Indecent exposé

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-17 22:53:01

Officers from Zhengzhou Administration for Industry and Commerce, Henan Province, carry out an investigation into an advertisement company in the city at 10 pm on Friday, after the 3/15 gala revealed that the company had screened advertisements for fake medicine. Photo: CFP
Officers from Zhengzhou Administration for Industry and Commerce, Henan Province, carry out an investigation into an advertisement company in the city at 10 pm on Friday, after the 3/15 gala revealed that the company had screened advertisements for fake medicine. Photo: CFP


Every year, as March 15 approaches, entrepreneurs around China begin to grow anxious. On this day, Consumer Rights Protection Day, CCTV airs a gala event that exposes companies that have cut corners in the pursuit of profit, to audiences in the millions. In an instant, irreversible damage can be inflicted upon high-profile brands.

One of the best examples was the Shuanghui Group, China's top ham and sausage producer. The "3/15 gala" revealed in 2011 that some products from the Shuanghui Group contained clenbuterol, a chemical dubbed "lean meat powder" as it is often fed to pigs to make them grow more muscle and less fat.

The revelation sparked an outcry over food safety and sent the stock prices of the Shuanghui Group down 40 percent, to the brink of bankruptcy.

The legendary televised gala exposé was, however, more controversial albeit less impressive this year.

Despite the effort it took to expose misdeeds by big brands such as Apple and Volkswagen, the show did not receive the wide-spread applause it had expected and was severely criticized on the Internet for failing to expose problems that really matter to people's lives. There were also claims on Weibo that the show paid people to post online comments promoting the program without revealing that it was advertising, however the claims have been denied by the commentators.

Divorced from livelihoods

The theme of this year's event was "My Rights, My Decision." The more-than-a-dozen companies it exposed ranged from cellphone producers to Internet service providers.

Among the many companies exposed was Apple, whose cellphone products occupy roughly 11 percent of the Chinese smartphone market. The company was revealed to have refused to replace the back cover of its cellphones in its after-sales service in order to shorten the warranty period - which would be extended if the phone was replaced.

Whilst the exposés demonstrated solid investigative work, none seemed to ignite the public's passion or approach issues close to their hearts.

"Does it really matter whether Apple replaces back covers or not?… Why wasn't it exposing what truly matters to people such as China's tainted milk powder, polluted air and contaminated water? Why wasn't it exposing the flaws of China's monopolistic State-owned enterprises but focusing on wrongdoings of private companies that are not as essential to people's lives?" said a posting on Sina Weibo by Zuoyeben, a popular Internet personality, that was reposted more than 140,000 times.

Earlier speculation indicated that Sinopec and two other State-owned oil companies were the chief drivers of China's recent serious smog because they produced low quality gasoline that caused harmful emissions. This speculation was never confirmed.

Fingers have also been pointed at the companies that sponsored the gala, with questions as to whether sponsors had bought their way out of harmful exposure.

"The gala focused on protecting the rights of the rich, those who can afford the luxury of Apple products and Volkswagen cars," Yu Shenghai, a researcher from the China Center for Economic Research, told the Global Times.

Manipulating opinion?

As if ignoring the foremost concerns from the public was not enough; the gala itself was "exposed" to have allegedly induced influential figures to post pre-written comments to manipulate public opinion.

A posting appeared on the Sina Weibo of Peter Ho, a famous movie star, expressing disappointment over Apple's service. However, the posting accidentally included an additional sentence - instructions detailing when to post the comment.

"As an Apple fan, I am hurt. Is this what Steve Jobs wanted the company to be? What about those who sell their kidneys to buy Apple's products? Truly, big companies treat customers with no respect. Post at around 8:20 pm," the comment read.

Ho claimed that his Weibo account had been hacked but the message had already gone viral. The gala was ridiculed as being hypocritical as it "cooked up fake comments under the name of fighting fake products."

Many Web users mocked the expose by attaching the "Post around 8:20 pm" instruction to their posts.

There was even rumor saying that the gala paid several celebrities to direct public opinion, but those invited to the gala, including Zheng Yuanjie, a famous author who also posted an anti-Apple message around 8:20 pm that night, denied this.

Kai-Fu Lee, former vice-president of Google and a popular figure on the Internet, confirmed on his Sina Weibo that "CCTV has invited influential Internet figures to comment in accordance with a certain event but did not offer to pay for them."

"I knew because I was invited," said Lee, adding that he declined because the event was not related to issues that affect people's livelihoods, such as air, water or food safety.

Crisis of confidence

In an interview with Sina after the event, Yin Wen, the show's director, denied that CCTV had protected their sponsors.

"Our program and advertisements are separate and do not interfere with each other," said Yin, adding that a lot of the companies the gala intended to expose were left out because they could not acquire enough evidence.

Yin remained silent on what the team will do to tackle the criticisms that they failed to address essential issues and manipulated public opinion. Interview inquiries from the Global Times went unanswered.

"At least Apple has after-sales service. Who provided 'after-sales support' to the victims of tainted milk power?" Zuoyeben said on his Weibo.

To many, the issues emerging from the 3/15 gala are a sign of deeper issues within society.

"People are increasingly disappointed with environmental pollution and food safety issues. The fact that these issues were not addressed and the knowledge that CCTV was trying to control the public opinion rather than embrace it is going to hurt the authority of CCTV and create a crisis of confidence," said Zhang Xin, a professor of public management with the Renmin University of China.

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