Chinese television in the Mao era, 1958-1976

Broadcasting and politics: Chinese television in the Mao era, 1958-1976

Yu Huang

Literature on television in China has increased greatly since 1978, when China launched its economic reforms and began to open to the rest of the world. Most of the literature, however, focuses on development and reform of China’s television in the post-Mao era (1978-). By contrast studies of China’s television in the era of Mao Zedong (1958-1976) have quite limited; there has been a lack of systematic examination of the origin and early evolution of China’s television, particularly the political implications involved [1].

This article attempts to fill the void. Specifically, it explores the use of television as a political instrument in the Mao era by tracking down important events in the early development of China’s television and by analyzing the political implications of those events. The article investigates the structural patterns, operational models, program changes, and role in intra-Party power struggle of China’s television in the Mao era. Emphasis is also placed on the Party’s political/ideological control of television and its media policy evolution.

Television in Mao’s China was more a political creation than a technological imperative. Although media development in Communist China mirrored, on the whole, that of the former Soviet Union, development of television in China contained Maoist characteristics favoring his radical political and ideological goals. Television, as well as other forms of broadcasting, was employed as an element of intra-Party power warfare.

The Beginning of Radio Broadcasting

As with other countries, the emergence of television in China had much to do with radio broadcasting. Thus, a historical review of radio broadcasting in China will shed some light on how the Chinese Communist Party transferred its experience in using radio as a political weapon, to television. Broadcasting in China started with foreigners, who either endeavored to exploit China’s vast market or attempted to preach their beliefs. ‘Radio Corporation of China’ the first radio station in China with news and music as the staple output, was established in January 1923 by an American, E. G. Osborn. Although shut down by the Northern Warlords’ government (1912-1927), it was followed by stations founded and operated by the American, British, French, Italian and Japanese–mainly in urban areas along China’s eastern coast [2].

The first radio station run by Chinese was set up by warlords in Harbin and went into operation in October 1926. Warlord-run radio stations soon spread to other cities in China while private-run stations went on air in Shanghai in March 1927. There were no more than 20 radio stations during the era of the Northern Warlords; with small transmitting power and very limited audience, radio’s influence was insignificant.

The years between 1927 and 1949 marked intense power struggle and civil war between the Chinese Nationalist Party and Communist Party. Both attached great importance to radio broadcasting, and the print media as well, for political purposes.

‘The Central Broadcasting Station’ set up by the Chinese Nationalist government went on air in August 1928 with XKM (later changed to XGOA) as its call signal. Immediately after its birth, the Nationalist Party declared that the Central Broadcasting Station would be used to air any important decisions, propaganda programs and proclamations made by the central Nationalist government. Later, the Nationalist Party set up in almost every major city in China radio stations which served as a political tool to attack stridently the Communist Party and to promote the Nationalist Party’s policies. Although privately owned radio stations were a presence in the 1930s and 1940s, they were overshadowed by propaganda-oriented stations run by either the Nationalist Party or the Communist Party [3].

Mao Zedong (1893-1976), once a journalist himself, believed in journalism directed by politicians. To him, whatever the form of journalism, it needed to serve the politics of the Communist Party [4]. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party lacked the resources and technology to operate radio stations its use of journalism for political goals was limited to print media. The situation began to change in 1940 when the Communist Party managed, thanks to a transmitter from Moscow, to set up its first radio station in Yunnan–the base area of the Party at that time. With XNCR as its call signal, the newly-born ‘Yunnan New China Radio Station’ broadcast 2 hours every day, focusing mainly on news and commentaries to mobilize the masses. Although somewhat primitive in terms of technology, the station was made full use of by the Communist Party. Mao Zedong himself paid great attention to the political potential of the then new broadcasting technology when he emphasized on 5 May 1941, that ‘people in all the liberated areas [the Communist-controlled areas] should listen to the Yunnan broadcasts regularly. If they haven’t got a radio receiver set, they should try every means to get one [5]. As the areas controlled by the Communist Party expanded in the late 1940s, the number of the Communist radio stations increased too, numbering 16 by the end of 1948. The Communist Party also introduced limited English- and Japanese-language services in 1947 [6].

The practice of using radio broadcasting as a political instrument continued when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. In December 1949, two months after Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the ‘Yunnan Xinhua Broadcasting Station’ was formally changed to the ‘Central People’s Broadcasting Station’, which offered 15.5-hour daily service, half of the programs related to politics. In April 1950, the Central Press and Broadcasting Bureau, which played a regulatory and supervisory role in media operations, issued ‘The Decisions Regarding the Establishment of Radio-receiving Networks’. The ‘Decisions’ stipulated that authorities, state institutions, factories, schools, army units and public organizations at all levels must try their best to set up radio transmitting stations and loudspeakers [7].

Perhaps the most innovative development in the Communists’ political use of broadcasting was that of the so-called wired public loudspeakers, which aimed at direct reception by each household in China’s vast countryside of the voice from the Central Communist Party. In the early 1960s, 70 million loudspeakers were installed nationwide, serving a rural population of some 400 million. To ensure that the whole nation listened to one voice, the Communist Party also installed loudspeakers in such public places as school playgrounds, factories, rice paddies, and in rural villages and urban areas. Anybody who visited China during those years would find a common sight–large loudspeakers hanging on telephone poles, building roofs and treetops [8].

In a sense, the basis of Man’s whole theory and philosophy is expressed in three words: ‘Politics in Command’. Simply put, politics in command meant giving politics priority over everything else. The content of that politics was largely decided by Mao himself. This theory of politics in command led Man to a firm belief in the ‘supernatural’ power of ideology. Mao argued that man with proper motivation could transform his environment significantly and, therefore, political considerations had to take precedence over everything else in the formulation of policies or in the guidance of action [9].

After taking power in China in 1949, the Communist Party established a system of political analysis. At stipulated times, workers in various lines of work studied politics, mainly reading and discussing selected works of Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong, as well as the Party’s documents, decisions, current policies and the People’s Daily’s editorials–regarded as the Party’s latest and most important instructions [10].

Mass political campaigns characterized Mao’s rule of China between 1949 and 1976. In the late 1950s, Mao, based on his Utopian hope to make China into a powerful socialist nation overnight, launched the infamous ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign. His determination to be superior to Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan made him intolerant of any move made by the defeated Nationalists which might subject mainland China to political disgrace. In this context television came to China.

Television’s Political Imperative: competition with Taiwan

Although television came into being in the United Kingdom, France, the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it did not enter its embryo period in China until 1953, when the Chinese Communist government began to send people to study television technology in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. In February 1955, after studying a variety of possibilities, the Chinese Central Broadcasting Bureau formally proposed to the State Council preparations the setting up of China’s first television station in Beijing. The proposal was adopted by Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), the premier who ordained that the development of China’s television industry should be part of the ‘Five-Year Culture and Education Plan’. Official support was essential in expediting television’s arrival in China. In 1956, with the return of two Chinese students who had studied television overseas, China embarked on experiments in TV broadcasting. Considering China’s low level of industrialization, limited resources and lack of know-how, experiments were expected to last at least several years. In fact, China originally planned to launch TV stations no earlier than 1959 [11]. But television was introduced in May 1958, more than a year after Taiwan succeeded in airing programs with equipment from the ‘Radio Corporation of America’ [12].

The Chinese Communist Party was taken aback. Its ‘superior socialist system’ faced a technological threat. Mei Yi, the general director of China’s Central Broadcasting Bureau at that time, recalled the Taiwanese threat:

In the early 1950s we were planning to set up our television stations with

necessary personnel training and other preparations when the news reached

us that the Nationalist Party in Taiwan was set to launch its television

broadcasting service in October 1958. Fully aware of the political

implications of the news, we decided to change our plan so that we could

launch our television service ahead of Taiwan’s schedule. At that time,

Cheranko, the Soviet adviser to our broadcasting industry, told us that

China could not accomplish this within such a short time because of lack

of basic expertise and equipment. We simply ignored his words and made

up our minds to show Taiwan and the Soviet Union what we could do. [13]

Television and the ‘Great Leap Forward’

The years between 1958 and 1959 were known in China as the years of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, a campaign initiated by Mao Zedong in order to mobilize the people. Carried away by the seeming success of the First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) and by the socialist transformation of private enterprise, Mao Zedong and his radical followers came to the idea that everything ought to be greatly speeded up so that China could become a powerful socialist nation in the shortest possible time. Slogans, such as ‘Dare to storm the heavens’, ‘Output of each rice paddy rests on your audacity’ and ‘Overtake and surpass Britain within 15 years’ resounded through all of China [14]. People’s communes were set up; kitchen utensils and other ‘scrap iron’ were collected to make steel; egalitarianism was emphasized; and 650 million Chinese were mobilized to labor round the clock to catch up with Western powers [15].

At the end of 1957, the broadcasting authority sent a delegation to the Soviet Union and East Germany to seek technical aid in running television stations. In early 1958, the Party formed a task group composed of Chinese experts in electronics to deal with technical problems training relating to the launching of television.

After importing 200 television sets from the Soviet Union, China managed to produce a small number of television sets similar to the Russian model in preparation for home consumption. In early 1958, China managed to produce a 1000-watt television transmitter for experimental use. At the Fifth National Broadcasting Conference held in Beijing on 7 April, it was decided that the first Chinese television station would be set up in Beijing before 10 October 1958 to preempt Taiwan. In his ‘Politics is the key to the Great Leap Forward in broadcasting’ Mei Yi, the general director of China’s Broadcasting Bureau, emphasized that politics had to take precedence. Zhou Yang, the Party’s propaganda minister, claimed that developing China’s broadcasting industry depended on revolutionary enthusiasm. On 29 April, the Central Broadcasting Bureau made it clear that political propaganda, education and cultural enrichment would be the three main tasks of the new Beijing TV Station [16]. Thus, partly to beat Taiwan, and partly as the result of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, Beijing TV Station, China’s first television station, began its experimental broadcasts on 1 May 1958. It was renamed the China Central Television Station (CCTV) on 7 May 1978,

The newly born Beijing Television Station had but one channel and went on the air twice (later four times) a week, 2-3 hours each time beginning at 19:00. The black-and-white broadcasts reached only the Beijing area. Programs consisted of propaganda-oriented news, documentaries, entertainment and educational materials. The programs broadcast on the station’s first day provide some idea as to programming [17]:

19:05 Model workers talked about the political significance of

carrying on the ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign.

19:15 A political documentary about ‘Going to the Countryside’.

19:25 Poem and dance, art performances.

19:50 Scientific and educational documentary supplied by the

Soviet Union.

When the Beijing TV Station went on the air, there were only 50 TV sets, used exclusively by privileged government officials [18]. The transmitting facilities were primitive: one 1000-watt transmitter (VHF, Band 1, Channel 2) on the top of a building; one studio equipped with four image-orthicon cameras, and one Outside Broadcast van [19].

Such programming could hardly be considered as serious television service. But this mattered little to the Communist Party. Hailing the birth of the first television station in Communist China, Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, described the event as the triumph of the Party’s politics-in-command strategy and of China’s socialist superiority over capitalism in Taiwan [20].

The Beijing TV Station went into regular service on 2 September 1958. Thanks to the spirit of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, one TV station after another went on air in China’s other provinces and cities, in spite of the lack of transmitting equipment, programming and TV sets. The Shanghai TV station began experimental broadcasts on 1 October 1958, followed by regular broadcasting a year later. With only one black-and-white channel, it offered irregular newscasts; 72.5% of the air time was filled with cultural and entertainment programs; 9% with educational programs [21].

The Jilin TV Station, ‘rushed’ into operation in October 1959. Poor TV reception, shortage of TV receivers, and technical problems hindered the station’s operation for many years. Between 1958 and 1960, 16 out of China’s 29 provinces set up TV stations though there were but a few hundred receivers for each province. Ordinarily, these stations broadcast several times a week, 2-3 hours at a time. Because of inadequate transmission equipment, programs and movies were ‘bicycled’ from station to station [22]. According to Zhao Zhongxiang, the first male anchor for the Beijing TV Station, China had only 12,000 black-and-white TV receivers in 1960, all in its major cities [23].

The ‘Great Leap Backward’

Between 1960 and 1962, 30 million people died because of starvation or famine-induced diseases [24]. By the end of 1960, China had 20 TV stations and 16 experimental TV stations [25]. With the implementation of the Party’s new austerity policy of ‘Adjustment, Consolidation, Substantiation and Improvement’ in 1961, China’s television situation turned yet more bleak. Out of the 36 TV stations, 31 were forced to shut down; only the TV stations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shengyang and Tianjin were allowed to remain in operation. Experimentation with color TV was suspended. The broadcasting industry’s workforce was reduced from 44,080 in 1960 to 14,208 in 1961 [26]. Between 1962 and early 1966, as China’s economy began to show sign of improvement, some TV stations resumed operation. Before long, however, the situation for China’s TV became even grimmer after the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1966.

The decade from 1966 until Mao’s death in September 1976 was disastrous for Communist China. The theme of the decade was officially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. By October 1976 when the Gang of Four was arrested, China’s national economy was on the brink of total collapse. TV had become a creature of politics [27].

The Cultural Revolution began in mid-1966. As ‘make revolution–stop working’ became the order of the day, China’s TV service, as with factories and schools, came to a virtual standstill. The solemn statement made by Beijing TV Station shortly before it suspended broadcasting was most revealing:

In answer to Chairman Mao’s call that ‘you people should be concerned about

the important affairs of our country and should carry out the Great

Cultural Revolution to its full extent,’ we have decided to launch a

general, all-out offensive on a tiny handful of inner-Party power holders

who have been taking the capitalist road. As a result, from January 3,

1967 on, this station will suspend normal broadcasting service except on

important matters and occasions. [28] By January 1967, only two TV stations in all of China–Shanghai and Guangzhou–were in operation, and those on very irregular basis. The Beijing TV Station did not resume even an occasional broadcasting service until February 1967. From December 1967 to 1972, the Beijing TV Station was under direct military control [29]. Thanks to the popularity of radio and loudspeakers, radio broadcasting was made full use of by Mao and his radical supporters. Whenever Mao said something–a ‘supreme instruction’–or the Party made any announcements, each would be passed, in no time, to people all over the country via radio, usually a day ahead of the print media. Radio broadcasting played a key role in the mobilization of the masses. To a significant extent, what was aired over radio and through loudspeakers was generally regarded as the most authoritative instructions from Mao in guiding people to carry out the Cultural Revolution [30].

After 1969, TV stations were allowed to resume broadcasting. New stations were established. By 1973, China had 32 TV stations, which meant that except for the city of Beijing (the Beijing TV Station was considered as the de-facto national TV Station) and Tibet, all of China’s 27 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government had TV stations. The number of transmitting and relay stations reached 80 [31]. But receivers remained a problem. As late as 1975, China produced but 170 000 TV sets a year, and production did not reach one million a year until 1979 [32].

TV stations were under the tight control of the Maoists and were used for intra-Party power struggles [33]. Politics-in-command became politics-as-everything. Culture or entertainment-oriented programs disappeared from the TV screen. Between 1967 and 1976, not a single TV drama or TV series was produced and broadcast on TV. The only so-called ‘entertainment programs’ shown on Chinese television were eight ‘revolutionary model operas’, prepared by Madam Mao to propagate ‘Mao Zedong’s revolutionary line’ [34]. No wonder a British broadcaster, who happened to visit China in 1970, found, much to his surprise, that within a 26-minute principal evening news broadcast by the Beijing TV Station, 18 minutes were devoted to rolling captions of Chairman Mao’s quotations against a background of music praising Mao [35]. After monitoring the programs aired by the Guangdong Provincial TV Stations for three consecutive weeks in 1970, an NBC news team in Hong Kong made this observation:

The TV broadcasts started at 7 p.m. with Mao’s portrait on the screen and

the sound of ‘The East Is Red,’ China’s unofficial national anthem. These

were followed by newscasts of such topics as commemoration of heroes, the

work of educated youth in a remote village, reception of foreign visitors

by the Chinese leaders, and the ‘heroic struggle’ of the North Vietnamese.

Next came revolutionary ballet and films, usually old Chinese movies about

the anti-Japanese war or the war waged by the Communist Party against the

Nationalists…. At 10:30 p.m., the station signed off. [36]

Mao’s Radicalism versus State Paternalism

Two approaches characterized the Mao Era in terms of China’s media policy. One was Mao’s ‘thought-determining-action’ approach; the other was state paternalism advocated by Liu Shaoqui (1889-1969, President of the People’s Republic of China between 1959 and 1968) and Deng Xiaoping (the Party General Secretary). In a sense, the struggle between the two approaches was a manifestation of intense intra-Party warfare.

Mao’s ideological priority led him to develop the well-known principle of ‘from the masses and to the masses’. This principle further evolved into mass mobilization, mass participation and mass campaigns, evident during Mao’s rule of China. Key points of Mao’s approach were noted in an editorial of the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s organ:

Work is done by man and man’s action is governed by his thinking. A man

without the correct political thinking is a man without a soul. If

politics does not take command, there can be no direction. In every

job we undertake, we must always insist that politics take command and

let political and ideological work come before anything else. Only when

we are both thorough and penetrating with our political and ideological

work can we guarantee the accomplishment of our task. [37] Mao’s approach tended to make broadcasting, as well as other mass media, tool of ideological purification and political propaganda.

By contrast, state paternalism, which owed its origin to the former Soviet Union and its satellite eastern European socialist nations [38], placed more emphasis on the role of the state apparatus in achieving national integration and in meeting modernization needs, although it did not lose sight of the need for political and ideological control. In other words, this approach underscored, to a greater or lesser extent, the importance of the obligation to edify the audience within the frame of reference of authority-defined values and tended to give priority to institutionalization, modernization and professionalization. Thus the role of broadcasting in developing and promoting national culture and education needed to be emphasized [39].

Mao’s approach entailed emotional appeals. As one American scholar noted, the Maoist approach was in general ‘radical and populist and tended therefore to undermine political stability’ [40]. Mao’s radical approach largely explains why he launched one mass campaign after another, and why social chaos and political turmoil were deliberately created during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ period and during the Cultural Revolution, and why Mao himself was worshipped as God [41].

The new medium posed a challenge to China’s decision-makers in broadcasting, who in the late 1950s believed television had a major role to play in providing entertainment. Such a view was partly based on the realization that few TV stations at that time had the financial resources, technical know-how and trained personnel to produce quality news program [42]. The first news item produced by the Beijing TV Station, and aired on 15 May 1958, reported China’s success in making its own cars, relying almost exclusively on using still photographs. Two weeks later, the Beijing TV Station aired its first black-and-white newsreel, actually an introduction to the contents of the newly published Red Flag, the Party’s theoretical journal. TV newscasting at this stage emphasized ‘talking heads’ and still pictures. The news bulletin was largely dominated by text, plus some news documentaries supplied by China’s Central Documentary Film, plus comments by ‘news figures’, a term meaning the model workers, peasants or soldiers [43].

Production of TV dramas also began. Most contained heavy political indoctrination. For instance, A Bite of Cabbage Cake, the first of its kind produced by the Beijing TV Station, was about life under Nationalist rule before 1949 and about happy times under the Communist rule. It was broadcast live on 15 June 1958, as China lacked recording facilities at that time (this situation did not change until the mid-1970s).

Some 70% of China’s TV broadcasts at this time were movies, dramas or a variety of art performance, heavily tinted with what Mao called the ‘revolutionary spirit’. Below was the program schedule of the Beijing TV Station in 1960 [44]:

18:30 Children’s program (Wednesday and Saturday).

Culture and education (Monday and Thursday).

Science and technology; sports, etc. (Tuesday

and Friday).

18:55 Items with pictorial reporting.

19:00 Variety of entertainment programs.

19:30 News.

19:40 Current affairs.

20:00 Movies, Chinese operas, sports games.

21:40 News in brief and weather.

On the whole, the content of China’s TV in this period was heavily laden with the Party’s propaganda for mass mobilization. The tone was dogmatic, the style artless, the quality poor. Audience complaints poured in. A survey, commissioned by the Beijing TV Station, collected 2150 questionnaires representing some 120 000 viewers at factories, government agencies and hospitals; viewers demanded better-quality programs. In 1960, the Beijing TV Station engaged in self-criticism, admitting that its reporting was ‘dull’, ‘monotonous’ and ‘insipid’ [45].

In the early 1960s, state paternalism advocated by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping began to make itself felt. On 16 June 1961, Mao made a self-criticism of his mistakes and shortcomings during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, although the self-criticism was not circulated to provinces to protect Mao’s legitimacy [46]. To regain the Party’s credibility, a new, more pragmatic policy was called for.

The rise of state paternalism affected the Party’s policy towards TV and other mass media. In July 1961, the Party’s Ministry of Propaganda issued a formal document known as the ‘Ten Articles on Art and Literature’. By challenging Mao’s radicalism and by stressing professionalism, the document marked a significant shift in the Party’s media and cultural policy.

The new policy downplayed political and ideological indoctrination characteristic of Mao’s leftism. Some proponents of state paternalism challenged, more indirectly than directly, Mao’s radical approach. For instance, Zhou Yang, deputy director of the Party’s Propaganda Minister and Minister of Culture said: ‘Politics will lose its meaning if we keep talking about it at every breath’ [47]. In June 1961, Zhou further warned that radio and TV broadcasting should not always be used to promote Mao’s ideas.

Liu Shaoqi was an ardent advocate of state paternalism. He openly called for a ‘professionalism-oriented broadcasting policy’ to serve every audience by catering to popular taste. Liu claimed the People’s Daily was substantially responsible for the grave mistake of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ [48]. China’s TV stations were quick to respond to Liu’s suggestions. In 1961, the Beijing Television Station made changes in TV news coverage and programming: diversity and programme quality were emphasized; the audience’s entertainment needs were taken into consideration; political propaganda was reduced.

Response to these changes–both from policy-makers and audience–was encouraging. Mei yi, Director of China’s broadcasting authority emphasized the new policy: ‘TV programs should be more related to the daily lives of ordinary people,’ he claimed, adding ‘TV content should be not only meaningful, but also attractive with more entertainment elements’ [49]. The new policy greatly encouraged production of educational, classical and entertainment material to meet the diversified needs of audience.

Another significant development during this period was the wide use of TV for instructional purposes. To provide higher education for those who had been denied the chance, a ‘Television University’ was set up in Beijing in March 1960, soon followed by Shanghai and several other provinces. As an English visitor noted, China was ‘the first country in the world to have a television university’–a full decade earlier than the advent of the well-known Open University in the United Kingdom [50]. Courses offered by China’s TV universities included science, technology, literature and foreign languages. Student enrollment of the TV universities reached 40,000 between 1960 and 1965.

In China’s TV coverage of international news, changes were evident. Pro-Soviet stories, as well as programs supplied by the former Soviet Union, disappeared from China’s TV screens. In early 1960s, coverage of international news by China’s TV was very limited, but the situation gradually changed as China made contact with some Western commercial TV companies. In 1963, China signed a formal contract with VISNEWS Ltd in the United Kingdom for purchase and exchange of TV programs. From then on, more and more VISNEWS programs, re-edited to conform to China’s political and ideological needs, reached the Chinese TV viewers [51].

In 1956, a bilateral agreement on broadcasting cooperation was reached between the former Soviet Union and China. China signed similar agreements with Romania (October 1958), Hungary (April 1959), Poland (April 1959), East Germany (April 1959), Czechoslovakia (April 1959), Bulgaria (August 1959), and Egypt, Cuba, North Korea, Albania and Viet Nam [52]. The majority of the countries with which China established cooperative relationships in developing radio and TV broadcasting belonged to the socialist camp; China’s exchanges with the ‘Western capitalist nations’ were minimal.

In 1959 alone, China imported about 1,000 TV programs ranging from news items and current affairs to features and dramas. Among them, 459 items came from Hungary and 349 from the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, China exported 61 TV programs–mainly news and current affairs. The imported programs added something new to China’s TV offerings. For instance, the Beijing TV Station devoted a regular amount of air time to foreign programs beginning from late 1959. In addition, about 30% of the movies shown on China’s TV screens at this time originated from the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries.

Financing TV in the Mao Era

Under the Chinese party-state system in the Mao era, TV financing was characterized by separation of the ‘software’ from the ‘hardware’. While some forms of commodity exchange existed with respect to labor and capital costs, production of TV programs was virtually divorced from economic concerns.

In the late 1950s and in the 1960s, Chinese television was supported by two sources: countable and uncountable. The former referred to expenditure on labor (mainly staff wages) and equipment, normally covered by the state budget under Mao’s ‘planned economy’. The latter meant cultural resource distribution, program production, program dissemination and program exchanges, all of which was directly arranged by the state without the involvement of any monetary mechanism. In other words, activities relating to program production or exchanges were rewarded non-monetarily; and TV management was integrated into the state’s unified economic system in which commercial motivation and monetary incentives were negligible.

The examples of the Beijing TV Station and other major provincial TV stations (such as those in Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou) provide some ideas as to how the government in the Mao era financed the ‘hardware’ (i.e. the labor and capital costs): The state allocated about US$250,000 to each TV station as capital expenditure in the initial stage. As TV stations went into normal operation, the state further appropriated, between 1958 and 1976, US$400,000-500,000 annually to each TV station, which was staffed by 50-70 persons on the average, to cover costs of labor maintenance and equipment renewal [53]. During that period, the annual national expenditure on China’s broadcasting industry was estimated at between US$25 and 40 million, and budget for television accounted for some 20 percent [54].

It should be noted that the high costs of filling TV air time in other social systems barely existed in China under Mao. The Chinese TV stations were allowed almost unlimited access to all kinds of cultural materials the Party deemed necessary for broadcasting. Thus, TV stations enjoyed virtually free live transmission of various theatrical dramas, operas, sports events, arts performances, and old or newly released movies. It was common practice in those years that every new movie would be shown on the television screen a few weeks ahead of its premiere. In 1961, for instance, the Beijing TV Station showed 244 movies, 51 of which were premieres. As early as January 1960, the Ministry of Culture and the Beijing Municipal Party Committee even made a joint decision that all new movies be sent to the Beijing TV Station at least 2 weeks in advance of the premiere [55]. All this pointed to an important element of the media policy in Mao’s China: pursuit of economic profits had no role to play in running television. That is why it was very difficult to pinpoint the actual costs incurred in providing TV services.

Radio and TV, as mass media, have a strong entertainment function. This did not escape the Chinese Communist Party’s attention in the Mao era. In other words, radio and TV stations could not broadcast–all day long, all month long, and all year long–nothing but blatant political propaganda. They needed to ‘entertain’.

As a result, control of entertainment programs became a must under Mao’s radical approach. One strategy of Mao’s was to bar entertainment programs which the ruling Party deemed reactionary, revisionist, feudalistic or tasteless. Such control was extremely strict during the Cultural Revolution when even Western fishing or gardening programs were labeled as ‘bourgeois life styles’. Between 1958 and 1965, China produced and sold only 26,000 TV sets. Even in 1978–2 years after Mao’s death, there were only about 3 million TV sets in China, a tiny figure for a population of 800-million. Television under Mao was, in short, technologically backward and driven by politics. In most respects, television as a mass medium in China was impossible before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of 1978.


[1] Little research has been done on Chinese television history in the Mao era. In undertaking this study, the authors have relied on two principal sources: documents, largely in Chinese, both published and internally circulated; and the authors’ intensive interviews between 1990 and 1996 with some key figures involved in the early development of Chinese television.

[2] For a more detailed account of early events of Chinese broadcasting history, see G. Lai, The History of Chinese News Media (Taipei, 1978), pp. 155-156; Y. Zhao, The development of Chinese Broadcasting prior to the People’s Republic of China, The Contemporary Chinese Broadcasting (Beijing, 1987), Vol. I, pp. 7-14.

[3] H. Fang & Zhang (eds), A Brief History of Chinese Journalism, 2nd edn (Beijing, 1995), pp. 251-253, 342-347.

[4] Z. Mao, Selection of Mao Zedong’s Works on Journalism (Beijing, 1983).

[5] Z. Liu, Electronic News Media: radio and television (Beijing, 1988), p. 36.

[6] Beijing Review, 22 February 1982, p. 20; see also H. Fang & Z Zhang (eds), op. cit., pp. 304-306.

[7] Y. Kang, History of the new Chinese people’s broadcasting undertaking, China Journalism Yearbook 1982 (Beijing, 1982), p. 19.

[8] Interviews in October 1995 with senior broadcasting officials in Beijing, who requested anonymity; F. Yu, Mass Persuasion in Communist China (London, 1964), pp. 123-131; J. Chu, Broadcasting in People’s Republic of China, Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific, J. Lent, ed. (Philadelphia, PA, 1978), pp. 21-24.

[9] Z. Mao, Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Beijing, 1964), pp. 397-520.

[10] The authors’ personal experiences.

[11] Interviews in October 1995 and August 1996 with two key figures in broadcasting who requested anonymity.

[12] Interview with Z. Guo in October 1996; see also F. Chen & D. Zhang, The History of Taiwan Television (Fujan, 1994), pp. 24.

[13] Y. Mei, An old soldier’s wish, Thirty Years of the China Central Television 1958-1988, M. Hong, ed (Beijing, 1988), pp. 101-102.

[14] Editorial, People’s Daily, January 1, 1958, p. 1.

[15] R. MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (New York, 1983), Vol. II.

[16] Interview with G. Yu, Deputy General Director of China Central Television (CCTV) in October 1996; interview with F. Wang, broadcast researcher of CCTV, in August 1995; also see The Chronicle of Chinese Broadcasting (Beijing, 1987), p. 102.

[17] C. Zhang, Introduction of Chinese Television (Beijing, 1985), pp. 3 4.

[18] The authors’ interviews and examination of historical documents reveal differences of the number of TV sets in 1958, ranging from 50 to 200. But most interviewees said that only about 50 TV sets were functioning properly at that time.

[19] J. Howkins, Mass Communication in China (London, 1982), p. 27.

[20] Y. Mei, Speech on the Seventh National Broadcasting Conference, Beijing, 1-15 March 1960.

[21] T. Shi, General Introduction to Radio and Television (Shanghai, 1987), p. 17.

[22] Interviews with some veteran Chinese broadcasting professionals in September-October, 1990 and October 1995; also see China’s TV Stations (Beijing, 1987), p. 116.

[23] Z. Zhao, Essays on Past Events (Shanghai, 1995), pp. 13-14.

[24] For more information, see B. Naughton, The pattern and legacy of economic growth in the Mao Era, Perspective on Modern China, K. Lieberthal et al. (eds) (New York, 1991), pp. 226-254.

[25] J. Hong, China’s TV program import 1958-1988: towards the internationalization of television?, Gazette, 52 (1993), p. 3.

[26] Y. Zhuo et al. (eds), Radio & TV Broadcasting in Contemporary China (Beijing, 1987), p. 40.

[27] For general information, see Z. Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (London, 1994), pp. 195-430; J. Chang, Wild Swans: three daughters of China (London, 1991), pp. 270-317.

[28] See J. Chu, op. cir., pp. 31-32.

[29] G. Yu (ed.), The Chronicle of China Central Television (Beijing, 1993), pp. 32-46.

[30] The authors’ personal experiences.

[31] Y. Zhuo et al. (eds), Radio & TV Broadcasting in Contemporary China (Beijing, 1987), p. 42.

[32] D. Perkins, The lasting effect of China’s economic reforms (1979-89), Perspectives on Modern China, K. Lieberthal, et al. (eds) (London, 1991), p. 348.

[33] Interviews in August 1995 and October 1996 with senior broadcast officials in Beijing who requested anonymity.

[34] Authors’ personal observations and experiences.

[35] J. Howkins, op. cir., p. 28.

[36] See J. Chu, op. cir., p. 37.

[37] Editorial, 11 November 1960.

[38] Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Failure: the birth and death of communism in the twentieth century (New York, 1989).

[39] When the authors interviewed several Chinese broadcasting policy-makers in the past few years, almost all of them supported this approach, stating that the current policy is, to some extent, a continuity of state paternalism.

[40] H. Harding, China’s Second Revolution (Washington, DC, 1987), p. 15.

[41] Z. Li, op. cit.; see also J. Townsend & B. Womack, Politics in China (New York, 1986).

[42] Interviews in October 1996 with Z. Liu, Y. Zhao and Z. Guo, both professors of broadcasting journalism.

[43] Z. Xia, Television news in the early stage, Memoirs of Contemporary Chinese Broadcasting. Yuan et al., eds (Beijing, 1986), pp. 65-74.

[44] See C. Zhuang, op. cir., pp. 5-6.

[45] CCTV Files, 1960, No. 10.

[46] K. Lieberthal, The Great Leap Forward and the split in the Yenan leadership, The Cambridge History of China: 1949-1965, J. Faribank & R. MacFarquhar, eds (London, 1990), p. 321.

[47] See the 15 July 1966 issue of the People’s Daily, in which there was an article about Maoists’ attack on Zhou’s argument.

[48] T. Zhang, Journalism History of the People’s Republic of China (Beijing, 1992), p. 157.

[49] The Chronicle of Chinese Broadcasting (Beijing, 1987).

[50] The Chronicle of Chinese Broadcasting (Beijing, 1987).

[51] The Contemporary Chinese Broadcasting (Beijing, 1987), Vol. II, pp. 123-131.

[52] The Chronicle of Chinese Broadcasting, op. cit.

[53] China’s TV Stations (Beijing, 1987).

[54] Interviews in October 1990 with S. Zhao, Deputy Director of Policy & Regulation Department, Ministry of Broadcasting, and F. Zhou, vice-president of the Chinese Broadcasting Association.

[55] CCTV Files, No. 12; see also The Chronicle of Chinese Broadcasting, op. cir.

Yu Huang is Assistant Professor of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he has taught since 1994. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Westminster, UK, in 1993.

Xu Yu is Chairman of the Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University. He received his BA in English from Beijing University, an MA in Communication from the University of Hawaii; an MA in Law from Fudan University, and his Ph.D. in Mass Communication from The University of Iowa. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1991, he taught at the University of Northern Iowa.

Correspondence: Huang Yu, Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Fax (852) 2338.1402; email

Yu Xu, Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Fax (852) 23361691; email n/Globus; US,

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