BEIJING — Every night at 7, more than 400 million Chinese--almost half of the largest television audience in the world--settle down in front of their TV sets to watch the China Central Television national network news.
It's heir time.
Among the Chinese leaders presented on the evening news are the handful of men who are the most likely candidates to succeed Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping, whose health is quickly declining.
Sinologists once determined political status by measuring and counting photographs in the People's Daily newspaper, but power now is more accurately reflected in air time on the world's most watched national newscast.
"The evening news is the most popular program in the country--the most watched show in China," said Susan J. Schoenfeld, a lawyer and communications consultant in Hong Kong. According to government statistics, China now boasts more than 250 million TV sets. Television reaches 81% of China's 1.2 billion people.
Without fail--irrespective of war or catastrophe anywhere else in the world--the first 20 minutes of the nightly CCTV broadcast is made up mainly of formal public appearances by Communist Party leaders, usually shown sitting as though frozen in place or posing stiffly with often obscure foreign visitors.
In the hyperactive "Eyewitness News" context of the West, this is classic "dead air."
But in China, the carefully presented nightly parade of Communist leaders is the main public hint available about who is ahead in the battle to succeed 90-year-old Deng, who is so weak he can no longer stand up on his own, according to one of his daughters.
Just how carefully the nightly "heir time" is doled out became clear when researchers for The Times, stopwatch in hand, monitored evening newscasts over a three-month period beginning in October.
Three men--President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng and National People's Congress Chairman Qiao Shi--outdistanced all other Chinese leaders in accumulated air time, supporting the thesis, widely held among political scientists, that, after Deng's death, China will enter a temporary era of triumvirate rule with Jiang at the core.
In the newscasts clocked, Jiang and Li each appeared 67 times. But Jiang, the favorite to replace Deng, had significantly more accumulated air time, 163 minutes compared to 110 minutes for Li, leader of the conservative faction in party politics.
"I think this fact is very telling," Schoenfeld said. "The fact that the number of appearances is the same but the length of time is different indicates that someone else was counting too."
Significantly, Qiao, considered by many to be a dark horse candidate to replace Deng, amassed more air time than did Li.
Li, who recently received extensive TV coverage when he presided over the groundbreaking of the massive Three Gorges Dam project in Hubei province, is said to love appearing on the evening news.
But, according to sources connected to the CCTV news programs, Li is disliked by some camera operators and news editors who sometimes mar his appearances by choosing bad angles or poor footage.
In Chinese television, where all news about Communist Party leaders is good news, this is the closest thing to subjective comment.
Qiao, former head of China's secret police and overseas intelligence operations, is a consummate politician who has allies in both the reformist and conservative wings of the Communist Party.
Importantly, unlike Li, he is not tainted by the military's brutal 1989 crackdown on demonstrators in Tian An Men Square. Most people believe that one of the main aspects of the post-Deng era will be a reassessment of the Tian An Men Square episode.
"The most significant thing to me was that Qiao Shi surpassed Li Peng in CCTV exposure," said Richard Baum, UCLA political scientist and author of a recent book on Deng. "My general sense is that Qiao Shi will play a critical role as kingmaker--and possibly even king--after Deng's death."
Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study, in which 63 evening news broadcasts were monitored, was the relatively small amount of TV exposure given to Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, who has been charged with orchestrating economic reforms.
Zhu, 66, is a favorite outside China. He is viewed in the West as the most reform-minded member of the party's ruling standing committee. Despite significant activity in the overheated Chinese economy in the months monitored by The Times, Zhu appeared in only 18 of 63 shows for total air time of 26 minutes.
The relatively low number of appearances seemed to confirm rumors of his recent fall from favor at the center of Chinese power, where he is blamed by some party rivals for China's 23% annual inflation rate--more than twice the target set by the government.