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Nightly News Has Clues to China’s Likely Next Leader : Asia: Politicians’ ‘heir time'--length, number of TV appearances--could point to Deng Xiaoping’s successor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every night at 7, more than 400 million Chinese--almost half of the largest television audience in the world--settle down in front of their TV sets to watch the China Central Television national network news.

It’s heir time.

Among the Chinese leaders presented on the evening news are the handful of men who are the most likely candidates to succeed Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping, whose health is quickly declining.

Sinologists once determined political status by measuring and counting photographs in the People’s Daily newspaper, but power now is more accurately reflected in air time on the world’s most watched national newscast.

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“The evening news is the most popular program in the country--the most watched show in China,” said Susan J. Schoenfeld, a lawyer and communications consultant in Hong Kong. According to government statistics, China now boasts more than 250 million TV sets. Television reaches 81% of China’s 1.2 billion people.

Without fail--irrespective of war or catastrophe anywhere else in the world--the first 20 minutes of the nightly CCTV broadcast is made up mainly of formal public appearances by Communist Party leaders, usually shown sitting as though frozen in place or posing stiffly with often obscure foreign visitors.

In the hyperactive “Eyewitness News” context of the West, this is classic “dead air.”

But in China, the carefully presented nightly parade of Communist leaders is the main public hint available about who is ahead in the battle to succeed 90-year-old Deng, who is so weak he can no longer stand up on his own, according to one of his daughters.

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Just how carefully the nightly “heir time” is doled out became clear when researchers for The Times, stopwatch in hand, monitored evening newscasts over a three-month period beginning in October.

Three men--President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng and National People’s Congress Chairman Qiao Shi--outdistanced all other Chinese leaders in accumulated air time, supporting the thesis, widely held among political scientists, that, after Deng’s death, China will enter a temporary era of triumvirate rule with Jiang at the core.

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In the newscasts clocked, Jiang and Li each appeared 67 times. But Jiang, the favorite to replace Deng, had significantly more accumulated air time, 163 minutes compared to 110 minutes for Li, leader of the conservative faction in party politics.

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“I think this fact is very telling,” Schoenfeld said. “The fact that the number of appearances is the same but the length of time is different indicates that someone else was counting too.”

Significantly, Qiao, considered by many to be a dark horse candidate to replace Deng, amassed more air time than did Li.

Li, who recently received extensive TV coverage when he presided over the groundbreaking of the massive Three Gorges Dam project in Hubei province, is said to love appearing on the evening news.

But, according to sources connected to the CCTV news programs, Li is disliked by some camera operators and news editors who sometimes mar his appearances by choosing bad angles or poor footage.

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In Chinese television, where all news about Communist Party leaders is good news, this is the closest thing to subjective comment.

Qiao, former head of China’s secret police and overseas intelligence operations, is a consummate politician who has allies in both the reformist and conservative wings of the Communist Party.

Importantly, unlike Li, he is not tainted by the military’s brutal 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Tian An Men Square. Most people believe that one of the main aspects of the post-Deng era will be a reassessment of the Tian An Men Square episode.

“The most significant thing to me was that Qiao Shi surpassed Li Peng in CCTV exposure,” said Richard Baum, UCLA political scientist and author of a recent book on Deng. “My general sense is that Qiao Shi will play a critical role as kingmaker--and possibly even king--after Deng’s death.”

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Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study, in which 63 evening news broadcasts were monitored, was the relatively small amount of TV exposure given to Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, who has been charged with orchestrating economic reforms.

Zhu, 66, is a favorite outside China. He is viewed in the West as the most reform-minded member of the party’s ruling standing committee. Despite significant activity in the overheated Chinese economy in the months monitored by The Times, Zhu appeared in only 18 of 63 shows for total air time of 26 minutes.

The relatively low number of appearances seemed to confirm rumors of his recent fall from favor at the center of Chinese power, where he is blamed by some party rivals for China’s 23% annual inflation rate--more than twice the target set by the government.

In comparison, Hu Jintao--at age 53 the youngest man in the seven-member standing committee--appeared 32 times and accumulated more than 50 minutes on the air, even though he has no political portfolio equivalent to Zhu’s. Hu, in fact, had more TV exposure than all of the leaders except for the triumvirate of Jiang, Li and Qiao.

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In most countries, the foreign minister, because of his role as leading envoy, can be expected to have extensive television exposure. But in inward-looking China, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, also a vice premier, was on the air only 28 times for a total of 35 minutes.

For the most part, TV exposure reflected the leaders’ titles in the government and party structure.

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The most televised leader, Jiang, 67, holds the three top titles in the power pyramid--president, general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

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Li, 65, the second most-televised figure on the evening news, is the head of government.

Qiao, 69, merited his air time as chairman of the National People’s Congress.

But arguably the most influential institution in China, the People’s Liberation Army, was represented by only two men in the broadcasts monitored.

Gen. Liu Huaqing, the Central Military Commission’s first vice chairman, logged 21 minutes. Gen. Zhang Zhen, the other vice chairman of the powerful commission, was on the air only five minutes.

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Likewise, two other very important powerbrokers and possible successors to Deng as paramount leader received no air time at all, because they no longer hold official positions in the party or government.

But former Politburo member Wan Li, 77, and former President Yang Shangkun, 87, who once wielded immense power in the military, are still active politically and will have a say in who succeeds Deng.

In fact, UCLA political scientist Baum, who expects Qiao to come out ahead in the post-Deng succession battle, believes that both senior leaders might play key roles in the transfer of power.

“My hunch is that Qiao might very well ally with Yang Shangkun, and possibly Wan Li as well, to create a new core of senior leaders in the immediate post-Deng era,” Baum said after learning of the TV survey’s findings.

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Officials at CCTV and the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television who supervise the evening news refused to answer questions about the editorial process involved in determining what and who goes on the broadcast.

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But sources close to the CCTV news operation said the choice of news items closely follows stories covered by the official New China News Agency. A pool of television camera operators, some posted at the elite government residential compound Zhongnanhai, is available at all times to the senior leaders.

The evening shows are taped every day at 6 in the second-floor newsroom of the massive CCTV building in western Beijing. After the taping, senior party officials in the Broadcast Ministry and Ministry of Propaganda view the tape, occasionally ordering changes.

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What comes out is hardly scintillating TV.

“They don’t consider television journalism,” one Chinese journalist complained. “To them, it is the party’s voice and tongue.”

After a parade of segments showing leaders with various minor dignitaries, the evening news show on Jan. 10, 1995, for example, continued with features on national agricultural meetings; a Guangdong province water conservation project; a crackdown on hooligans in Shanghai, and a “patriotic education film.” It concluded with a story about a calligraphy contest.

In the major cities, more sophisticated viewers, some of whom have access to foreign broadcasts from Hong Kong and via satellite from the West, often make fun of the 7 p.m. news, with its stiff party rhetoric and hopelessly untelegenic Communist leaders.

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Some urbanites ignore the first 20 minutes of domestic news, waiting instead for the last 10 minutes of international news for which film footage is often purchased from CNN and other professional, politically independent sources.

“Oh, it’s 7:20, time for the news,” is a common joke.

But in most of China, the evening news is granted a high degree of credibility. For many Chinese, it has replaced newspapers as the main source of information about their government.

Tara Duffy of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TV Tallies

A handful of Chinese leaders, believed to be candidates to succeed the ailing Den Xiaoping, have begun appearing on Chinese evening newscasts. Here are four leaders with the frequency and length of their television appearances:

Jian Zemin President, Communist Party general secretary, Central Military Commission chairman

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APPEARANCES: 67 TIME: 163 mins.

Qiao Shi Chairman of National People’s Congress APPEARANCES: 50 TIME: 122 mins.

Li Peng Premier APPEARANCES: 67 TIME: 110 mins.

Hu Jintao Member of Communist Party’s ruling standing committee APPEARANCES: 32 TIME: 50 mins.

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Note: A total of 63 evening news programs were monitored from October through December, 1994.


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