The pathetic fallacy
All trousers and no mouth
ITS charred hulk looms over Beijing’s central business district, a monument to recklessness. The building is part of a colossal, architecturally extravagant complex being built for the state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV). A fire gutted it three months ago, creating an embarrassing eyesore, for which a senior head has now rolled.
Conspicuous though the tattered grey shell of the Television Cultural Centre is, officials have been trying hard to keep discussion of the disaster out of the official media. So the announcement on May 17th of the replacement of the broadcaster’s director, Zhao Huayong, described it as a “normal retirement”. Not so, say Chinese journalists. At 61, Mr Zhao is certainly old enough to retire. But before CCTV employees started the blaze on February 9th, by setting off fireworks around the unfinished building, he had been expected to serve a few more months and be given a senior honorific post after leaving. Obscurity is now probably the best he can hope for.
The Television Cultural Centre had been due to open this month, providing hotel accommodation and studio facilities. Chinese media have said that plans are still on track for the opening later this year of the complex’s centrepiece, a structure mocked by locals as the “big trousers” because of its twisted shape (designed, like its burned-out neighbour, by a Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas).
Officials had hoped the new buildings would be ready for the celebrations to mark communist China’s 60th birthday on October 1st. But even if the trousers are ready, there is no word on what will happen to the ashen remains of a structure known by locals, because of its shape and location, as the “little phallus”.
The government’s silence on the topic reflects its enormous discomfort. The project has been beset by public criticism: of the complex’s cost and architectural oddity; of the carelessness that caused the fire (more than a dozen people have been arrested); and of CCTV itself. The broadcaster is widely accused of abusing its monopoly over national television by offering second-rate programmes and shoddy news coverage, or, in the case of the fire in February, next to none. In Chinese slang, the acronym for CCTV has become an oft-used pejorative. Caijing, a weekly news magazine, reported in March that the project was projected to cost 12 billion yuan ($1.8 billion), well over the 7.7 billion budgeted in 2001.
These figures, the magazine said, did not include another 7 billion yuan in “equipment costs”. But CCTV does not seem strapped for cash. It is launching new services for Arabic- and Russian-speaking countries this year, part of a push to become what it calls a world-class media group of “splendour and influence” equal to its American and European counterparts. The Schadenfreude in China’s blogosphere over the disaster in February suggests lukewarm support for CCTV’s ambitions among the audience at home.