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CCTV News: Russian Elections

February 26, 2012

Russia holds its presidential election on March 4, in which — surprise, surprise — Vladimir Putin is expected to return to the top office after a one-term hiatus as prime minister.  On Thursday, I was on CCTV News Dialogue discussing the election and the key issues Putin will face in its aftermath, including stymied economic reform and the tense US-Russia relationship.  We also talk about Russian and Chinese opposition to UN sanctions against Iran and Syria.  You can watch the program here.

I was happily surprised to see the show posted online, given the observation I made at one point about the risk that, in blocking UN action on Syria, both Russia and China might find themselves “on the wrong side of history.”  I could sense the silent gasp in the studio when I said it, since this is a highly sensitive topic in China right now.  But regardless of what one thinks of the Chinese position, given the fallout from Libya’s regime change, and the negative backlash towards China in Syria’s streets, this is a reality that, pragmatically, China cannot really afford to ignore.  (The reason I say I’m happily “surprised” is because when last year, on a live show, I offered a similar observation about how China needs to consider whether North Korea’s belligerent behavior actually harms China’s regional interests, that show was hastily re-taped without me for subsequent rebroadcast, and the original version was never posted online, as if it had never happened.)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. kailing permalink
    February 27, 2012 9:18 am

    That can be an internet meme: “You have been re-taped, sir” haha.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      February 27, 2012 10:26 am

      I was “harmonized.” It was actually quite weird. A few hours after I got back home from the studio, from doing the live show, I was flipping through the TV and saw my show being replayed (which they usually do several times a day) — except I wasn’t on it! Not only had the retaped the entire show with just the Chinese guest, the guest took a much harder line than in our original discussion. On the original show, he agreed with me that the South Koreans were experiencing “diplomacy fatigue” and were understandably frustrated that their Sunshine Policy had been interpreted by the North as a sign of weakness. In the second taping, he was saying how most of the tension was being stirred up the US to cause trouble. It was quite surreal.

  2. February 27, 2012 10:09 am

    Are you sure the bit about you saying China and Russia might be on the wrong side of history was included on the online video? I just watched through it and I didn’t see it. It looks like something you said might have been edited out toward the very end.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      February 27, 2012 10:25 am

      It’s just after the 21:00 mark. My comment wasn’t particularly radical — in fact, it was phrased rather gently — but I sensed the anxiety in the studio as soon as I said it. I think one thing that may have defused their concern was that my fellow Chinese guest later made a distinct point of refuting my observation.

  3. ajax151 permalink
    February 27, 2012 6:53 pm

    The requirement to being on the right side of history, is that you be the one who writes it.

    It’s interesting that you bring up CCTV’s clumsy attempt to get out a version of the story they like by editing you out of it. It really highlights the key differences between the media in China and the media in America. CCTV will never achieve much trust even as it moves position itself internationally precisely because of coercive censorship like this (though it’s good to hear they are allow more and more to go by). They will be seen as (rightly so) as a creature of the government of China. That much will be clear.

    But I’ll contend that the other article you linked “China mocks international conference to aid Syrian opposition” is just as much a product of a system of propaganda as that edited talk coming out of CCTV.

    I remember an interview between Chomsky and some BBC journalist (I think it was Andrew Marr). It goes roughly as follows, when Chomsky makes the point that money and those who represent corporate interests dictates what gets written in the press, the journalist objects “nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this about constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure.” Chomsky responds, ”this is completely true, but the point is that you wouldn’t be where you are unless you had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell you what to write because you trusted to say the right things.”

    And that’s the American propaganda model in a nutshell. It doesn’t need censorship. The journalist who wrote that piece about “China mocks international conference to aid Syrian opposition” 100% believes what he writes (and probably feels like he’s struck a blow for freedom or whatever). But he is only there to express his views as a promient journalist because he survived a careful system of filtering from early on. The schools are part of it, our higher institutions of education are part of it, the system of career advancement is part of it. A journalists gets ahead as much by having the ‘right’ political attitudes as actual talent as a writer. They are provided incentives to conform and costs for failure to conform is implicit.

    Thus in an open market of views without a government hand(most of the time), one is able to introduce bias, marginalize alternatives, and keep the narrative in a narrow acceptable range, all the things that the Communist party is trying to do in a clumsy way. This approach has the added benefit of seeming independence and contention, which allows the journalistic world to write self-congratulatory fables about being “without fear or favour”.

    The Chinese communist party would kill for such well oiled mechanism of control.

    • Adam permalink
      February 27, 2012 10:07 pm

      This is very interesting food for thought, and for much of American history, I would argue that it’s true. But in these days it’s so simple to start a blog and attract a following, that I don’t think this applies anymore. A blog requires no such patronage and the corporate money that gets involved is usually after the fact.

      That, coupled with the fact that none of these “fringe” blogs are censored in any way, makes the mainstream news more convincing to me. Chomsky has sold millions of books and has legions of netizens to propagate his ideas. Whether or not the majority of Americans accept them may indeed be related to the educational system and mainstream media, but his ideas are open for discussion and readily available.

      Contrast this with the Chinese system, and the differences are huge. There is an educational apparatus in effect, but by denying people the ability to question the status quo, the CCP is inviting skepticism. A much more self confident and effective approach would be to remove all censorship and say “Look at how well we’ve managed China. Could you do better?”

      I strongly dislike the party, but this would be the best method to give them and their news outlets some credibility.

      • ajax151 permalink
        February 28, 2012 4:28 pm

        “But in these days it’s so simple to start a blog and attract a following, that I don’t think this applies anymore. A blog requires no such patronage and the corporate money that gets involved is usually after the fact.”

        True but I think you underestimate how much of the material on social media and blogs is derivative and still distally controlled. By shaping the infosphere that these new medium reside in, you can still exert a substantial amount of control. Take the modern thinktanks for example. Originally intended as fount of new ideas, they are today organizations divided rigidly into idealogical camps. We can say that Cato institute is libertarian, that the Brookings institute as centralists, and that the Heritage foundation are a bunch of bastards (just kidding).

        Their effect on social media and the journalistic world in general has been one of reinforce idealogical orthodoxy. Their reports consistently push for one particular narrative and they recruit intellectuals on very much the same model I describe above (filtering for compatible views). These reports then get made into the fodder on which the social media or and journalistic world feed. How many news pieces have you read or seen that consists of xxx institute came out with a new study that xxxxx or advocates xxxxx. Also how many political blogs posts have you seen that are just dissection of these reports and or uses these reports as authoritative reference?

        You shape the environment you get your animal.

        And who shapes the thinktank you would then ask. If you honest about them, thinktanks are pretty much the most direct conversion of cash to influence. They don’t run on profits, they aren’t publicly funded for large part, they have none of the constants of those businesses. They run patronage. Their donor’s list that read like a list of the ‘masters of the universe’. A quick google jobs gives us this for the Brookings institute.

        I mean damn… that’s power. We even have Patrick’s senior at Tsinghua on the list dropping a cool mil (not that it’s alot for an ex Goldman COO)

        John L Thornton Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing; former Goldman Sachs…
        Donation ⋅ $1000000 (’09)

        – As for Chomsky? The quickest out of a job in journalism is to start talking about his idea. He’s sold millions of books, but mainly to inconsequential saps like me. Besides volumes get written trying to discredit him. There is enough mud in the water, so the public is safely inoculated from his ideas.

        – As for Chinese system? I’m not defending it, I don’t care how or if it gains legtimacy. My point was to show there is a ‘western’ system of media control just as there is a Chinese system. This something people won’t likely accept and somehow I find this kind of blindness more troubling for the future. There is good reason for the media to loudly point out every act of censorship in China or in other authoritarian states. See the overt form of censorship makes one feel safe from all censorship. An automatic boost to their legitimacy. A legitimacy I think that is undesired.

    • March 2, 2012 9:22 pm

      Surely in a world of relatives we’d all prefer the ‘soft’ censorship of the West, where a Chomsky can provide some provocative food for thought re: journalism vs the ‘hard’ censorship of China. Should we push for more media transparency in the West? Of course, would anyone trade it for the hard repression of China? Of course not.

      The Soviet had this great game during the Cold War, it was called ‘what about ism’ where every criticism from the West was deflected by highlighting some flaw in the Western society (and many intellectuals on the left bought into this quite completely) and we shouldnt fall for that approach, and be prepared to use as much critical thinking as possible to critique both.

  4. Hua Qiao permalink
    February 28, 2012 11:14 am

    Please don’t suggest that a regime that systematically deletes, censors, squelches and intimidates people from expressing their thoughts is anyway comparable to your description of western mainstream journalism. While I think you are right to point out that voices are suppressed in mainstream media, these voices have other avenues to express their thoughts in western venues. That is not true on the mainland.

    • March 3, 2012 6:31 am

      I agree with you there are so many outlets where you can get your message across here, even if the mainstream media were to try to suppress your views.

      I must mention the irony with @Ajax151’s example is that Chomsky was able to convey his non-mainstream media views using a mainstream media company. Obviously we are able to see that Chomsky interview, it didn’t dissappear down the memory hole.

  5. Rasmus permalink
    February 28, 2012 10:21 pm

    The program “Dialogue” really makes me cringe every time i watch it. Haven’t watched it for a long time and probably will not again. Prof. Chovanec, are you required by Tsinghua to participate in this program? I would really like to know why you would want to participate in it since it is obviously impossible to express diverse opinions on it. Leading questions and snide remarks (“haha, look at the silly foreigner who doesnt know enough of our rich Chinese culture to have the correct opinion”) to any diverting comments (plus less talking time to the offender) makes it unbearable to watch.

    I am sincerely interested in your motivation for being on that show. Maybe i am just paranoid when i watch it.

    Thanks for a great blog! It has given me much food for thought and inspiration for the thesis I am writing at the moment.

  6. Adam permalink
    February 29, 2012 5:30 pm

    Ajax, I think that’s a good assessment and I agree that one should be extremely wary of where the money is coming from in the media we read. You are right that the environment does shape how bloggers blog, and this has roots in propagandistic educational systems present in every country.

    As a counterpoint to your views on think tanks, a writer in The Economist a few weeks ago described his experience working for Cato, but had the opposite views that you do (i.e., that he wasn’t making a difference in shaping opinion at all). Have a ready read:

    I still think it’s very hard to compare the Western system to the Chinese system in the same breath. Ignoring both education systems (though i would argue Chinese educational propaganda is more severe), there is a systematic censorship mechanism that, as Hua Qiao mentions, involves violence and deletion of objectionable material. You could argue that the Western system is similar but less “clumsy”, but even then I think the contrasts are too large. Again referring to The Economist, they had an article this week about their stance on the Opium Wars of the 1850s-60s, and mentioned their opposition at the time (to the second one at least). Over 150 years ago, a popular English newspaper could voice strong disapproval with government policy without fear of intimidation or censorship, yet China has not yet reached that level.

    I’m not trying to lessen your case against Western media, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare the two based on “hard” barriers in China versus the “soft” ones in the West.

    • March 2, 2012 7:02 pm

      Comparing the two systems in terms of censorship is kind of like saying “Hey I know PM2.5 in Beijing is 500 and off the charts, but let’s not dwell on that and look at New York instead — the PM2.5 there is 30 and that’s still bad for you.”

  7. ajax151 permalink
    March 4, 2012 1:45 am

    Thanks Adam for an unexpectedly thoughtful discussion, I’ll not say much more but I’ll end by responding to the other comments as a group. It’s interesting that the criticism of my arguments goes straight towards examples of censorship in China and how much worse it is. More than being tangential to the discussion (since I readily conceded the point throughout), it is a perfect illustration of one of my arguments.

    “There is good reason for the media to loudly point out every act of censorship in China or in other authoritarian states. Seeing the overt form of censorship makes one feel safe from all censorship. An automatic boost to their legitimacy.”

    I’m sure that there many admirers of Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaobo in this comment section and they are well versed in arguing on their behalf case against a number of online nationalists and apologists. In fact, I’m sure they often feel as if they are part of a noble and moral struggle. I personally totally agree with Ai Wei Wei and Liu Xiaobo and I think they play a crucial role in advancing the struggle for greater freedom in China, but there is an important moral test here to see if those hours spent defending them in the comment sections is honourable or moral.

    During the cold war, one of the standard tactics the Soviet commissars was to denounce internal dissident by saying they never write or talk about American atrocities while only talking about Soviet atrosities. Indeed when asked, dissidents like Andrei Sakharov said I don’t care American crimes. Today we can easily judge the relative moral imperative behind the Soviet commissar’s actions and the Soviet’s dissident’s actions. We rightly honour the dissidents we and ridicule the commissar who we judge to be a morally bankrupt servant of the state.

    Within a society, the value system imposed by authority held that the responsibility of the intellectual is to serve power interests: to record with a show of horror the terrible deeds (real or alleged) of designated enemies, and to conceal or prettify the crimes of the state and its agents. Intellectuals who fulfilled these responsibilities were praised and honoured; those who rejected these demands were treated accordingly.

    I’ll contend what you folks are doing when you whip yourself into a lather over the crimes of the Chinese state is exactly what the Soviet commissars did. Instead of being an internal dissident, what you do and what the western media is doing by “recording with a show of horror the terrible deeds of designated enemies” is slavishly serving state power and the moral equivalent of being a state commissar.

    It is neither brave or honourable.

  8. Hua Qiao permalink
    March 4, 2012 6:49 am


    Essentially, your argument is that the state apparatus is able to paint the west as interfering with the internal affairs of China; those outsiders trying to infect the motherland with foreign ideas, such as freedom of speech and religion (ironically, rights guaranteed by the PRC Constitution). This gives the state the justification for further suppression in the name of protecting the people from such influence.
    I think the Chinese people are smarter than that.

  9. Y Kai permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:54 pm

    Mr. Chovanec, the Suddenly Russian Expert, is not required by Tsinghua to do anything, except continue to teach English at the Business School. Which is why he’s not listed as a professor with that school. He’s not a professor nor is he a member of the faculty.

    The self-promotion here is astonishing. This is not a blog, it’s a billboard.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      April 4, 2012 1:46 pm

      Anyone who seeks verification of my position and title at Tsinghua need simply contact me and ask, I am happy to oblige.

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