January 23, 2013

The first time I got in trouble at China Radio International was for saying it’s OK to drive over the speed limit as long as that’s  the speed of traffic.

I was hosting a show called “China Now,” which aired live in Beijing from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, on a weak AM signal that no one could actually pick up.

The show was also recorded and sent to CRI partner stations in far-flung places like Port Vila, Vanuatu and Monrovia, Liberia. The primary purpose of the show seemed to be to fill three hours of airtime. It was roughly half music, mostly Top 40. My Chinese co-host had a thing for Lady Gaga.

We ran one or two pre-recorded reports per hour, including a seven-minute snoozer about Mahjong filed by a British reporter, and a much shorter and more entertaining piece by a Canadian reporter who visited a prominent Revolution-era Red Army base and asked his interpreter if she had ever wanted to shoot a raccoon with a machine gun. The rest of the time we filled with mostly idle chatter, a little news, a little weather, and the dreaded Topic of the Day.

The Topic of the Day covered subjects from, “What alcohol is popular in your country?” to “Do drivers in your country follow traffic laws?” We had to discuss these topics for about five minutes at the top of every hour. We also had to solicit listener comments, which was curious because no one in Beijing could hear us and everyone else was listening (assuming anyone was listening) on a delayed recording. It was an open secret that all the comments on the website came from within the office. The most frequent commenter was “fallenpink,” who we all knew was the show’s producer.

During the discussion on alcohol I got a string of outraged comments from fallenpink after I said Chinese rice liquor smells bad. In my defense, baijiu smells so bad it has actually inspired some expats to use the stuff for cleaning, with mixed results – good for general cleaning and disinfecting but weak on mildew.

In the first five minutes we talked about whether people follow traffic laws, my co-host and I managed to agree that Chinese drivers generally don’t, which made more discussion difficult. Trying to be helpful I thought back to driver’s-ed class when I was taught that you should drive over the speed limit if that’s the speed of traffic. For reasons still unknown to me, my co-host got extremely upset at this, and we proceeded to have a surprisingly lively discussion about whether it was, in fact, OK to drive over the speed limit under any circumstances.

A few days later, my producer informed me we would all have to stay late that day for a “sound check.” She told me this involved listening to a segment of the show and then discussing what worked and what didn’t. This sort of made sense because unlike radio stations elsewhere, staff at CRI generally don’t listen to the radio. Aside from my co-host, the sound tech, and myself, most of my coworkers would be hearing the segment in question for the first time. I was one of the last to enter the room, and as I strolled in I asked my producer what we’d be listening to.

“You,” she said.

They saved a single chair in the corner of the room opposite the door. That was for me. Everyone else was arranged in a semi-circle around me. In addition to my producer and co-host, there were the half-dozen young women who took turns doing reports and working the soundboards, the manager of the newsroom and the manager of the English service. The only other foreigner in the room was DJ Duggie Day, a middle-aged Scotsman who hosted a music show called “Duggie’s Hot Pot.” (The name of the show was sort of a cross between Paris Hilton and a popular Sichuan dish that involves cooking your own food in a pot of boiling broth.)

The recording droned on for a few minutes as we went through introductions and plugged upcoming segments on the show. The dozen or so people gathered for the sound check looked like kids who’d been given after-school detention. And then the argument about speeding started. Suddenly people were engaged. They were laughing. Some were agreeing, others disagreeing. But they were listening. For a few minutes we approximated interesting radio, and of course that was the problem. When the recording was over my producer asked me for my thoughts.

“I thought it was all pretty dull until the argument started. Then it got interesting,” I said.

“But don’t you think it makes listeners uncomfortable when the co-hosts argue?” asked the producer.

“Well, obviously not. That was the only part people liked.”

This got sheepish grins from my coworkers, exasperation from my producer and awkward silence from the managers, while my co-host stared resolutely at the floor.

For the next 20 minutes different people in the room offered suggestions as to what exactly was wrong with the offending segment, and none of them seemed to stick. This was problematic because the purpose of the discussion was to make it clear that I had done something wrong, and everyone knew I hadn’t. Finally the Scotsman piped up and said “Well, it sounded to me like you was suggestin’ it was OK to break the law.”

Everyone seemed quite relieved at this because here, finally, was a way out. Except it wasn’t, because at that point I was apparently supposed to confess my sins and promise never to do it again, whatever it was, and I failed to play the role properly. So the discussion went around in circles for another 10 minutes before I said, “I think we’ve all said everything we had to say, and I don’t think any agreement is possible. So unless anyone has anything new to say, I’m going home.” No one did, so I left.

A few weeks later I got in trouble again. While preparing the five brief news stories we read every day, I came across an item in China Daily about the trial of a dissident who was accused of subversion for challenging the official account of the number of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; this dissident had also criticized the government response to the “June 4th Incident” (Chinese code for the 1989 crackdown on pro-Democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). I knew the story was probably off-limits, but a state sensor at the China Daily had already vetted it, so I went with it.

While a song was playing shortly after I read the story on air, the human resources manager for the English service came in the studio and whispered in my ear, “We know you got that story from China Daily, and usually that’s OK. But sometimes China Daily is not as official as other sources. And we don’t talk about June 4th on our programs. Please don’t do it again.”

And that was it. No sound check. No inquisition-like proceeding. Just a simple warning. I got in more trouble for saying it was OK to speed than I did for talking about the June 4th Incident.

‘Harmony,’ not ideology, may be motivation

From the outside looking in, Chinese state media looks like a monolithic propaganda machine. On the occasions that Western media feel the need to cite Chinese news sources they invariably preface it with something like “the Party mouthpiece” or “the official government TV channel.” But from the inside, Chinese state media looks a lot more like the lumbering state-owned factories that made such a mess of the Chinese economy until reforms started in the late 1970s. It’s not that they don’t want to be a big propaganda machine. It’s that most of the time they aren’t capable of actually pulling it off.

This is especially true for China’s many clumsy attempts to establish an international media presence. Domestically their propaganda is much more effective. But as recent events in Guangzhou showed, even that is beginning to crack.

The people who work for government media in China are not journalists, and the vast majority aren’t dedicated propagandists. They’re actually a lot like the people who work for the government in other parts of the world. They have all the drive and passion for their work that the people at your local DMV have. They want a steady paycheck and decent benefits without fear of a layoff – China’s “Iron Rice Bowl.” They want pensions, not Pulitzers.

When I started at CRI in July of 2009, the HR manager gave me the same speech he gives all new foreign hires, extolling the virtues of “harmony” in the office. Harmony is a useful concept for the Chinese manager because it includes everything from not stealing pens to not talking about the “Three T’s”: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. It’s sort of taken for granted that people won’t do those things, because that would upset office harmony.

A Canadian DJ who started at CRI about a year after I did found this out when he said on air that the difference between Canada and America is kind of like the difference between Taiwan and China. As the next song was playing his co-host frantically explained that suggesting China and Taiwan are two different countries was “totally wrong”; the co-host told the startled Canadian he would have to apologize after the song, which he did, thereby restoring harmony to his show.

The emphasis on harmony also explains why I got in more trouble for talking about speeding than about Tiananmen Square. Unlike the situation with the confused Canadian, my co-host was not noticeably upset when I read the story about the trial of the dissident, either because he genuinely didn’t care or because he was satisfied that I was swiftly reprimanded by management. But in the speeding argument he felt he had “lost face.”

Causing a co-worker to lose face is just about the worst thing for office harmony, and is very hard to gauge. A different co-host might have been thoroughly uninterested in talking about speeding, but deeply offended by my mention of the “June 4th Incident,” triggering a totally different disciplinary response. On a day-to-day basis, management decisions are driven more by the need to maintain harmony than by Party orthodoxy.

Viewed through the harmony prism, the incident earlier this month at Southern Weekly takes on different meaning. The original staff editorial about constitutional rights was problematic not because it contradicted Party ideology, but because it was unharmonious. The censor responsible then sought to “harmonize” the editorial (Chinese netizens use the same term when censors delete posts or shut down websites deemed offensive).

This often-used ploy backfired when the Southern Weekly staff and some if its readers publicly refused to be harmonized. The official response was conciliatory, leading some observers to see the incident as a hopeful sign for a new direction from China’s new leadership. More likely, the response came down to the simple calculus of harmony.

Leaders probably calculated that a heavy-handed crackdown would have decreased harmony rather than increased it, something leadership desperately wants to avoid as Xi Jinping assumes power.

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Thomas Rippe is a freelance journalist and photographer currently residing in Beijing, where he focuses most of his energy on recovering from three years spent…
Thomas Rippe

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