Behind The Scenes Of CCTV's News Investigation

(China Youth Daily via ChineseNewsNet)  By Tang Yonglin (唐勇林).

[in translation]

Since broadcasting first on May 17, 1996, CCTV's program "News Investigation" has gone through ten years.  The 459 episodes, together with the programs that were given orange stickers and locked away in a cabinet because they could not be broadcast, form a historical record of a television's non-stop pursuit of the truth.  They also provide a record of some perspectives and fragments of China during a period of transformation.

Wang Zhi, Chang Jiang, Chai Jing ... the audience is familiar with these reporters who appear on camera.  But the stories behind the programs are seldom known: How did they break through the news blockade?  How did they deal with the evil dark forces?  Did they encounter 'public relations' efforts prior to broadcasts?

"Finding the truth of the matter."  This is the slogan for CCTV's "News Investigation" program.

What is truth?

"Truth means facts that are being hidden."  After working at "News Investigation" for ten years, producer Zhang Jie has come to realize more and more: "The truth is sometimes hidden by powerful forces, sometimes by special interests, sometimes by moral ideas and prejudices and sometimes unconsciously by everybody."

Between July and September 1995, there was a severe drought and water shortage in the Yuncheng district of Shanxi province.  But within just over two months, 60,000 to 70,000 irrigation ponds were constructed that could provide water for a million mu of land.

Three years later, someone began to say that the irrigation project was a complete sham.  In order to accommodate inspection by leaders, the local authorities even built semi-circular "ponds" -- from the highway, it looks like a filled pond but the back is actually empty.

In September 1998, "News Investigation" editor-director Xu Tao and script-planner Liu Shanying went to Yuncheng to conduct a preliminary investigation for the program.

"According to the legend, the local officials have a complete set of ways of dealing with journalists that has never failed.  Faced with these two unexpected visitors, they alternated between soft and hard tactics to scare away the two 'naive reporters' (note: those were the words used by the officials)," recalled Xu Tao.  Everybody thought that the topic about irrigation in Yuncheng was a good one, but everybody also thought that it was a hard project.  "That was because the principals were still at their jobs."

On September 11, a film crew of 5 persons formally began filming and interviewing.

The action of the film crew was subject to a lot of special 'attention.'  Across their hotel rooms, people from the local television station was staying.  In order to avoid them, the film crew usually get out at 4am or 5am, but they were still being followed: some people were tailing them openly, while other vehicles were following them surreptitiously.  Every move by the film crew was watched.  Several times, the film crew attempted to shake the "tails," but they were unsuccessful because this was someone else's home turf.

At the time, some of the local base-level officials were very aggressive and arrogant.  During one interview, a peasant woman told the reporter: "The irrigation pond has never ever released any water."  Immediately, a village cadre following the film crew cursed her out loudly: "I'll deal with whoever says something wrong!"  Since "News Investigation" films with two cameras, one was pointed at reporter Wang Lifen and the other at the peasant woman.  When that village cadre spoke up, the alert photographer immediately turned the camera on the reporter towards the village cadre and recorded this charged scene.

During the investigation, the reporter discovered the secret behind the irrigation wells.  The so-called "water pipe" in the farm field was actually a wooden pole.  In fact, fungi were growing on the wood already.

After obtaining solid evidence, the film crew returned to Beijing.  When they got back, the local government began to apply pressure, and the number of people involved was far more than the expectations of the program staff.  "The people from Yuncheng kept walking around our corridors.  Their final conclusion was that this program will not be shown.  Apart from a few people, we all thought that the program will not be shown.  So everybody was dispirited."

On early morning October 16th, a team of people led by then producer Xia Jun headed straight towards the Beijing Capital Airport.  Fifteen minutes before the flight was due to leave, Xia Jun brought everybody to a remote corner of the waiting lounge and explained the purpose of this trip: At 21:10 that evening, CCTV 1 will be showing "Examining the irrigation project of Yuncheng."  In order to understand the reactions of the local government and people about the program, the commentary division would be interviewing in Yuncheng on the same evening.  The resulting material will be for a segment of Focus Interviews to be shown two evenings later.  The reason why the explanation was not announced until just before flight departure was that the local government was resourceful.  If the news were leaked, the "News Investigation" broadcast that evening may well be doomed.

To reach Yuncheng this time, the film crew went first to Luoyang city in Henan province.  At the Mudan Hotel in Luoyang city, they rented a van to get to Yuncheng by land.  The company kept asking about the nature of their business, but there was no direct answer.  Finally, the company demanded that they pay cash up front, and at a premium price too.

At after 11pm that night, the film crew finished work for the day and returned to the Yuncheng hotel.  They asked the driver to park the car at a spot which can be seen through the windows.  Finally, the driver had to ask using Henan-style putonghua: "What are you doing here?  I once drove to Xingtai to rescue a hostage and I was detained too.  Are we in some kind of danger here?"

On the day after, the program segment of this film crew was broadcast.  At the time, then Premier Xu Rongji was dining at a hotel in Beihai city, Guangxi Zhuang Tribe Autonomous Area.  After watching the program, Xu Rongji was taciturn.  His wife Lau An tried to get him to eat a bit more.  He shoved the rice bowl away and said in a low voice: "I am not eating any more!"

In 2003, on a late night in Shuangcheng town, Wuwei city, Kansu province, "News Investigation" reporter Chai Jing was halfway through an interview when someone from the local town government came knocking on the door to attempt to interfere.  Chai Jing asked the boy, "Are you willing to come back with me to the hotel to continue the interviewing?"  The boy said "I'm willing."  Chai Jing reflexively asked, "Why?"  The boy gave an unexpected answer: "Because I have seen your reports on SARS."

Some time earlier between spring and summer, China faced an unprecedented disaster -- SARS wrought havoc in China as well as other nations.

Under the circumstances, many programs chose to re-broadcast old programs in consideration of safety.  But Zhang Ji and his colleagues decided in the end to go into the frontline.

"I am a reporter.  I don't want it to happen many years later when my child ask me: 'Mom, where were you back then?' and I have to say that I was home watching television."  Chai Jing explained why at a time when the word SARS struck fear, she could not wait to request to do frontline duties.

The first SARS episode on "News Investigation" was "Beijing: The Battle To Stop SARS" on April 26.  For the first time, television showed fully and directly how the Beijing municipal medical system fought SARS, from patient reception, isolation, diagnosis, emergency treatment, disinfection and so on.  Previously, people did not know what SARS was like.  In this episode, they saw SARS patients for the first time.

In Chai Jing's investigative notes, there is this section: "At the Beijing University People's Hospital, when Zhu Jihong bent down to unlock the door into the emergency ward, I can hardly describe my shock -- this was history, everything on the chairs say 'Thursday.'  That would be April 17 when the emergency ward was shut down.  Everything that happened before that was frozen in time.  The messy beds, the medical reports that were stacked on the desk -- on every page, it reads 'fever', 'fever', 'fever', ..."

On May 4, "News Investigation" decided to go to Dingxi city, Kansu province to film a program about SARS prevention in rural villagers.  The media had rarely reported how rural villages were coping with SARS and there were also many Dingxi people working in Beijing.  So "News Investigation" wanted to use Dingxi as a case study to address doubts.

Reporter Yang Chun was getting on the T149 train.  A week ago, it was determined that this train carried two SARS patients into Dingxi city.  But at the time, Yang did not imagine that he would be diagnosed with SARS too.  His colleagues were also isolated for half a month and his program segment was aborted.

On the afternoon of May 5, Yang Chun began to develop a fever after doing interviews in the rain for half an hour.  Three days later, Yang Chun was diagnosed as a SARS patient.

On May 13, with a directive from the Ministry of Health, two experts (one from Beijing Xiehuo Hospital and another from Beijing Anzhen Hospital) went to Dingxi to examine Yang Chun.  Their opinion was that there was insufficient proof that Yang Chun was a SARS case.  With one or two more days of observation without any further development, he could be excluded as a SARS case.

On May 19, the Dingxi district communicated to CCTV on Yang's status: "Attained criteria for having been cured of SARS."  Yang was now ready to be discharged.

"Up to today, Yang Chun who had been excluded as having SARS by the Beijing experts is still a healed SARS patient."  When Zhang Ji spoke those words, it was hard to say whether he was angry or bitter.

On May 2004, "News Investigation" received a tip that among the numerous office buildings in Shenzhen city, there were many commercial scams -- certain trading companies sign fake contracts with foreign businesses and make false promises to the production factories about prepayments in order to extract expense fees by various means, and then they just vanish into the thin air.

The "News Investigation" team then headed to Shenzhen to uncover the truth behind these scams.

Mr Wang was the critical person that the film crew interviewed.  He was an insider who knew all the details.  But since he is a "tainted" witness, he may be persecuted by his colleagues if his identity is revealed.  So the cameraman Li Ji came up with this idea of only shooting Wang's shadow on the wall.  Then Wang wore producer Fan Ming's sunglasses, got a different haircut and his voice was slowed down.  So he looked like a different person.

The other important character in the episode was Leng Feng.  He is smart and crafty.  After he was cheated, he went through bribing people who knew the scammers to use methods such as surveillance, mailbox break-ins, posing as police officers to collect debts and other 'gray' methods to fight with the scammers.  At first, he too wanted to hide himself and requested to be interviewed while wearing sunglasses.

"I and Chai Jing looked at each other.  This program was over.  The insider was a shadow cast on the wall.  The male lead wore sunglasses.  The victim also requested to have blurring of the face.  The scammers were filmed stealthily.  This is like an underground movie!"  Fan Ming recollected later.

At the actual interview the next day, Leng Feng was unable to buy sunglasses, and so there was now a visible face in the program for the principal character.

But the more dangerous scene occurred when the film crew proceeded to the scammer company Aojia for interviewing and filming.  The film crew split up: the producer Fan Ming brought a hidden camera and pretended that she was the wife of a Mr. Cheng, who was a target of the scam company.  Meanwhile, Chai Jing had confirmed that the Aojia company did not have an import/export license registered with the Customs Department and so she was interviewing people at the company as a reporter.

Soon after the two parties appeared at the company, manager Li of Aojia exited quietly and then a group of people who were dressed like thugs in movies showed up to threaten the team members.

"Basically, I was too busy to be afraid," Fan Ming recalled what it was like.  "When the group of thugs came in to threaten us, I was too busy trying to point my hidden camera in the right direction."

On the other side of the conference room, Chai Jing was facing the thugs and she felt "a secret delight because there is some drama for the show."  Previously, Leng Feng had claimed the scammer companies had triad background and would try to intimidate and threaten their targets.  So Leng Feng's claim was now substantiated.

Thankfully, the thugs did not actually take action and they left after a round of threats.