For three decades, Cui Yongyuan has been one of China’s national treasures. As a veteran television presenter for CCTV (China’s BBC), Cui’s career was made by this state-controlled broadcaster. So his recent talk in London – entitled ‘An Idealist’s commitment and compromise’ – caught my attention for its political undertone. Could he have been talking about the compromises he had to make as a Chinese journalist? To my delight, Cui spoke about this – and more.
‘When the Chinese emigrate to democracies, to civilised nations, they enjoy the freedom of the system,’ Cui told the Chinese audience. ‘But they become patriotic to the point of dogma, such that no one can voice a single ill of China. But we, as Chinese people, must be aware of the shortcomings of our own system, and be ready to criticise it.’ In a seemingly innocuous statement, Cui was, in reality, criticising the Chinese autocracy. Putting it in starker terms later: ‘The Chinese media cannot achieve objectivity.’ Coming from a national treasure – as loved in China as Paxman or Attenborough here – his candour was extraordinary.
Twenty years ago, Cui rose to fame with his first show, Tell It Like It Is, loved for its authenticity and, more importantly, for Cui’s personality. Even back then, he was unafraid to break from tradition. But in 2013, he was embroiled in a social media scandal over the harms of GM food. Portrayed as superstitious and stubborn, Cui fell from grace – and the public eye. Not long after, he left CCTV to become a lecturer at his alma mater, the Communication University of China.
Perhaps it is this departure that saw him speak so frankly. On the differences between the BBC and CCTV, he said, ‘the main thing about public-service broadcasters like the BBC is their objectivity and ability to cater for a variety of opinions… CCTV could never achieve objectivity. From my first day there, they made it clear that the channel is an instrument for the party.’ To hammer the point, he concludes, ‘all of us in this room know this’.
And that’s the most striking point – the fact that actually, everyone in the room did know. Unlike the North Koreans, who do appear to have had the wool pulled over their eyes and seem to believe that the only thing between them and a US-led armageddon is their Glorious Leader, the Chinese, whether abroad or at home, understand the true nature of their government. In fact, this audience were so comfortable with their knowledge that only hearty laughter met Cui’s ever-more-loaded jokes.
‘I walked into the room and I saw two [Chinese] embassy staff here. My first thought was, they’re here to make sure I don’t say anything wrong!’ Cue laughter. Later on, during a very frank discussion where Cui nonchalantly volunteers that he’s sought out and read banned books, he jokes that censorship is victim to reverse psychology. In fact, the banned material is likely to be more popular as a result. ‘I hope, then, that the video of this talk will be banned as soon as it is online!’ Again, laughter.
The Chinese are not unknowing sheep shepherded along by rising standards of living. With information easier to access than ever before, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Chinese person who doesn’t know about the censorship and the one-sided reporting. But the people are willing participants – most of the time. The aim of the game is to dance the right steps, say the right things, all the while avoiding the elephant in the room – at least in public. But whenever someone like Cui comes along and brazenly tells us what we all know, it is absolutely delightful.
‘In reality, I can’t change things,’ he lamented. ‘But I don’t want to be changed by them.’ This, to him, is how an idealist compromises in modern China.