Capitalism finds voice in China TV
By David Barboza
Monday, March 16, 2009

BEIJING: At just 31 years old, Rui Chenggang has emerged as the media face of Chinese capitalism: young, smart and, to the dismay of some, deeply nationalistic.

His nightly financial news program attracts 13 million viewers on China Central Television, the nation's biggest state-run network, where Mr. Rui puts tough questions to Wall Street chiefs and Chinese economists while also delivering a dose of optimism about China's outlook.

He also writes a popular blog ( infused with patriotic rhetoric. And he recently published a book, "Life Begins at 30," in which he reflects on China's economic miracle and what he sees as the difficult path ahead.

In a foreword to the book, the president of Yale, Richard C. Levin, calls Mr. Rui "an energetic young standard bearer of the New China." Some critics are less generous, calling him a tireless self-promoter and a propaganda tool of the Communist Party.

But Mr. Rui (pronounced Ray), who drives a Jaguar to work and wears Zegna suits, says his goals reach beyond media stardom. He wants to use his celebrity to build bridges with the West and help change world opinion about China, which he says suffers because of biased foreign media coverage and the country's poor training in communication.

"China has a really bad image problem," Mr. Rui says after a broadcast one evening, while lounging at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "I'm gathering a group of people and we hope to do something about that."

Supporters say Mr. Rui's growing influence among young people is a reflection of China's development in the 20 years since the government cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square here.

But his efforts fit the Chinese government's own goal of using the state-controlled media to improve the nation's image abroad, particularly after last year's Olympic torch relay was marred by overseas protests.

Beijing is now pushing its big media properties, all of which are heavily censored and operate under the government's propaganda department, to expand their overseas operations. Under one proposal, China may even create a 24-hour English language news channel to compete with CNN and the BBC, and deliver a more, well, positive view of China's rise.

Rui Chenggang would appear to be the very model for such national image building.

In late January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, China's dashing young journalist lined up interviews with some of the biggest names at the event: Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, Craig R. Barrett of Intel and Stephen A. Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. He trades e-mail messages with the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and three times a year, he meets "Henry," as in Henry Kissinger, he says.

He also says he has vacationed with Chinese policy advisers and hosted programs for China's top leaders, including President Hu Jintao.

His tone on the air is serious and scripted. Off the air, he sounds like an investment banker who is running for office. He quotes Lao Tzu, makes references to Homer's "Odyssey," explains the pitfalls of private equity and analyzes China's place in the global financial crisis.

"In China, we have neither a financial crisis nor an economic crisis," he says. "China is going through a serious slowdown. The world is going through a synchronized recession. As a journalist we shouldn't exaggerate."

Fluent in English, trained as a diplomat and well-versed in global finance, Mr. Rui often sounds like an activist or cultural critic, pressing readers of his blog and book to value traditional culture and even buy Chinese-made goods.

In 2007, his blog ignited a grass-roots movement that helped push Starbucks out of Beijing's historic Forbidden City. (Mr. Rui considered it inappropriate to have an American brand there; now Chinese tea is served there.)

Not everyone likes his personal campaigns.

"As a TV host I think he's not bad," says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at the China Youth University of Political Science in Beijing. "But off the show he's a bit disgusting. If you protest Starbucks in the Imperial Palace, why don't you protest speaking English to your Chinese buddy in China? It's ultranationalism, and too narrow-minded."

Over the years, Mr. Rui says, he has formulated his own thinking on China's affairs. While he calls "blind nationalism" a grave danger to China's development, he worries more about how the foreign media and Westerners misunderstand his country. The People's Republic of China, he says, is a mere 60 years old, as young as Bill Clinton.

"We're a toddler and the U.S. is middle-aged," he says. "We're young and dynamic, and we have a lot of growing pains. That's the way you should look at China. Compare China to the U.S. horizontally, and we're behind; but compare us vertically and we're making progress."

Mr. Rui's progress does mimic that of the country in the last 20 years, when a generation of frustrated, angry yet idealistic youths from the 1980s gave way to a more affluent generation born after the government began its one-child policy.

"In the 1980s, China was going from a process of being closed to being opened, and there was so much uncertainty," says Yang Xiong, a professor of youth studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "Today, things are quite different. Young people have a lot of opportunities."

Born in 1977, Mr. Rui is a member of this more privileged generation. He grew up in east China's Anhui Province, the son of a writer and a dancer. His father was educated at one of the top schools in Beijing and is the author of a 1974 novel, "The Newcomer Xiaoshizhu," which became a best seller that was later made into an animated movie.

As a child, Mr. Rui says, he was bilingual and bicultural. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday his father read Tang Dynasty poems to him in Chinese. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he listened to stories by Shakespeare and Tolstoy in English.

He studied at the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, intending to become a diplomat. But everything changed, he says, after he met Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary general of the United Nations, during a visit to his school in the late 1990s.

Mr. Rui recalls asking Mr. Boutros-Ghali which nation he might select if there were a sixth member of the United Nations Security Council. He says Mr. Boutros-Ghali answered "CNN," saying its influence is bigger than most countries.

And so after graduating in 1999, he took a job at China Central Television, and quickly rose through the ranks, helping establish the network's first English language channel and serving as a reporter and anchor for "BizChina," a nightly business news program.

The show gave him access to powerful guests visiting Beijing and helped him win respect overseas. He recently moved to one of CCTV's Chinese language channels, which is allowing him to broaden his reach and popularity inside China, since his English language channel work was mostly aimed at overseas viewers.

Guo Zhenxi, the president of CCTV's Channel 2, says Mr. Rui is already making a big difference by helping upgrade financial news coverage during the global crisis, drawing as many as 28 million viewers on a single day, the highest ratings ever for a business show.

"He's our star anchor," Mr. Guo says. "For the first time we're examining the health of the nation with a television program."

Because his positions often parrot Beijing's critiques of foreign journalists, Mr. Rui is asked whether he engages in propaganda handed down by the government. He compares it with Fox News coverage of the White House during a Republican administration.

"I hate the word propaganda," he says.