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Code word

Deciphering CCTV’s evening news

Code word

While preparing for a talk at the local Italian Chamber of Commerce on China’s media landscape, I came across a slide introducing tier-one national media outlets, which includes CCTV (China Central Television). One of the interesting features of CCTV is that it can help experienced viewers detect shifts in government policy hidden behind its daily prime time news programme Xinwen Lianbo (or News Simulcast, see WiC20).

As regular WiC readers know, the 30-minute newscast has become a national institution since first airing in 1978 and is religiously broadcast at 7pm across China’s various national, regional and local channels. The format of the programme has been virtually unchanged – with the first 10 minutes dedicated to the activities of Beijing leaders, the next 10-15 minutes usually on domestic news with an emphasis on achievements and other positive stories, while the final segment turns to international issues, which often include stories of political turmoil, natural disasters, civil wars, terrorist attacks, you get the idea.

Viewers can learn about the hierarchy of China’s top leadership by studying the order of senior officials’ appearances in the newscast. These days the show almost always starts with President Xi Jinping’s major activities of the day, followed by Premier Li Keqiang, then Li Zhanshu – chairman of the National People’s Congress – and then Wang Yang – chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – exactly in the seniority order of the Politburo Standing Committee. If some day you see the order change, that may signal an unusual power shift.

You can also sense potential policy changes from the show and maybe profit from them. For example, if Xi pays a visit to an obscure region, you may speculate that it is likely to receive favourable policy treatment. That was exactly what happened with the announcement of Xiong’an New Area, which was made out of the blue on April 1 last year. But sharp-eyed news watchers might have had an inkling of the urban development plan by watching Xinwen Lianbo’s report five weeks earlier where Xi visited the region with Xu Kuangdi, former Mayor of Shanghai, who oversaw the construction of the greenfield Pudong New Area in the 1990s.

Similarly, if the news programme reports extensively on Xi’s visit to a company, especially a non-SOE (state-owned-enterprise), or his attending of an industry show, you may also speculate that the company or industry could become a darling of the government. And if he brings certain executives with him on overseas visits, you may also guess that those companies are safe to invest in or partner with in business.

It’s also interesting to examine the language used in the newscast on meetings between the Chinese leadership and foreign dignitaries. If it says the two parties conducted an “amicable and friendly” dialogue, it signals an agreement is near. If the wording is they have had a “frank conversation” or “exchanged opinion in depth”, that usually means they have differences and an agreement is far off. And if it says the parties “gained deeper understanding of each other” or “the meeting was beneficial”, it can be interpreted as ‘they can barely talk to each other and no deal is on the horizon’. All told, you can learn a lot from this nightly newscast – if you learn to decode it.


A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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