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Tangled in the Party Line

A CCTV commentator calls for political loyalty and angers his fans

Netizens on China’s popular microblogging service Sina Weibo are in a fit of pique over remarks made by a PLA major general about the importance of Chinese TV commentators holding “unconditionally” to the Party line. Zhang Zhaozhong, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), National Defense University lecturer, and chief military commentator on CCTV, made the remarks in an August 21 interview entitled “Zhang Zhaozhong: 20 Years of Television Commentating” with the Beijing Daily.

The Beijing Daily interviewer had asked Zhang, “In addition to the need for a wide-ranging base of knowledge, what other types of personal qualities (suzhi) are needed to be a successful TV commentator?” The Weibo post that sparked this outcry quoted only part of Zhang’s response:

Knowledge is not the most important thing. The most important is your political quality and moral quality. The former requires you to stay in line with the party’s Central Committee unconditionally. The latter requires you to maintain strict self-discipline, prevent negative effects and maintain a certain level of respect amongst your viewers.

Though CCTV viewers have always known that Zhang is a high-ranking military official and must have been approved by government leaders to appear as a commentator, netizens have still expressed surprise and a certain amount of disillusionment at hearing him sound like a Party mouthpiece. Weibo user “Rongxin001” writes: “I used to think Zhang Zhaosheng was a military expert so I would often watch his television show. Now I’ve realized that when he speaks, he is not expressing the opinions of an expert but rather those of the Party. He is nothing more than a microphone. I can no longer watch his show.”

Of course, Weibo, and Twitter both limit the length of posts to only 140 characters, which can result in sound bite cherry-picking as users search for the most inflammatory quote. That has happened here. In reading the rest of Zhang’s interview, there is little evidence that Zhang commentary has been, as he says, “unconditionally” in line with Party thinking. Rather than parrot lines from official press releases, Zhang says, his CCTV work requires him to engage in sophisticated analysis—often at a moment’s notice:

The biggest thing that separates television news commentating from entertainment programs is the high level of sensitivity and risk associated with [commentating]. From the perspective of the media, the commentator is always expected to provide in-depth analysis of breaking news. The best is if he can put forward new and unique ideas. From the perspective of commentating, as it is difficult to quickly gather together material in the event of breaking news, crises, or wars, one must therefore be equipped with a fairly deep knowledge of technology and tactical strategies, as well as a good foundation in political and diplomatic affairs in order to explain clearly the origin and sequence of events and happenings.

Objectively speaking, in the event of a live broadcast of breaking news, crises, or wars, even if one doesn’t know all the details, the commentator must still make an effort to study, understand, and master the situation accurately so as to provide fact-based commentary. Many people think that commentating on CCTV is the same as commentating on the Internet, Weibo, or blogs, but actually it is completely different. How to stick to principles, not make mistakes, and simultaneously increase viewer ratings—this is indeed the biggest challenge.

Having been on the air for twenty years, Zhang is undoubtedly familiar with criticism stemming from sound bites being taken out of context. Zhang’s emphasis on the necessity of fact-based analysis implies the importance of a more nuanced relationship between news commentators and the Party than a reader of the short Weibo post above might expect. In reading the full interview with Zhang, it is evident that for him, knowledge is just as—if not more—important than political quality and moral quality to successful TV commentating. Labeling him as a Party mouthpiece may just be an overhasty indictment, but that is bound to happen when one has only 140 characters to make a case.