Source: China Daily
Edwin Maher is seen in a news studio of the CCTV International in this file photo. [CCTV]
Living in China is like riding a speeding train, which knows where it's going, but keeps the passengers wondering what's around the next bend. Edwin Maher sees himself as one such passenger. "Four years on, I still find living in China just as exciting as the day I first arrived."
Maher came to China by chance. He picked up China Radio International while searching his short-wave radio in Melbourne, Australia, one day in 2003. On an impulse, he sent off an e-mail outlining his four decades' experience as a broadcast journalist. A few days later, he was offered a job in Beijing as voice coach. "It was a turning point in my life," says Maher.
It did not take much time for another turning point to come. An Australian news copy editor at China Central Television's English Channel (CCTV-9) recognized him in a Beijing hotel. Maher worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for nearly 20 years. He is a well-known and respected weatherman and news anchor at home. This copy editor told his boss: "It was Edwin Maher! I watched him while growing up."
Maher got an offer from CCTV-9, which was then undergoing a major facelift. Maher's debut as the first Western news anchor on China's state broadcaster in March 2004, made him a focus of attention.
Recently, he was in the spotlight again, winning the Friendship Award, the highest honor that a foreigner can receive from the Chinese government. There are half a million overseas talents providing expertise on the nation's development all across the country. Fifty of them, including Maher, were the lucky ones to be recognized by the Chinese government this year.
The award ceremony brought Maher to the Great Hall of the People for meetings with China's State leaders. His favorite is Premier Wen Jiabao who appears almost everyday in the news that Maher presents. He says Wen conveys a lot of charisma and charm on the screen and wonders how he is in real life.
When Wen walked up to him and greeted him in English: "Congratulations and nice to meet you", Maher replied with a gesture to make sure Wen understood what he meant: "I really like your smile." This very brief encounter left Maher with the impression of Wen as a "very natural and friendly man".
"That was the highlight for me," says Maher.
Maher's four years in China include many unexpected highlights which to him are the unknown bends on a speeding train. He sees China as that speeding train, surfing uncharted waters. Since Maher's arrival in Beijing, China has been persistently telling the world that it wants its fast economic engine to maintain its momentum in a way that is different from the West.
As the speeding train from the East rushes into an international system established and maintained by the West, the world wonders what a self-claimed "different China" will bring in the long run. China too does not know "what's around the next bend". Maher's unexpected highlights reflect China's efforts to maintain its uniqueness while integrating into the world system. A good illustration of this is Maher becoming the first Western news anchor on China's state broadcaster.
It was a bold step for CCTV-9 to hire Maher as a news anchor three years ago. CCTV-9 was officially launched on September 25, 2000, and promoted itself as "Your Window on China". Its management team had planned to introduce native English speakers to anchor the newscasts before the official launch.
"We considered employing American-born Chinese or British-born Chinese. Of course, Western faces were not excluded," says Sheng Yilai, director of CCTV's Overseas Program Center. "However, it was not approved."
The whole idea behind CCTV-9 was to break Western monopoly on international news and provide a Chinese perspective on international affairs. Was then, a Western anchor appropriate? However, growing consensus was reached quickly that China should have its voice heard internationally in a practical way.
"CCTV-9 should be able to produce considerable international influence in five years. CCTV should be able to compete with CNN and BBC in 10 years," said Xu Guangchun, then minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television in 2001.
To compete in the international media arena, CCTV-9 underwent a series of expansions and facelifts. In 2004, the station changed its tagline from "Your Window on China" to "Your Window on China and the World". The most remarkable change of that facelift was Edwin Maher. CCTV believes that hiring overseas talent was a step forward in raising the professional standards of the channel.
The reforms indeed pulled in more viewers for CCTV-9 and Maher quickly became a well-recognized news figure. Most journalists from the English-speaking world have one question in common for Maher: Why do you work for a communist propaganda machine?
In a half-page article entitled CCTV tries to shed its mouthpiece image in the South China Morning Post on April 6, 2004, Maher was quoted as saying: "Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly." In the following months and years, Maher explained in numerous interviews that the news he reads does not and should not represent his personal views. This is a professional and polite answer to avoid ideological debates.
Recently, Maher answered the same question with more candor. He referred to his previous employer ABC, which he regards as his second home, to illustrate the point that there is criticism of the national broadcaster in every country. ABC used to be considered as far to the right or far to the left. "You can never please everybody all of the time," says Maher. "But you can try within the parameters of the system and environment that the broadcasters operate to provide a better standard of news bulletin."
Maher takes the media-State relationship in China as a fact of life and a matter of acceptance: "When you work for an organization, it's like being selected to play in the team and there is a captain in the team and there are rules of the game. You have to abide by the rules. If you don't like them, you get out."
Maher grew up in New Zealand and began his broadcast career in Wellington in 1965. In those days, broadcast media was totally controlled by the government. There was only one news bulletin on radio at 9 pm, most of which consisted of handouts by government departments.
Recalling his early work, Maher says: "The government, realizing that radio was becoming a very popular medium, decided to close down the private radio stations and it was the sole operator right up until the 1970s. It was not that long ago. Then gradually the change came, the system changed and there is private and public broadcasting. Changes always come."
As for the changes in Chinese media, Maher says he has "seen great changes at CCTV-9 in a relatively short period of time". Current affairs programs which were once recorded, such as the daily interview program Dialogue, can now broadcast live, allowing a freer flow of views on controversial issues.
CCTV-9's promotion "CCTV International - Your Window on China and the World" was voiced over by Maher. "Over the past three-and-a-half years, I have seen that window opening wider and wider."
When asked to compare China before and after his four years' stay in the country, Maher is frank: "I did not have a lot of impression or knowledge about China. To be honest, I did not have any particular feelings or interest in China." Maher's China impression was a blank sheet of paper, standing in stark contrast to those with a fixed view of China before arriving in the country.
In recent years, the world's media spotlight has been on China, promoting feelings of great-power revival among its nationals. How far has China moved forward? Without great changes in China, Maher would not have become China's Western face.