NEW YORK—Backstage you can wear sneakers, striped sweaters, and comfortable hats. But on stage it’s all pressed suits and makeup at the Chinese-language live call-in show Focus Talk.
Produced by the New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television, twice a week a host and a couple of experts sit down and bring a fresh perspective to the defining discussions going on in the Chinese-language universe. They’ve taken on the poisoned milk scandal, the death of students in the Sichuan earthquake, inflation, and the recent abduction of dissident and artist Ai Weiwei.
On a recent Friday evening at the program studio in midtown Manhattan, Anna Chang, the host that night, was miming her introduction into the camera before the show began.
Leo Sun, who handles subtitles backstage, couldn’t find one of the files he needed. Pan Qi, who does drop-in visuals, is called in to sort it out. “I forgot that’s where it was,” he says, before turning and saying to Jia Hongxia who does stage communications: “Remember that for next time.”
Cao Jing is on the soundboard, and tucked behind them is Xiao Li the phone operator, who takes calls in a high-pitched accent through both the phone and Skype.
“Ten seconds,” says Pan Qi. The show is about to begin.
‘Focus Talk’ tries to draw back the curtain to show how the Party pulls the levers of information management and propaganda.
Anna Chang, 45, plays host while Li Tianxiao, 57, and Chen Pokong, 47, are regular commentators. All came to the United States during the 1980s. Chen Pokong is a well-known commentator from the China dissident community.
Each episode the host prepares a rough agenda of the themes to be explored and in which order. They address the basics then zoom out, then pan, and look at all the matters on which it touches. Going from micro to macro, they look at everything that links a case to China’s system of rule, and ultimately, to the top of the Communist Party.
A recent episode is called “Why Was Ai Weiwei Disappeared?”
Ai’s problem was that he challenged the Communist Party through his art, and he is genuinely international with his exhibits, and stands up for people that the authorities have treated unjustly, Chang says. “He uses the content of his art to challenge and resist the CCP.”
The discussion explores what Ai’s disappearance says about the CCP’s recent hardline shift in crushing dissent, and what the ramifications are.
The commentators and callers from China often fall back on basic truisms. “People should be put on trial before they are punished,” one caller said. “People shouldn’t simply be disappeared with no legal proceedings,” another chimed in.
“Anyone could suffer the CCP’s persecution,” Chen Pokong says. “Someone nonaggressive like Ai Weiwei touched their red line on discussion about human rights, and now they’re taking the methods they use on Falun Gong and extending them over the wider dissident community.”
At that moment Pan Qi cues pre-edited scenes of Falun Gong practitioners being dragged along the ground and bashed in the head by police on Tiananmen Square.
“You’ve got an ad in two minutes,” Jia Hongxia says in their earpieces.
Whether setting out to explicitly debunk Party propaganda or provide general analysis on modern China’s ills, the host and commentators try to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. They refer to Western systems of government and accountability, Chinese culture and history, and common sense, to make their points.
“As a media organization you have a responsibility to society, and you need a productive outlook on the world,” Chang says.
While China remains a closed media and education environment, Focus Talk tries to draw back the curtain to show how the Party pulls the levers of information management and propaganda.
“People in China have no place to express themselves. As an independent media we deeply look at all the information and its background and explain it to people—this is what we do.”
“It makes people think,” Anna said. “In China, people are beginning to understand what the country is like now, and what the CCP is like, and after seeing this they don’t fear the Party anymore.”
The show used to include commentators from the Chinese weiquan (rights defense) community like Gao Zhisheng, who was later disappeared by Chinese secret police.
A key to the show lies in part with the Chinese name: “hudong,” meaning interaction. Callers from mainland China and Chinese in the United States frequently dial through to offer their own observations, agreements, and disagreements.
And they are routed directly onto the air, without being screened and with no time delay.
Some of them are overwhelmed, calling to thank the producers for providing the forum, and engaging in the catharsis of publicly speaking out against the regime in China.
“Staff, you work so hard!” one enthusiastic watcher from China wrote on the NTD website. Focus Talk is an extremely attractive show, I download it every time!”
The sharp difference between the openness of Focus Talk and the closed character of the media environment fostered in China was illustrated strikingly by one caller.
After expressing pro-Communist Party views, on the air he questioned them: “Are you not professional or what? How come you let us just talk without even screening us?” Then he hung up.
“We’re trying our best to be compassionate and sincere with our audience,” Chang said.
“We all lived in China before so we know how they were influenced and taught. But we say as long as you express yourself now, you’re opening your heart. We want to be sincere with you as long as you open your heart and say what you really think.”
Such an instance occurred on April 16. A Mr. Liu called in to complain that the show focused too much on the current Chinese government, and that previous Chinese governments had problems in history, too; every government has problems, he said.
Chang turned the floor to the commentators to respond. Chen Pokong said that no Chinese government has been as harmful as the current regime. “Comparing today’s CCP to Chinese governments in history is an insult to our ancestors,” he said. Li Tianxiao said that they were simply “telling the truth” about what’s happening in China; calling that “attacking the government” was itself a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand promoted by the regime, he said.
Chang then turned to respond directly to Mr. Liu. “I want to say something for a moment. Our purpose is not to attack the Chinese government. We exist to spread the truth, to let an authentic voice reach all Chinese people whether abroad or inside China. You can all think for yourselves, and you can independently judge the validity of these things.”
Earlier in the show a Mr. Gao from Japan had called. He called back. “I just want to say something to Mr. Liu. Just here Mr. Liu was speaking and I thought that was especially good. It’s not the content of what he said, but that this forum is just excellent. New Tang Dynasty here provides impartial witness. … There’s no other television station like this.”