Archived article

Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television by Ying Zhu

It’s a pity that the name “Stars of CCTV” has been taken by a British pop group, because it would have made the perfect title for Ying Zhu’s account of television in China. It is a long-celebrated irony that CCTV stands as the acronym for both closed circuit television and Chinese Central TV: with their slightly ominous, predatory reputations, the two certainly have many things in common. But Two Billion Eyes portrays CCTV less through its misunderstood public image and more through the words of people who work there. In the process, the network comes across less as a behemoth trying to direct the minds and hearts of China’s billion-strong audience and more as an evolving, confusing and often dynamically dysfunctional mess.

Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television by Ying Zhu
Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television, Ying Zhu (New Press, October 2012)

One thing no one disputes is that CCTV, which grew from a rudimentary operation in Beijing in the 1950s and barely registered for its first two decades (even by 1978, only two million Chinese had television sets), was radically changed by the introduction of advertising in 1979. The network rapidly became a source of profits, and those profits continued to grow. Now, its range of stations playing twenty-four hours in China and abroad generates eye-watering profits for its state masters.

Although information control is still at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities, things have never been more complicated. New provincial television stations are challenging the central monopoly, with Hunan, Zhejiang and Jiangsu TV in particular succeeding in producing commercially viable and popular programs. In Two Billion Eyes Ying Zhu describes a wonderfully cynical interview with a senior executive of Phoenix TV, the late-1990s news and current affairs arriviste from Hong Kong, who berates the stodginess of his previous employers at CCTV and their ability to protect their status through government links and regulatory constraints on their opposition.

The simple fact, though, is that Chinese people, like people everywhere, vote with their feet, and are all too eager to submit to the popular programming disdained by the elites who are still in charge of CCTV. In this light, CCTV staff come across as believers in the same sniffy moral mandate to improve audiences that the BBC or the ABC claim to have.

The great strength of Ying’s book is that it turns the tables a little on the very people who are trying to uphold cultural and social values through broadcasting in China. Ying describes a hilarious encounter with the much-disliked Yang Rui, nemesis of foreign guests who are deemed to criticise China. Her description of his treatment of the Xinjiang riots of 2009 is delicately sardonic. My own encounter with Yang occurred a year earlier in Berlin, where he was chairing a meeting I attended. Yang was dominating the discussion about Western versus Chinese values, and invited a senior retired Chinese official to comment. The official impatiently looked at his watch and then struck the whole event dead by declaring, “It is time for lunch.” Yang obediently wrapped things up.

Ying Zhu captures Yang’s complex persona well by showing that beneath his abrasive manner there is a strong sense of performance that operates perfectly comfortably within the parameters set by his political masters. Therein, of course, lies the rub. CCTV exists in a framework in which the most precious assets of any media – surprise and spontaneity – are in short supply. It is the split between wanting to charm and entertain and wanting to defend and control that is the greatest enemy of CCTV’s credibility.

Ying certainly gained great access during her time in Beijing, and she is able to coax from some of the best-known figures in Chinese broadcasting the kinds of revelations and personal exposure they might try to elicit from their own studio guests. Bai Yansong, for instance, is one of the country’s most experienced anchor men for the main nightly TV news. But his real identity, or at least the one that he refers to in his interview with Ying, is as an intellectual in the old scholarly Confucian tradition. Another CCTV staffer, Li Yong, is almost ubiquitous on entertainment programs; but there is something highly eccentric and edgy about his style (in common with successful performers the world over) that has often tested the patience of his CCTV masters. Li has one overwhelming weapon, though: he brings in vast amounts of revenue and his involvement in a program almost guarantees success. Political correctness in modern China gets trumped by one thing – cash.

This is perhaps the reason for one of Ying’s comments, which is extremely poignant and unintentionally funny at the same time: “CCTV is full of serious-minded creators who regularly experience bouts of… clinical depression.” She refers several times to the idealism that many of her own generation held to in the 1980s when China was at its most open and liberal, but which was corroded by the fallout from the 1989 student uprising. A number of her interviewees talk of how those born since then are untainted by such idealism and more hard-nosed. The fact that CCTV – part of the cultural establishment and an arbiter of values and tastes – is staffed by very clever people who are disaffected and often cynical puts it on a par, in my experience, with similar organisations in Europe and North America. Complaining about falling standards seems to be a default human mode.

Viewers relate to CCTV and its operations within or outside China in different ways, but the Beijing Olympics of 2008 are generally seen as its finest moment. In important respects, though, the CCTV that emerges from this account is much like the Chinese Communist Party – under siege and holding the line against vast and unpredictable forces it has no final game plan to deal with. One of Ying’s interviewees complains that television has been one of the least effectively modernised and marketised sectors in contemporary China. CCTV’s nervousness is clear in its cautious treatment of stories about China, in contrast with its good coverage of international issues.

My own strongest image of CCTV comes from an encounter with one of Yang Rui’s Dialogue colleagues during a conference in Singapore in 2011. Chatting idly at a reception, I asked the presenter whether she felt that Chinese leaders were happy with the soft-power returns on their big investment on the 2008 Olympics. To me, an academic from Britain, it seemed to have conveyed to the rest of the world a complex rather than straightforwardly positive view of China.

The woman looked at me icily, and barked back, “Is the UK in any position to lecture the rest of the world about soft power, with your ridiculous old royal family and silly Kate and William wedding?” With that she marched off, denying me the chance to wholeheartedly agree with her. In this book, Ying shows that CCTV, like that presenter, is keen to speak and lecture but not to listen. Which is a pity. It might be surprised by what gets said to it.


This review first appeared in Inside Story. Reprinted with permission.

Kerry Brown is Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Professor of Chinese Politics, and Team Leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. His most recent book is Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler. For more writings see