the International Expo that the city was putting on in 2010. ICS featured a mix of English and Chinese-language programming. The website was checkered with thumbnails for talking heads and reality programs. A LIVE TV/直播表 icon to the right led me to an intro video of the group frolicking in postcard sites around the city while a voiceover trumpeted: With twenty-four hours of English broadcasting, we connect Shanghai to the world! A banner showed a dozen presenters in suits and sequined dresses, striking poses of studied casualness. At least one third were clearly waiguoren, foreigners.

I wrote an email to my dissertation supervisor saying that I had hit upon a “rare opportunity to enrich my understanding of cultural production under conditions of state ownership,” and I booked my plane ticket.

Most of my first morning in the ICS newsroom I idled, awkwardly, lurching up to meet each of my neighbors as they trickled in. They were: a tomboy named Shimer, a girly girl whose iPhone crescendoed constantly from vibrate into a shuddering refrain of Akon’s “Smack That,” and another intern, a grinning college kid who had spent one year of high school in Ohio and peppered me with questions about whether I liked American things he liked. Did I like Billy Joel? Did I like Inception?

Across the newsroom were two white-haired white guys I later learned were Brits, to whom SMG had offered salary hikes to come over from Hong Kong after the handover in 1998. Hiring outsiders has become more and more common since then. ICS keeps a small permanent staff, and hires many producers on short-term contracts, who in turn subcontract work to independent companies on a project-by-project basis. The Brits, as far as I could tell, were paid to be British, and for the sense of history that they brought to a staff otherwise entirely under fifty. Both seemed to spend most of their time browsing the Economist website or chain smoking in the tea closet.

Shortly before noon, another woman called me across the floor. A fortyish year old Shanghai native with purple half-moons under her eyes, Joyce had a Masters in Cultural Studies from the University of Sussex and spoke clear, if sometimes halting, English. She ran ICS’s two most successful programs, both reality shows licensed under a copyright cooperation with ABC Disney: a Chinese-language version of Top Chef called “You Are the Chef” and a version of The Amazing Race called “China Rush.” Joyce claimed that 20 percent of the Shanghai population—four and a half million people—watched both shows every week.

Having established that I couldn’t read Chinese well enough to work the editing beds downstairs, she asked if I wanted to check subtitles. Chinese subtitles? No: their English programming ran English subtitles, for Chinese students of the language who constituted a core demographic. I could watch and read and make sure that they said what the people on screen were saying. The Billy Joel fan, showed me down to one of the editing cells on the fourteenth floor. I put the tape in, put on headphones, took in a few minutes. The contestants were lined up in China Rush tracksuits on the Bund.

“Being Chinese doesn’t give us any advantages!” affirmed one muscular contestant who identified himself as an “Experience Trainer.” Being Chinese doesn’t give us any advantages: check.

“This was a good chance to see a completely different side of a country that I haven’t seen before,” said an American called Jack White. Good chance: check.

Boredom quickly had me checking the clock. By the time my first fellow foreigner loped in I had my Longchamp in hand to go. Josh was a thirty-something Bihari with a Canadian passport. He had grown up in Pakistan and Qatar, but the dominant affect he exuded was Northern California calm with a dash of self-parodying homeboy. Whenever we came in or out of the building together he would alley-oop his ID card with a whaddup to the young army guard who scanned it. When I introduced myself, and recited my explanation of what I was doing—I was a graduate student in film and media trying to gain international experience—he let out an arpeggio of incredulity.

“They stuck you up in here?”

Josh had come to Shanghai six years ago to take a job teaching history at an international school, but got disillusioned with the rampant culture of cheating and with the bribes that wealthy parents used to smooth it over. He started at ICS as a producer but soon decided “upstairs” was a headache. Now his title was “copy editor.” In practice he wrote, and often read the voiceover for, nearly all the English text that ICS aired.

Over the next few days, I would gather how it worked. By “upstairs,” Josh meant the officials appointed to SMG by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), the government agency that oversaw those media. Stories got written in Chinese, run by the propaganda authorities for approval, then translated into English. Because it was cheaper to pay locals than foreigners to do this, the “girls” downstairs took a first stab at the translation and then passed drafts to Josh. He ironed out their English. Then Chinese senior editors reviewed the final cuts, and passed them back “up” for approval from the censors.

Early my second week, Josh loped in to find me reading emails at my desk, and left his Kangol hat on. “Yo. We’re getting lunch.” He added, in the elevator, “I’m going to tell you how shit works here.”

In the small Tiki lodge themed cafe that abutted the parking lot, over a Hawaiian pizza that the waiter served, still hissing from the microwave, he did.

“How’s your Chinese?”

I tilted my hand back and forth to say so-so.

“You know guanxi, right?”

The word means “connections” or “relationship.” It suggests that you belong to a network of trust, within which you can ask others to do things for you, and will reciprocate their favors. I had seen books advising foreign businessmen on how to understand it for sale on street stands all over the city.

Josh leaned on the honking first syllable as if lampooning a New Yorker: “Gwanshee. The presenters? Every one of them is some Party guy’s girlfriend. I am literally the only person here not because of some connection.” Josh had a two-part theory. SMG might be profitable overall, but the only reasons that they kept ICS running at what were surely losses, after it had served its original purpose of promoting the 2010 Expo, were so that (a) functionaries could keep sleeping with presenters and (b) the indifferent kids of low-end higher-ups who bombed the gaokao, the college entrance exam, could get cushy jobs as producers or cameramen. Bosses enjoyed perks like the BMW glinting outside our window. Producers got the hongbaos, red envelopes fat with cash, that the subjects of stories handed over as thank yous after a shoot had finished.

When I asked whether having international programs did not confer a prestige that SMG wanted to cultivate, Josh shrugged. “I have been here for three years and I have literally never met anyone who watches us. Have you ever watched us?”

I had to admit I had not.

Back at my desk, I wondered whether he was right. Could ICS really just be a cover for old-fashioned cronyism and patronage? If so, what were we doing there?

I opened a new Safari window and tried to find polite words to ask my contact, could he tell Mr. Feng that it did not seem that there was much for me to do, so far, and could I maybe help out on shoots for City Beat, the lifestyle show, instead? I typed into the subject line: Internship Problem. The next morning a producer named Zhang Xian texted to ask whether I would like to go with her to interview Burn the Floor, a ballroom dance troupe with a popular TV show that had come to Shanghai to perform a three-nights-only engagement at the Grand Theater. I asked where to show up.

When I arrived at the fourteenth floor elevator bank, Zhang Xian was waiting. She wore a loose linen chemise over bootcut jeans, with white canvas sneakers. Stray glints of silver threaded her no-nonsense ponytail, but she stood straight as a schoolgirl who has been told to imagine that she must keep an imaginary thread running from her tailbone to the top of her head pulled taut. Zhang Xian turned out to have been a dancer herself. She performed in the National Ballet in the 1980s and 1990s. Hence, she explained, her interest in the Burn the Floor story.

In the ICS branded VW bug that took us to the Grand Theater, Zhang Xian explained how this was supposed to go. Nine out of ten City Beat spots began when either one of the ICS managing editors, or an outside PR person, got in touch with a City Beat producer. If the producer agreed, once she had run the pitch by the authorities in-house, she prepared interview questions. These sheets, called “scripts,” included prompts in parentheses, suggesting answers to the interviewees. The sheets went to Josh for copy edits; then, the head producer on the project would go with a cameraman, or send someone, to do the shoot. She would almost always cut and submit it for approval herself. Above their low base salary, producers’ pay was tied to how many of their spots aired. The rigmarole could take weeks. By the time most spots aired, the exhibition or performance they were reporting had often ended.

As soon as we stepped out of the car, I regretted having offered to carry sound equipment. The temperature was in the nineties, and sweat had already started dotting the back and stomach of my sundress. The skirt glommed onto my thighs, as the cameraman and I followed cucumber-cool Zhang Xian at a quick clip through backstage caverns of Stalinist hugeness. We finally found Burn the Floor in one of the rehearsal rooms on the third floor, warming up. Dozens of dancers fell to the floor and rolled to reconstitute a kind of Pilates rhizome; we shot two full minutes of their tensed legs keeping time to the sighs of “Stereo Love” with synchronized flutter kicks. Then the choreographer paused the music, and summoned two of the dancers to step out with us.

The sunlight was best in the main lobby. In an atrium just off it, we posed the partners the choreographer had selected—a brassy Miami girl and a jacked silent type who turned out to be Croatian, and her real-life boyfriend—in front of a lone tangle of a sculpture. It went something like this:

1)    How you became dancer (story)

2)    Your first time in China?

3)    Impressions of Shanghai (good; compare other cities)

4)    Does Chinese audience like Burn the Floor?

5)    Where next (Xi’an)

6)    Let’s take a look!

They supplied the expected answers enthusiastically. Yes, the one from Miami answered, they had been to China before. Shanghai was cool. Chinese audiences loved Burn the Floor! They were privileged to be performing with (etc). The Croat pronounced the name of the city that was the next stop on their tour like the last name of Charlie Sheen. When it came time for 6) he spun his lover like a top on her tango heels. Our cameraman shadowed them, crouching, around the atrium in crab-like sidesteps.

Burn the Floor went on stage at seven. The house was packed with Chinese viewers, smartly dressed. We shot clips of hip-hop, ballroom, and a mass swing routine, and then bolted out to the lobby to try to get Audience Reactions. A rumor was going through the crowd that the actress Fan Bingbing was going to attend, but there was no sign of her entourage; everyone seemed to deflate. As the bell started dinging people to return to their seats, smiling impishly, Zhang Xian turned the cameraman on me.

“What should I say?”


“It was… fun?” I struggled to remember anything more concrete. “Really packed. People were dancing in the aisles.”

“Aisles?” Zhang Xian asked.

In the SMG car that she told to drop me off at the subway, before returning to the office to file her tapes, Zhang Xian explained that what we had just shot would not appear on ICS for a few weeks—until long after Burn the Floor had left the country. The point was not to inform viewers about a specific cultural event that they could attend, but to record that such an event had happened, and let the ICS audience participate in two to two and a half minutes of its afterglow.

As I ducked out to get on the 2 line at the Nanjing West Road station I caught a glimpse of the tail end of Zhang Xian’s notes. Next to my name, she had scribbled down 跳舞的空气, tiaowu de kongqi—“the dance of air.”

The other shoots I went to followed a similar pattern of finding safe foreign events to publicize. I conducted half an hour of interviews on camera at a charity golf tournament that a Marriott outside the city hosted to benefit an NGO dedicated to reforestation. If the sponsors were aware of the irony of throwing such an event on a golf course, it got lost in the sunburning, daytime-drunk cheer with which my hosts, employees of Marriott, took me to maitais, foot massages, ice cream, tempura, champagne, oysters, and more at each of eighteen holes. I declined to help the producer shoot a shorter spot for a Swiss watch manufacturer, but he persisted lecturing me with touching earnestness about the long tradition of watchmaking in Switzerland and the high quality of Swiss craftsmanship.

It was all starting to seem so obvious that I felt dumb for not having figured it out sooner. The Department of Propaganda may not have had any mysterious purpose in renaming itself a Department of Publicity. It had become an association of what were effectively PR companies, like ICS, making advertisements—if not for individual products, then for the high life available in China’s booming coastal cities. Slicker than CNN, more aggressively confident than CNBC, it was our own publicity apparatus refracted back to us—in a country where largesse and wealth still carried the scent of overall growth, rather than sour, curdled privilege.

I spent my last Saturday in Shanghai on a shoot that finally seemed to have some critical-investigative potential: a second annual “consulate crawl” sponsored by the Shanghai Historic House Association. The SHHA had been founded to protest the roughshod destruction of sites across the city in the name of development, particularly in the lead up to the 2010 Expo. China has little tradition of historic preservation; Chinese organizations to protect sites remain thin on the ground and subject to harassment. The fact that the consulates were hosting meant that it had the support of “foreign friends.” The producer was a freelancer, a Chinese Canadian girl named Angie, whom I had never met, but whom Josh said was a sweetheart—the type who split her hongbao with her cameraman, fifty-fifty.

The week before, Angie had asked me to assemble any information about the SHHA that I found interesting. But any time I floated a potential question about buildings that had been damaged or disappeared, her forehead pleated into a frown.

“There are things we cannot say on camera,” Angie told me on the day of, in our car en route to our first stop, the British consulate. Although the government is far less strict with English language than with Chinese programming (it is laboring and rural masses the Party fears, not bilingual urbanites), there were certain words that are off limits in any context.



I paused. “What are you supposed to say if Taiwan comes up?”


Predictably, Taiwan did not come up in connection with the Shanghai historical society. But neither did any of the ostensible concerns of the historical society. We took interviews on the gratitude of Chinese historians to the European donors, and exterior shots of handsome buildings that the society could ultimately do nothing to protect. It was June 8, an auspicious date, and in the square where we finished, behind a famous Anglican church where J. G. Ballard went to grade school, were half a dozen bridal parties posing or jumping, Steinchen-like, for cameras.

No one ever went off script. When I sat with Zhang Xian or Rick or Angie in one of the frigid editing cells, watching them cut and finalize footage on the SMG’s proprietary software before sending it “upstairs,” I saw that they had little to worry about. Most of what we shot had no content, other than to publicize acts of publicity. There were structures in place to make sure that nothing anyone could say would matter.

I had gone to volunteer my services to the International Channel Shanghai expecting to find the place strange, Orwellian and slightly dangerous. I had naively hoped to ferret out a few state secrets. What I found was not propaganda in the grim midcentury sense. Rather than apparatchiks, we had presenters in miniskirts, faces dewy with an aerosol spray that held their makeup and made them all smell like flour. The scripts I read were not injunctions to follow Mao Zedong Thought but ejaculations of positivity about new products.

At the time, I felt baffled by the banality of it all. In retrospect, it is easy to see why ICS felt familiar. The contemporary Communist Party has gotten adept at adapting western techniques to serve its own interests. And the reach of their media is steadily increasing. Before going to Shanghai, I had seen ads for CCP-sponsored Chinese acrobats on New York City buses; when I returned, I was startled to find copies of China Daily, the English language version of the official CCP paper, for sale in sidewalk vending machines in Brooklyn.

The year and a half since I left has been full of momentous developments for the publicity system. Part of an explosion of new joint ventures between Chinese and American conglomerates, SMG has established a huge company with DreamWorks. At the same time, since assuming chairmanship in November 2012, Xi Jinping has launched a series of Party initiatives to discipline domestic media and foreign journalists. A new wave of old fashioned propaganda posters have appeared all over the country. “Sing a Folk Song for China!” they exhort passersby. For younger generations in the country’s wealthy cities, no doubt, these carry a certain retro sheen.

But what did we want from Shanghai? Why did foreigners, who knew more than I did, stay to staff places like ICS, to play tokens of themselves for an uncertain audience, and why does the place draw my mind back? I do not think it was only to live higher for cheaper than we could have in Europe or the US. Was it an anxious conviction that our culture was on the brink of its own collapse—and that studying China might be good insurance for when the country called in our debts? Or was it the chance to recognize what another system had found worth aspiring to—the hope of glimpsing, in all the meaningless products and parties, what once struck others as compelling in our own brand?

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