I didn’t expect the problem... I am very surprised at these villagers’ conditions,” Li Xixin, director of Shandong Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (SPDARA), said on live television.
Like many guests on Wenzheng Shandong (literally Ask a Shandong Official), a political affairs program on Shandong TV, Li had been caught off guard.
Causing a stir after premiering in March for its brand of gotcha journalism, the show focuses on persistent issues throughout Shandong.
However, the real draw is when Li Sha, who hosts along with anchor Zhu Wenchao, challenges high-ranking provincial officials from departments charged with solving them to offer solutions as the cameras roll.
On the episode with Li Xixin that aired April 21, Li Sha cites an issued provincial document outlining objectives for his department to improve garbage disposal, sewage treatment and public toilets in Shandong’s countryside by 2020.
“Do you think Shandong will reach those objectives within the promised time?” she asked Li Xixin.
He appeared unnerved by the question, and faltered a bit. “Time is very tight and we still have a lot of problems,” the official said, before meandering into a list of reasons that, from a viewer’s perspective, sound more like excuses.
Although not the first of its kind in China, the program is unique for its access to high-ranking officials and confrontational interviews. By June 27, Wenzheng Shandong had run a total of 17 episodes that addressed long-standing cases involving education, rural construction, housing, healthcare and environmental protection.
However, it has since fallen victim to formula. Officials were coming prepared with cookie-cutter responses. Follow-up programs showed departments addressed the cases featured on the show, while not addressing similar cases or the root cause.
The production team is working to strike the fine balance of revitalizing the show without stoking the ire of China’s officialdom.
The program was initiated by Shandong Provincial Party Secretary Liu Jiayi, who at a February government conference pushed for a public watchdog system through TV and the internet, according to the show’s producer, Yuan Baoguo.
And it was no easy undertaking, Yuan said. The show would target provincial officials who, unlike lower-level officials who appeared on similar programs in other cities, generally focus on supervision rather than specific issues.
Once a topic was picked, reporters would investigate four to six relevant cases without alerting the targeted department. Yuan said they deliberately cast male and female co-hosts to give the show more balance.
“Some hosts are too emotional, which I don’t think fits the program... Officials should be the focus of the show, not the hosts,” he told NewsChina.
To maintain objectivity, the program invites one to two experts on the topic as observers and a 20-member panel consisting mostly of delegates from the provincial People’s Congress and members of the provincial People’s Political Consultative Conference to comment on the officials’ replies. Several other officials are invited to sit among the audience in case there are any questions for them.
The first episode focused on Shandong Provincial Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. Song Chuanjie, an observer on the show, said the department wasn’t informed until the day of broadcast. The show focused on issues plaguing rural areas, such as poor management of construction waste, squatter buildings, real estate agent scams and poor toilet construction.
The show marked a first for Chinese television. Members of the public were confronting provincial officials, face to face.
The program immediately stirred controversy online. Some viewers praised it for hitting the mark, while others raised doubts over the program’s fidelity to fact and questioned whether footage was being carefully edited to get around censors.
Answering these concerns, Party Secretary Liu demanded the program be broadcast live, more seats in the studio audience provided to the general public, and that each episode include two deputy provincial officials.
To maximize impact, the production team would hold closed rehearsals before each broadcast and conduct mock interviews to better anticipate guest responses and sharpen their questions.
On camera, Li Sha would cut off officials as they struggled to justify their positions. During the SPDARA episode, for example, as Li Xixin explained why some renovated toilets were not working in some villages, Li Sha interrupted him and said, “OK, just tell us when the problems will be solved. Is there a schedule?”
“Interruptions represent the program’s attitude. We are investigating government affairs, not inviting officials to talk about their achievements or defend themselves... We interrupt them on behalf of the public. They just need to tell us what they’ll do next,” Yuan said.
The panel of representatives also plays an important role, expressing their feelings on officials’ responses by holding up signs depicting either a happy or sad face. In the SPDARA episode on April 21, nearly half of the panel raised their sad-face signs to Li Xixin’s response to the drinking water issue. “It seems these exposed problems had existed for long time, but why has the department remained ignorant of them until now?” one of the team members asked the SPDARA director, to his visible embarrassment.
It’s no wonder that many officials said the live program was like taking an exam. “It was like sitting on a hot stove while someone douses you with cold water... I’ve never felt that way,” an unnamed official who had been on the program said at a provincial work conference, according to Yuan. “I was satisfied with my team until I came on the program and found that our work had so many faults,” he added.
Falling to Formula
The program made an impact. According to The Beijing News, Wenzheng Shandong spotlighted over 130 specific problems by mid-June. Many were solved overnight.
But as time went on, Yuan found that officials were building immunity to the show’s format. Guests were responding to questions the same way: they would first express their surprise and regret about the situation, and then admit to their mistakes or negligence before pledging to solve the problem as soon as possible.
The program’s production team found that many departments literally saw the program as an exam, and were preparing for it. Many would study previous episodes once they were scheduled to appear, and then cram on issues they anticipated would be exposed. Some would even hold meetings to craft their responses.
And just as students prepare for material on the test, departments would only pay attention to the exposed cases.
According to Yuan, his program aims to help provincial departments to identify sweeping issues from several individual cases and work out targeted policies. However, few have done so.
During one follow-up episode, Wenzheng Shandong found that most spotlighted issues on the show had not been addressed or had come back. For example, a mountain of trash in one district had been cleared after it was featured on the program. But the follow-up revealed that other giant piles of garbage in neighboring areas remained. Similarly, the program found that illegal sand mining operations were still underway despite previous reports on the show.
“The public will applaud us for exposing one problem, but when the same problem keeps persisting, what was the point of exposing it?” Yuan told The Beijing News.
He expressed similar concerns to NewsChina, also revealing his team is trying to break the program’s fixed format and do more follow-up programs.
‘Dancing on a Razor’s Edge’
Despite backing from the province’s highest-ranking officials, Wenzheng Shandong was not given carte blanche. Yuan told The Beijing News that his team had encountered difficulties such as obstructed interviews and investigations. Yuan’s reporters, for example, were once intercepted by four unidentified trucks while investigating an illegal mine. “Many people think that the problems are obvious and easily found by our reporters, when in fact it’s the exact opposite. Our reporters are out in the open, while the problems are hidden in the dark,” Yuan said.
In an article for Hunan-based news portal rednet.cn, noted commentator Deng Haijian questioned whether TV-based watchdogs would exist without support from high-ranking officials. Before Wenzheng Shandong, there were already two well-known similar programs: Dianshi Wenzheng on Wuhan TV in Hubei Province, and Wenzheng Shike produced by Xi’an TV, Shaanxi Province. Both had backing from their local Party secretaries.
The two programs were considered even more confrontational than Wenzheng Shandong, at least during their early episodes. The Wuhan TV program, for example, would keep officials in the hot seat until they were visibly sweating. The Xi’an program uncovered nearly 300 issues over its first 20 episodes, which resulted in investigations into 915 officials.
However, according to The Beijing News, Wuhan’s program became markedly moderate in tone after its Party secretary was transferred to another city in 2016. It has since evolved into more of a round table format where hosts and officials discuss how to solve problems.
Xi’an’s program is trying to maintain its edge. While being praised for daring to leave officials stumped on camera, some netizens complain the program is becoming increasingly predictable. A commentary published on news portal hsw.cn, for example, argued that officials had become a bit indifferent to the reporter’s questions since the fourth episode and accused the program of not digging deep enough. For example, the fourth episode focused on poor urban management, but it failed to discuss the reasons, such as the lack of personnel.
Established patterns or time limitations may explain this common failing among political programs in China and Wenzheng Shandong is no exception. When a member of the representative team, for example, challenged a comment from Li Xixin, the host did not ask Li to respond. In subsequent cases, the host did not even ask representatives who raised their sad-face signs to comment.
Yuan argued that his program’s top focus is to solve problems, not embarrass officials. “Our purpose is to help solve problems, which is better than nothing,” he said. “This is not a gladiatorial arena. We’re not aiming to make officials sweat or blush on stage.”
Yuan believes the key to maintaining the program’s effect is to urge departments to resolve the root issues behind the spotlighted cases. He has suggested the provincial government voluntarily give progress reports on issues exposed on the show and introduce a rating system to appraise the work of each department.
For the next season beginning August, Yuan said the show will target city officials and completely cut contact with the featured departments to hinder their ability to prepare.
“It’s like dancing on a razor’s edge,” Yuan told NewsChina. “Getting local governments to care about public supervision and to want to solve more problems is progress. However, you certainly cannot rely on one single program to solve every problem. That’s too idealistic.”