Truth (and consequences) on Chinese talk TV
For millions of Chinese, Sunday is a day of truth. Or rather, it is the day for a popular TV talk show called "Speak the Truth."Skip to next paragraph
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The program, partly inspired by US talk diva Oprah Winfrey, opens a window on subjects not usually discussed in public here. It showcases ordinary Chinese uttering their real feelings on everything from high prices and online dating to problems with their spouses.
It is not, of course, a platform for dissidents; no one will discuss Tiananmen Square or the outlawed Falun Gong movement.
But within an officially wholesome format, "Speak the Truth" tests the ever-shifting boundaries of what is and isn't OK to talk about in China. It is designed, consciously, to counter years of suspicion and distrust created by the Cultural Revolution period, when Chinese who spoke their minds might just disappear.
Yet, some recent guests have found that telling the truth can still come with unintended consequences.
The affable host of "Speak the Truth," Cui Yong Yuan, has complained that after being on his program, some guests are "punished." One sub-director of a research institute, for example, was called on the carpet for "wrong thinking," according to Mr. Cui. A social sciences scholar was denied promotion and tenure after his boss criticized him for "showing off." A radio announcer, after a frank talk about journalism in China, was accused of taking money for his appearance and found himself under investigation.
Rarely are these official censures. Instead, they highlight how deeply the culture of suspicion exists in a society going through rapid changes. For the most part, these guests are not grandstanding whistleblowers. They are just being honest in public about small things. But that is an important battle to start fighting, says one Chinese editor. "I sometimes have doubts about how long the program can last," Cui told Chinese journalists recently.
Several years ago, dissident Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi said his formula for the measurement of free expression in China is calculated by the number of people an average Chinese would be willing to speak honestly in front of. By that measure, the margins of acceptable speech in China continue to widen. The number of TV programs is increasing; magazine sales are proliferating. For the first time, market forces are playing a role.
Last month, for example, after two crusading editors were fired at Southern Weekend, a weekly newspaper known for its frank and open take on social issues, sources say that one Politburo member wanted to shut down Southern Weekend. He was informed that to do so would result in the demise of the entire Southern Daily Publishing Group - an influential enterprise for the Communist Party, whose official newspaper is now bankrolled by sales of Southern Weekend.
Today, editors who get fired find jobs elsewhere. Blacklisted intellectuals, whose writings are supposed to be banned, still appear in alternative papers.
"I have friends who have been censured who continue to speak," says one professor. "Ten years ago, if they had continued, they would be in jail, and certainly they would not be published. But now they are even published."
Even during the past two years, which have witnessed a crackdown on intellectuals, Falun Gong members, alternative voices, and the internet - the limits of acceptable discussion have expanded. "You still have vestiges of a police state," says one Western observer. "But Chinese society has become far too pluralistic to be controlled by the Party in an absolute fashion."