At the end of October, a young journalist in handcuffs, green prison jacket and a freshly shaved head appeared on China Central Television, the state-owned national broadcaster, and confessed to taking bribes in exchange for writing negative articles about a large Chinese company.
Just days earlier, the newspaper that employed Chen Yongzhou, 27, had published front-page headlines calling for his release, while human rights groups had mobilised to defend him. But after his admission on television, the issue quickly died away.
Mr Chen’s is the latest in a series of televised public pre-trial confessions on CCTV in recent months that has included British and US citizens.
The performances, reminiscent of an earlier age in which political “struggle sessions” and show trials were the norm, have raised concerns in China about the damage they cause to the government’s stated goal of improving the rule of law.
But they have also raised an important question about the role of the state broadcaster and the balance it must strike as a global media organisation, a moneymaking venture and a political mouthpiece for the Communist party.
The question is increasingly important to multinationals such as Apple, KFC, Volkswagen, Starbucks and Samsung, which in the past year have all been accused by the broadcaster of malfeasance or unfair practices in China.
For big global companies, understanding why they have been singled out and on whose orders is crucial to avoiding one of the most dangerous pitfalls that can befall their business.
In a recent book, Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television, author Ying Zhu says: “CCTV is full of serious-minded creators who regularly experience bouts of self-doubt, philosophical ambivalence and in some cases clinical depression.”
She adds there are “certain common themes, about ideals distorted or altogether thwarted by commercial and political pressure”.
Founded in 1958 as the country’s first TV station, CCTV did not convert to colour or extend its programming beyond a couple of hours in the evenings until the late 1970s.
In 1978, fewer than 10m Chinese people had access to a TV, but today CCTV boasts more than 1bn potential viewers for its 45 channels that broadcast mostly soap operas, historical dramas and variety shows.
The broadcaster earns billions of dollars a year in advertising revenue and its state funding is only a minor part of its budget.
But it remains a vice-ministerial level government department and is always led by a senior Communist party official who has come up through the party propaganda system.
The current head, Hu Zhanfan, raised eyebrows in 2011 when he declared that the “first and foremost social responsibility [of journalists] is to serve well as a mouthpiece tool; this is the most core content of the Marxist view of journalism and it is the most fundamental of principles”.
According to current and former CCTV employees, the pervasive censorship and political orders make it easy to become jaded.
So when staff are presented with a chance to make money through unethical, or in some cases illegal, deals the temptation is heightened by this sense of disillusionment.
“The corruption inside CCTV is extremely serious,” says Hu Yong, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University and a former CCTV employee. “[CCTV employees] will blackmail interviewees by threatening to expose them publicly or they will become public advocates for their interview subjects in exchange for economic benefits.”
Shi Feike, a journalist who once had close ties with CCTV, has a more nuanced view. “The corruption inside CCTV is not necessarily more serious than in any other monopolistic state-owned enterprise in China,” he says. “There are many highly professional and ethical staff working at CCTV and the situation varies depending on the department, the channel and the individual programme.”
CCTV said: “CCTV has strict requirements regarding its employees’ professional ethics, and employs comprehensive disciplinary measures to restrict their activities. No matter if it is reporting on Chinese companies or foreign companies, our station always adheres to the principles of objectivity and fairness.
“If you pay attention to our station’s programming, you will find that our station broadcasts a large quantity of supervision-type and exposure-type programmes, and most of them are about Chinese domestically-produced products and brands.”
In the wake of food and product safety scandals, CCTV has become a self-appointed public watchdog, with a focus on the transgressions of multinationals operating in China.
In recent weeks, the broadcaster has targeted smartphone maker Samsung for allegedly unfair after-sales policies, while earlier this year it directed similar charges against Apple that prompted the company to apologise.
Other companies such as KFC, McDonald’s, Volkswagen, and Walmart have all been targeted by similar reports that appear to concentrate less on Chinese companies, in particular state-owned monopolies that are often derided for substandard products.
“The reasons for this bias towards reporting [negatively] on foreign companies are complicated; sometimes it is political as in the case of Google, often it is rent-seeking [pushing a company to buy advertising or pay bribes] and sometimes it is just the path of least resistance,” says Mr Shi. “They cannot touch state enterprises because they will be censored so it is much safer to beat up on foreign companies.”
But negative campaigns do not always have the desired effect.
In late October, CCTV lambasted Starbucks for overcharging Chinese consumers for its coffee.
With more than 1,000 outlets across China and plans for it to become its second-largest market after the US by next year, Starbucks wants to avoid a fight with the propaganda apparatus.
But the report was mostly greeted with derision rather than public outrage.
“Coffee is not a necessity for life, the price is determined by the market and it is up to Starbucks to charge what it wants,” said one user of China’s Twitter-like Weibo service. “If CCTV really cares about high prices why can’t they pay attention to prices that are actually related to people’s livelihoods?”
朱颍在最近出版的《二十亿只眼睛:中国中央电视台的故事》(Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television)中说：“央视有很多思想严肃的创作者，他们经常产生自我怀疑、哲学矛盾，有时会患上临床抑郁症。”