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."

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."

"Speak the Truth" is one of four programs aired by CCTV, the nine-channel state-run television network, that fall under the "slightly controversial" moniker and have been a source of dispute. (Other shows created by CCTV deputy news director Shi Jian - "Focus," "News Probe," and "Oriental Times" - have also tested the limits of the censors. Formal and informal efforts by the Monitor to contact Cui, Mr. Shi, or to visit the set of "Speak the Truth" were all denied by CCTV officials.)

Cui's guests appear on a comfortable living room set, surrounded by an audience that later asks questions. When it first began airing several years ago, "Speak the Truth" actually took up broad topics like work and the state of society. Audience ratings went sky high, as Chinese tuned in avidly for a dose of veracity.

But four months into its run, "Truth" was pulled off the air. Officials worried about a program on vaguely political subjects. They also questioned whether Cui should bring "entertainment values" to such subjects. Decoded, this meant: Please stop making jokes about life in China.

A revamped "Speak the Truth" was reintroduced. Topics now focus on an "individual level of personal experience and feelings on certain subjects, without affecting the general guidance on social values or the construction of moral and spiritual civilization," says CCTV's web site.

In practice, this means that Cui treads a careful line, interspersing serious and less-serious subjects. Recent programs range from "I married a husband shorter than me," to "Rehabilitation after prison." Subjects like "Test-tube babies" earn audience share one week, while "I was a nude model in art class" is dissected the next.

Often it is the interplay between guests where the truth-telling happens. "The importance of a program like this is that ordinary people see others speaking the truth in a very general way," says one Chinese journalist who has spoken with Cui. "Getting a TV audience to see this is a very big step. We have a poisonous past to deal with."

Older Chinese often say the root of the problem is China's cultural revolution. In the late 1950s, many intellectuals who spoke their minds were arrested or killed. From 1966 to 1976, millions were persecuted. Even today, Chinese aren't comfortable with the topic. "The cultural revolution is a political moment that changed people's lives dramatically, if they told the truth," says one writer who would not speak on the record. "During this period, attempts to follow your conscience were thwarted. We are still coming to terms."

Whether programs like "Speak the Truth" will continue, or will simply be so trivialized that they don't matter, is a question reportedly circulating on the program's set.

Many emerging middle-class Chinese, however, are struggling over how to teach children about honesty in post-revolution China. "I teach my children to tell the truth at all times," says one young businessman and fan of the program. "I tell the kids there is a cost for not [telling] the truth. There are burdens on your mind if you tell lies."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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