Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 9

The answer from expert Pan Zhenqiang was hardly what a viewer would normally expect, given the usual ideological tilt of CCTV, the state operated China Central Television. Speculating on the death of Saddam Hussein as U.S. forces entered Baghdad in April, CCTV anchor Li Maoqi asked Pan: “Are other Arab leaders uncomfortable because Saddam is like them? Are they insecure?” “With Saddam gone,” Pan responded in the live interview, “there will be American democracy –shocking news to these leaders.”

This response was perhaps shocking even to Chinese leaders, whose news media have formally supported the position that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was designed to seize the country’s oil and establish hegemony throughout the world. U.S. President George W. Bush couldn’t have said it better.

Unprecedented Access To Information

The conversation was a fleeting example of the unprecedented access to news and ideas that the Chinese leadership allowed Chinese audiences during the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Unlike the virtually complete news blackout that was enforced during the 1991 war against Iraq, and the tight control of coverage of the attacks in September 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the news media seemed free this time around to report events hour-by-hour. And this coverage was often–albeit not too often–free of ideological detritus. Dozens of Chinese correspondents were sent abroad to cover the action, although, ostensibly for reasons of safety, the government later recalled those who reached Baghdad.

Chinese television carried in full–through a CNN live feed with translation–George W. Bush’s March speech that opened the hostilities. It later offered straight reporting of a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney and showed the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad.

Five days after the fighting started, Xinhua concluded that “the performance of the U.S. military has exceeded all expectations.”

Here’s another example from the end of March, when U.S. and British forces were struggling. Reporter Li Donghong from the People’s Liberation Army daily, Beijing Jiefangbao, threw a loaded question at Fan Gaoyue, identified in a printed interview only as a military expert. “Due to the stubborn resistance of the Iraqi forces positioned in the cities,” said Li, “the U.S. and British coalition troops seem to be isolated and the safety of their supply lines seems to have become a big issue. What made the coalition forces decide on this battle deployment that has left them dangerously vulnerable?”

But instead of taking the opportunity to denounce coalition strategy, Fan responded:

“The US military has mobilized ground forces at an early stage for the following many reasons. One reason is that the U.S.-British coalition forces have absolute control of the air space. The ground forces are in no danger of facing attacks from the air and air forces can be swiftly summoned if they encounter resistance.

“The second reason is that the Iraqi military has not built strong defensive positions as they did during the Gulf War. The third reason is that the US-British coalition forces have extremely advanced military equipment. The coalition forces can still conduct ‘no-contact warfare’ by suppressing the adversary with powerful ammunition even if they encounter resistance on the ground.

“The fourth reason is that ground battles are necessary sooner or later if Saddam’s regime is to be overthrown. Because of Baghdad’s symbolic significance, early actions are better. Baghdad’s fall will imply that Saddam’s regime has been overthrown and will force other Iraqi troops to surrender without a fight.”

The armchair generals hired by CNN, MSNBC or Fox TV could have said it better.

But Chinese Media Workers Say No Change

Did the news flow indicate a new era of uncensored access to news and information in China under the leadership of party General Secretary and State President Hu Jintao? Hardly. Even as the war news flowed relatively freely in China, the leadership kept the lid on reporting related to the outbreak in Guangdong of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). And as the war news fell off the front pages, the press and television returned to their usual ideologically slanted news commentary and reporting.

“Western observers who said that the coverage of the Chinese media’s report on Iraq reflected the government’s softening control…have made a big mistake,” says a Chinese editor who shall remain otherwise unidentified.

But changes were noticeable, says a People’s University specialist in the broadcast media who shall also remain unidentified.

“Many noticed the amazing change of CCTV,” the academic said. “CCTV could keep balanced reports because China is not involved. As for the SARS outbreak, it concerns China’s stability, image and economy. The two issues cannot be equal in some way. But there are still changes since there are plenty of information sources now, and the government cannot control the flow and has to come to face the media.”

But control was firmly maintained, usually through the state news agency, Xinhua, and CCTV. And, said the editor, the reasons broader coverage was permitted was a lot more basic and material than simply trying to maintain civil relations with the United States, no matter what.

“All the local papers were compelled to use Xinhua’s reports and forbidden to use their own reports and internet sources,” said the editor, who added:

“Local TV stations also were forced to use CCTV’s reports, not their own sources or foreign agencies’ stories. This option was meant to protect the government media’s interests. As a result, all the newspapers lost a great portion of profit, because their coverage was not able to compete with national government newspapers and agencies. None of local newspapers made great money during the war, in comparison with the Afghanistan War or the 911 [attacks].

“CCTV’s over-zealous, passionate live broadcasting on the Iraq war had two purposes. First, to monopolize thinking on the Iraq war. It is a controversial war. Experts and thinkers had quite different attitudes toward the war. Some strongly opposed the American action, while some supported it considering it as a righteous war against dictatorship.”

The editor further noted, “But, you can see only one attitude through CCTV’s reports, that is: The United States is evil, it wants to control Middle East’s oil and monopolize the world. Second, it [CCTV] wants to lure people’s eyes to international affairs while at the same time neglecting their own risk, which of course is SARS. The evidence which can support my opinion is that all levels of propaganda departments gave orders before the war to papers and TV stations, forbidding them from using sources on the net and from publishing their own comments.”

Profit Motive

When Chinese leaders initially limited TV coverage of the September 2001 attacks in New York to a brief bulletin, angry viewers switched to Phoenix television, a Hong Kong-based cable and satellite station available throughout the country. Obviously, Chinese leaders did not intend to repeat that mistake during the Iraq fighting. Li Xiguang, once a Xinhua firebrand and now a news media critic and academic dean of the new journalism program at Tsinghua University, pointed out to the South China Morning Post: “In this competitive age, you have to cover these events live or you lose your audience.” According to the People’s University’s media expert, CCTV ratings during the Iraq war were twenty-eight times greater than in 2001.

Some Reporters Get Close

CCTV’s top reporter in the field, Shui Junyi, apparently decided the story was not worth dying for and declared “the easy way is to stay away.” But among the most admired Chinese journalists was Luqiu Luwei, a woman reporter from the Phoenix, who remained in Baghdad during the fighting.

Reporter Michael An reached Baghdad after the war broke out, although he had trouble getting a visa from the Baghdad government. The operations of his newspaper, the weekly 21st Century World Herald, which is part of the often outspoken Nanfang Daily group based in Guangzhou, were suspended before the war ended. Officials closed the paper because of articles it carried criticizing government figures. Few other Chinese reporters got close to the action. Xinhua’s Zheng Jin reported “braving a heavy rain” to check out Incirlik airbase in Turkey to see if U.S. planes were taking off to bomb northern Iraq. “All that was to be seen were a few aerial refueling or passenger planes taking off and landing,” Zheng Jin reported.

Anti-US Opinions and Commentary

The Chinese news media predictably took daily opportunities to attack U.S. positions, attitudes and values. Headlined stories that could be considered anti-American outnumbered, often two to one, headlined stories that reported coalition achievements. Of ten top headlines in the People’s Daily’s online Chinese site on April 29, nine referred to SARS and the 10th read: “US Troops Shoot Dead 15 Iraqis in Crowd–Jazeera.”

While The New York Times headlined its April 3 story: “Troops Close in on Baghdad after Rapid Dash with Little Fight,” the English-language China Daily’s headline read: “U.S. Meets Sporadic Resistance in 2-Prong Attack near Baghdad.” In its April 7 Hong Kong edition, China Daily carried a typical headline: “Baghdad Remains Defiant As More U.S. Troops Close In.” The news agency story that followed contained nothing to support the claim of defiance.

Commentary, as expected, promoted China’s positions and reflected the stance of opposition news media elsewhere in the world. China’s news media was not alone in its opposition to the war. “The much trumpeted principles of independence, objectivity and fairness of the U.S. media appear to have failed to pass the test of the Iraq war,” writer Li Heng proclaimed on April 7 in the lead commentary on the People’s Daily’s online website.

The writer noted that Chinese reporters at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar were subject to what were called the “three don’ts”–that is, no reporting on casualties and on current and future military operations. The conclusion the writer drew: “Freedom of the press consistently paraded by the west is attached with a string of conditions.” Xinhua reporter Li Baodong later wrote: “In the light of the U.S. military’s ‘three not permitted’ policy, there was no point in being at the news center.”

Xinhua reporters Dong Lixu and Wu Meihong quoted Li Guofu, a Middle East expert from the China International Issues Research Institute. Li said that: “The war is an attempt by the United States…to build U.S.-dominated international relations in the new century…even though the U.S. is powerful, it cannot do whatever it likes and will have to return to the United Nations after the war.”

Commentator Guo Yijun wrote on April 1 in People’s Daily Online that “not only does the United States need to win the warfare…it must also gloriously win the warfare….unfortunately, judged by the present situation, this situation can hardly arise….The tough Iraq resistance….has proved that these all-conquering U.S. soldiers have their own ‘Achilles heels.'” But from time to time, nuggets illuminating the U.S. position made it through the system. “Iraq will not become a Vietnam-style quagmire,” Dr. Liu Jianfei of the International Issues Research Institute was quoted as saying on April 1 on the same web site. He was disputing what even some U.S. commentators were contending, “because the United States absolutely has the capability to win this war.”

Arnold Zeitlin, a former correspondent and executive with The Associated Press and United Press International, was director for three years of the Freedom Forum Asian Center in Hong Kong until it closed last December 31.