The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint

Li Datong
5 March 2009

The fact that China is one of the world’s largest economies means that it is deeply affected by the financial crisis enveloping the globe. The Chinese media is full of bad news of a severe downturn: the stock markets crashing, property prices falling, car sales declining, businesses disappearing, 20 million migrant workers retreating homewards after losing their jobs, up to a million new university graduates struggling to find work.Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper Among Li Datong’s articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

China’s power, China’s people: towards accountability” (29 September 2008)

China’s stalled transition” (19 February 2009)

The government announced in November 2008 a huge stimulus package worth $586 million; and economists have prescribed their own solutions. But even the plan’s architects or these other experts don’t know what it will achieve or what 2009 will bring. As for everyday Chinese citizens, the issues are for many complicated to the point of being incomprehensible. They can only accept their fate, holding tight to their wallets and (if they are lucky enough to have one) to their jobs as they wait for the crisis to hit…and pass.

Meanwhile, their economic and social discontent multiplies – and looks around for an outlet.

A burning icon

Just after 8pm on 9 February 2009, one of the buildings at China Central Television (CCTV’s) new complex in central Beijing caught fire. The odd-looking towers and the other high-rises in the $730-million complex, designed by the modernist Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, are one of the trophy buildings of the 2008 Olympic games. The towers loom over one of the city’s busiest road arteries, allowing local Beijingers to point them out to visiting friends by their nickname – the “big pants”.

A fire in this prime news location is itself by any standards a huge news story– and there is no way it could be covered up. At about 9pm that night, I got a text message from an unknown sender: “The CCTV building is on fire!” But CCTV itself was silent on the matter, as if the incident hadn’t happened. It was a stark contrast to the official outlet’s relative openness when the Sichuan earthquake struck on 12 May 2008.

By early morning the news was all over the internet, complete with numerous photos and videos taken at the scene – though users were not allowed to add their own comments. But bloggers faced no such restrictions; and most of the views I saw expressed amusement at CCTV’s misfortune. I found out later that word of the fire had spread quickly, with many people rushing to the scene to capture images that were soon uploaded to their own blogs. Many photos show onlookers smiling, as if watching a firework display.

Indeed, as the facts behind the fire emerged, it became clear that an illegal firework display at the company marking the end of the lunar new-year celebrations had sparked the blaze; CCTV itself was the arsonist. This revelation was met by an eruption of mocking public comment. Meanwhile, on state instructions the official media remained silent; and most China’s intellectuals also stayed quiet, as if unable to say what they really thought about the huge damage to a “state asset”.

An independent voice

But one person did speak out with notable boldness and clarity. He was a young “post-80s” writer called Han Han, who posted on his blog an article entitled “Bash CCTV when it’s on fire”. That such a piece came from a “post-80s” figure might be thought all the more surprising in that the neologism describes those born in the 1980s who (it implies) care only about themselves. But Han Han is different.

There were repeated efforts to delete Han Han’s article, but it was widely reposted and in the next few days was to become famous. It says: “I tried to suppress my own ‘dark thoughts’ and to look at the incident with sympathy. However, I have to admit that I gloated over it as well.” The courage to confess to such feelings is a striking contrast to the sanctimonious intellectuals who preferred to wait and see which way the wind was blowing. But is Han Han just a child enjoying the show? Not at all – he is talking pure politics.

Among openDemocracy’s recent articles on China:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008) Wenran Jiang, “Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens” (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's long march to modernisation" (7 October 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, “China’s giant struggle” (5 February 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, “China’s anniversary tempest” (24 February 2009)

“If you commit injustice, you’ll pay a price”. If you play with fire all the time, you will get burned”, he continues. “CCTV is a news outlet, but it has no journalistic ethics. This combination would be illegal in almost any other country. But here, it is not just legal – it represents the law. How many evil things has CCTV done in the past decades, such as supplanting truth with lies, manipulating public opinion, persecuting intellectuals, abusing facts, concealing wrongdoing, covering-up problems, and creating fake images of harmony?”

“So CCTV needs to take a look at itself – though it won’t. Today, an increasingly sophisticated public opinion and continuing social development have taken CCTV’s credibility from zero to negative. That is, if CCTV says something, we can assume the opposite. Yet even in this situation it has not gone bust – in fact, it is the national leader. This can only mean the nation itself has also lost its credibility.”

Han Han takes direct aim at the heart of China’s official media system. “This is the state of China’s media – the news we see is selected and filtered for ulterior purposes, as the script and the director require. . . The government needs to realise that mouthpieces such as CCTV, the People’s Daily, the Guangming Daily and Xinhua, operating as they do today, are in fact damaging its own image. Even a truth, spoken by these voices and sent out on a Xinhua wire, appears false . . . as younger people mature, they come to mock the content of these reports.”

A public beacon

The 26-year-old Han Han is an outstanding example of a new Chinese generation. He first burst onto the scene after entering a writing competition hosted by a literary magazine, and then abandoned traditional education and focused on his creativity. There is a huge market for his novels among his contemporaries; each sells hundreds of thousands of copies. The success of his books has made him a millionaire, dependent on nobody. The trappings include a racing-car, of which he has become an accomplished driver.

Han Han’s blog, criticising the evils of modern-day society and poking fun at authority, is one of China’s most popular. It received over 100 million visits in 2007, with thousands of readers and comments on each article – a response that even a large newspaper would be proud of.

After the Sichuan earthquake, Han Han ignored the risk of aftershocks and personally delivered food and clothes to the victims, saying this was merely his duty as a citizen. The initiative was characteristic of his independence: he doesn’t need a salary from a boss or the government, nor to hide what he thinks, nor does he care about criticism. He is that very rare phenomenon in China – fully authentic. After the CCTV fire, he spoke truths that many were thinking but could not say.

When discussing Han Han with my friends, we all agreed: hopes for change in China depend not on the appearance of a single wise and brave leader, but on the emergence of thousands of people such as “Han Han”.

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