China's Global Media Blitz
Invasion of the Dragon
China has launched a well-funded offensive to become a global media player and influence world opinion on its own terms. What is it up to, and are people buying it?
Invasion of the DragonBy Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 505 )
Last summer in the northern end of New York's Times Square, a familiar yet strange name appeared on the huge LED advertising screen at the top of the towering 2 Times Square building – "Xinhua."
Xinhua News agency, the official news agency of China, pays over US$300,000 a month to rent the 18-meter-high by 12-meter-wide digital billboard and broadcast short video clips. It has also relocated its North American headquarters in the city from Queens to Times Square.
Xinhua subsidiary CNC World English-language news channel, launched in 2010 and modeled after Al-Jazeera, broadcasts news in English around the globe all day, every day. It began airing on Time Warner Cable in the United States last year.
On the eve of Xinhua's debut on the LED advertising screen, the news agency's president and former vice-director of the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department, Li Congjun, published an Op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "Toward a New World Media Order" that explains to some extent the motivation behind China's attempt to build a media empire.
In it, he argued that an uneven pattern exists in global communication.
"Unfortunately, the rules governing the international media order lag behind the times, especially compared to changes in politics and economics," he wrote. "The flow of information is basically one-way: from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries."
He suggested that "in our interdependent world, the human community needs a set of more civilized rules to govern international mass communication."
The response has been China's "Great External Propaganda" campaign, a concerted strategy to improve the country's international image and compete with Western media for an international voice and the ability to influence public opinion.
Since 2008, the Chinese government has helped Xinhua, China Central TV (CCTV), the People's Daily, China Radio International and other mainstream media strengthen their penetration of overseas markets. At the same time, five schools – Fudan University, Renmin University of China, Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Communication University of China – have opened master's programs in international news broadcasting to cultivate talent in the field.
Like it or not, China has raised media development to a national strategic priority, and the country's media is now "marching out" into the world, just as its corporations and currency have done.
Grabbing an International Voice
Xinhua's billboard at the top of 2 Times Square symbolizes this new foray into the outside world. Using colorful commercials to draw attention from its perch overlooking all of Times Square, China seems to be telling pedestrians in the square, "I've arrived."
Beijing decided to push this new external propaganda campaign after a series of internal incidents rocked China in 2008 and drew negative coverage overseas.
Rioting in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake, the Beijing Olympics and a scandal in China in which melamine was found in milk and baby formula all drew intensive coverage by the international media. But amid this deluge of exposure, senior Chinese officials felt they lacked a conduit expressing their own voice and were at the mercy of Western interpretations of China, which they believed harmed the country's image.
Also, they understood from the experience of Western countries that having influence over global public opinion was an important tool for upholding a county's interests in the international arena.
At the end of 2008, Central Propaganda Department director Liu Yunshan said at a seminar with cultural division chiefs that one's ability to disseminate information determines one's influence. In other words, whoever communicates the most effectively usually is best able to widely circulate their values and influence the world.
"Building a modern communications system with broad coverage that reflects our country's economic and social development and a communications capability commensurate with our international status has become an extremely urgent strategic task," Liu stressed.
In 2009, the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily launched the English-language daily the Global Times, the first step in the Great External Propaganda strategy. Over the past three years, the Global Times has emerged as an important news source for international media looking to understand official Chinese positions.
The same year, CCTV, which had Chinese, English, Spanish and French services, launched an Arabic station that broadcasts to 22 countries around the world. The company's goal was to stand out as China's CNN or BBC.
Reporting the News in 60 Languages
At the beginning of this year, China's General Administration of Press and Publication issued an official directive titled "Some opinions concerning accelerating our country's press and publications sector's marching out." It was the first time that China publicly revealed its comprehensive deployment of a global media presence.
In developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, where the media is not well established, Chinese media has already pulled even with the West. China Radio International is aggressively purchasing broadcasting frequencies in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and already airs programming in 60 languages, twice as many as the BBC.
In Kenya, Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and China Radio International are now equally as important as Voice of America and the BBC.
"You would have to be blind not to notice the Chinese media's arrival in Kenya," said Eric Shimoli, a top editor at Kenya's most widely read newspaper, the Daily Nation, to the New York Times. "It's a full-on charm offensive."
The primary target of the Chinese media's overseas expansion, however, is the United States, because China believes that the U.S. is the center of Western media and international opinion and that if you can influence Americans, you can influence the world.
For a long time, Xinhua News Agency was the only Chinese media outlet to have an office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., where offices of the world's mainstream media are concentrated. That changed last year, when the China Daily and the People's Daily moved in.
The People's Daily website also started renting space in the landmark Empire State Building in 2011.
Beyond expanding their own operations, Chinese media are also cooperating with local media to increase their exposure. China Daily, for example, runs a print and online advertising supplement in the Washington Post called "China Watch" that offers Communist Party-vetted news about the country.
China Radio International began in 2009 to broadcast China-related programming on KGBC in Galveston, Texas. Two years ago, the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily Media Group tried to purchase heavily indebted Newsweek, but it failed due to the opposition of the magazine's owner, the Washington Post Company. The magazine was eventually sold to stereo equipment magnate Sidney Harman and Harman Media in August 2010 for US$1 and assumed liabilities.
The Great External Propaganda campaign has clearly moved aggressively to embed Chinese media throughout the world, but even in China observers have argued that the offensive has been generally ineffective and has an uncertain future.
Finding the Right Ideological Line
Zhang Yang, a People's Daily reporter posted in the United States, wrote in a report that part of the problem stems from the Chinese media's lack of familiarity with how international media markets function.
"Party and government agencies like the Central Propaganda Department and media outlets alike are still exploring how to strengthen their international communications capabilities," Zhang wrote.
Non-Chinese readers of PRC media reports see them as being overloaded with ideology and political correctness, sparking negative reactions.
The New York Times cited Chinese reporting on the Arab Spring as an example. It said CCTV newscasts completely ignored the word "democracy" when reporting on the phenomenon, preferring to stress the chaos caused by the demise of autocratic regimes. Even an Al-Jazeera reporter could not take it.
"Every time I see Chinese media reports on the Arab revolution, I feel like my blood pressure is starting to rise," wrote Ezzat Shahrour, Al-Jazeera's chief correspondent in Beijing, in a blog in April 2011.
Though it is unlikely to challenge Western media in the short term, and its reporting has sparked a backlash for its ideological bias, the Chinese media's aggressive expansion already has the U.S. government feeling the competitive heat.
"America is facing an information war … and we are losing that war," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in early March 2011.
In Taiwan, Chinese media outlets are still not allowed to operate, but fears are mounting that mainstream media are being gobbled up by domestic corporations seen as favorable to China. These strong commercial pressures, in turn, have led to growing self-censorship within domestic media to avoid offending China.
It may be that the Chinese government's aggressive use of paid-for news content in Taiwan has left domestic media following in the footsteps of their Hong Kong counterparts in gradually losing their independence, with the result that public opinion is unwittingly becoming more favorably toward China.
If the PRC hopes to truly attain the goals of its Great External Propaganda campaign, however, it ultimately needs to start from within.
China restricts its people's freedom of speech, imposes government control over the media, abuses human rights, and supports autocratic regimes such as North Korea and Sudan that regularly trample on their citizens' civil rights. It is, in fact, these fundamental practices that most influence China's international image, and they will continue to undermine its media blitz unless the situation changes internally.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier