By Qian Gang — This has been a winter of unusual weather patterns in China’s media landscape. And the latest drop in temperature came on November 28, as many television viewers in China discovered they could no longer receive programs from Hong Kong-based Sun TV. It is clear now that Sun TV broadcasts to the mainland through the government-operated Asia-Pacific Six satellite have been terminated.
How is it that this “small-scale” network specializing in cultural programming with no direct news coverage has fallen afoul of Chinese authorities?
I have watched Sun TV for a few years now. It was back in 2008 that I came across “Cause” (论衡), which caught me a bit off guard. Sun TV CEO Chen Ping (陈平) opened up the conversations himself, or served as anchor, and I found this unusual.
[Sun TV CEO Chen Ping appears on the program Zi Ye.]
One day in 2009, I saw the program “Zi Ye” (子夜) for the first time. The program was organized into so-called “seasons,” each consisting of at least ten 25-minute episodes. All of the episodes in a “season” dealt with a single topic, and they were broadcast through the week in a kind of unbroken discussion, even over the weekend.
There have been ten seasons of “Zi Ye” already. Large-scale discussion programs of this sort are a rare find, and I was particularly astonished by its boldness of vision.
In “Cause, “Zi Ye” and a number of other Sun TV programs, it gradually became clear to me that this network was blazing its own very unique trail.
In addition to providing viewers with history and culture programs purchased overseas, its own oral history programs, and documentaries, Sun TV also began developing in-depth discussion programs that served as platforms for the serious exchange of ideas (思想谈话节目). The network eventually did a complete makeover of its image and programming, focusing on strongly branded discussion programs running for more than 30 hours a week.
The launch of “Cause” happened to correspond with the onset of the global financial crisis. Conversations at Sun TV offered many perspectives at the time that I found unique and incisive, and which immediately drew me in.
One major flashpoint of the economic crisis has been the “fictitious economy”, but what were the real underlying causes of the crisis? In Chen Ping’s view it was over-capacity of production and undersupply of resources, and one of the deeper causes was that industrial civilization is in decline.
As far as China was concerned, the causes of this crisis were external, at least on the surface. But there were more fundamental causes, in Chen Ping’s view, that were internally derived. The proportion of domestic demand in China’s economy has been steadily shrinking, particularly private demand, while state consumption is rising steadily. In China, the development of new technologies and related mechanisms is lagging behind, and the availability of resources is a problem growing worse by the day.
For Chen, the global economic crisis is a signal that humanity can no longer be dependent on a linear model of production and development based on the consumption of non-renewable resources. We have reached a point where industrial civilization must give way to an ecological civilization. And this is China’s critical juncture too.
China faces immense challenges as it attempts a transitional leap from a traditional Chinese post-authoritarian age to a modern democratic industrial civilization, and from an early industrial civilization to a democratic and ecologically sound society.
Many of the conversations on Sun TV chat programs have dealt with social transition and political reform in China, and sparks of thought have been flying off everywhere.
“Our middle class in China is already of substantial size. The structure of our society already sits in many ways on the eve of massive change,” said People’s University of China professor Wen Tiejun (温铁军). “The key to whether a nation can continue to develop its base of wealth and whether its economy can sustain its growth is whether or not it has a good political system,” said China University of Political Science and Law professor Cai Dingjian (蔡定剑).
“Political reform relies on the one hand on strong political leaders who are clear-minded. It relies on the other hand on the grassroots, including those inside and outside the party, and including popular [or non-governmental] actors,” said Central Party School professor Wang Changjiang (王长江).
Chen Ping’s discourse has a thick reformist bent. He firmly believes that humanity has shared universal values, and he is staunchly opposed to the use of “national circumstances” as a billy club to beat down those who explore the idea of political reform. At the same time, he advocates taking a clear look at China’s history and present, making an earnest and true reading of China’s national circumstances.
When describing China’s history, Chen talks about a transition from “sovereign rule to party rule to popular rule” (君主→党主→民主). He believes that China’s democratic foundations are weak because China has traditionally lacked a cultural sense of the value of the natural person, and a belief in rights and equality.
Here is Chen Ping on “party rule” as a transitional phase:
Party rule is a preparation for democracy, and the age of party rule is a necessary precondition of the arrival of democracy. Party rule can also be seen as a particular historical era, a special form of elite democracy.
Chen approves of the idea that democratic politics could emerge peacefully from party rule, but he confesses that “the most intractable thing to deal with here is [the protection] of vested interests [by party leaders].”
On the program “Cause,” Chen Ping engaged in a dialogue with China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) professor Xu Xiaonian (许小年) about “using pardon and redemption to break through resistance to change.” This conversation made a deep impression on me.
Since the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party has mulled the idea of sunshine measures that would set up a personal income reporting system for public officials. But to this day no progress has been made on this front. Vested interests have now become the most significant impediment to reform. At the same time, the influence of vested interests is the most basic reason why monopoly enterprises have avoided tackling necessary reforms.
Xu Xiaonian and Chen Ping expressed support for forgiving the crimes of some corrupt officials as a condition for building a system of integrity, and they advocated a policy of universal pardon for monopoly enterprises in exchange for privatization reform. Xu Xiaonian referred to this as “a rather practical path” of “incremental reform.”
These are divisive issues about which there is a lot of disagreement. But the Chen-Xu dialogue was thought-provoking:
Xu Xiaonian: This is about opening a road. If you don’t open up a road then it just won’t work.
Chen Ping: It’s about reform and betterment.
Xu Xiaonian: Reform. Reform.
Chen Ping: And reform means admission.
Xu Xiaonian: Yes, admission of the past.
Chen Ping: Admission.
Xu Xiaonian: Through acknowledgment, we can write off the past and look ahead. For the sake of national development. For the sake of the development of our national peoples. For the interests of each individual person. We must acknowledge the past, and look to the future. Our hope is to develop, and as best as possible to avoid dramatic swings in the process of reform.
This sort of dialogue stirs up complex emotions. It doesn’t simply hand you simple answers. It tells you the truth about the complexity of the situation facing China, and it demands reason of the government, of the party and of the people. It urges us to pull together to find a way out of the morass.
Rational and serious dialogue is not easily found in China. In fact, it is far, far too rare.
“What a revolutionary party should most fear is the failure to hear the voice of the people, for the most fearful thing is utter silence,” Deng Xiaoping said back in 1978. In the 1980s China went through a period of clamoring voices and rich debates. Chen Ping, in fact, was a researcher of political reform during that era. Now, 30 years on from Deng’s words, as China moves at great risk into the deep end of reform, what the country needs most urgently is powerful brainstorming.
At the moment, however, our poverty of good ideas is drowned out by cries heralding a glorious golden age.
In China’s information environment today, already narrow lines of communication are congested with empty and obsequious words serving the interests of power and profit, and harsh truths at the lower-levels of Chinese society are buried over.
Party rule is the reality that Chinese face today. But China’s rulers must be alert to the fact that the greatest danger to party rule is the failure to monitor and check power. The most disastrous result of the monopolization of speech and information is closing of one’s own eyes and ears.
Do our leaders today have friends who can speak up with forthright admonition? Can they tolerate frank remonstration? On major issues that concern the fate of our nation, do they understand the hearts and minds of the people?
Chinese media are venturing today through a deep gorge of history. Political controls, existential pressures, reliance on advertising, restrained by powerful interests — and this has caused many media to keep idealism at an arm’s length. They avoid risk. They listen, do as their told, and make money.
Compliant propaganda is now oddly mixed with the kitsch and low-brow as media bend to the commands of the government on the one hand, and tilt toward the demands of the market. Meanwhile, on those major issues of direct concern to the future of our country, there is no discussion, or there are only fits and starts. Substantive inquiry and argument, and free criticism, are relegated to the sidelines or eradicated altogether.
This is why I have such respect for Sun TV, and why I feel so distressed about the interruption of its mainland broadcasts.
In the past I believed that the space for Sun TV’s development on the mainland would be rather small. A channel that targets a specified audience must rely predominantly on service subscriptions, and this is not yet a mature model for the television market in mainland China. But I discovered this year that even in a tough Chinese media environment, squeezed between political and economic pressures, Sun TV had emerged as a successful oddity. Its investors were not focused on maximizing profits, but instead used investment gains from elsewhere to support media development.
Sun TV acted responsibly and ambitiously, opening up a valuable window on China’s realities, discussing its problems, and seeking solutions. Through its extraordinary efforts, the network brought out the core public character of the media.
And as it had anticipated, Sun TV resonated with audiences in mainland China.
China’s political landscape should not be denied the ray of sunshine afforded by the lively debate at Sun TV. And the public has the right to demand of the government that they make clear the reasons behind the interruption of the network’s signal.
For such a moderate voice to be snuffed out for such mysterious reasons in the midst of this bitter winter sends an ominous signal to the Chinese people.
[Posted by David Bandurski, December 11, 2009, 7:24pm HK]