We Report, We Decide
Can the Chinese government build an international media behemoth -- and does anyone care?
These are gloomy days for the global media, but you wouldn't know it from looking at China, where the government has reportedly earmarked RMB45 billion ($6.58 billion) for the international expansion of state broadcasting. As part of this push, China Central Television, or CCTV, and Xinhua news agency will produce content in different languages for both Western and Asian audiences. CCTV, which is preparing to move into a new $700 million headquarters in downtown Beijing, has already opened French and Spanish channels and will soon broadcast in Russian and Arabic. Xinhua will reportedly launch a 24-hour English-language news station modeled on Qatar's Al Jazeera that will broadcast news and features from China and compete with CNN and BBC. It will expand its overseas bureaus from 100 to 186.On the print side, China Daily, the state-owned English newspaper, recently opened a Washington bureau and launched a U.S. edition. In April, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, People's Daily, launched China's second major English daily, Global Times.
These are gloomy days for the global media, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at China, where the government has reportedly earmarked RMB45 billion ($6.58 billion) for the international expansion of state broadcasting. As part of this push, China Central Television, or CCTV, and Xinhua news agency will produce content in different languages for both Western and Asian audiences. CCTV, which is preparing to move into a new $700 million headquarters in downtown Beijing, has already opened French and Spanish channels and will soon broadcast in Russian and Arabic. Xinhua will reportedly launch a 24-hour English-language news station modeled on Qatar’s Al Jazeera that will broadcast news and features from China and compete with CNN and BBC. It will expand its overseas bureaus from 100 to 186.On the print side, China Daily, the state-owned English newspaper, recently opened a Washington bureau and launched a U.S. edition. In April, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, launched China’s second major English daily, Global Times.
If there were ever a time for the Chinese press to make inroads into global journalism, it’s now, as the death knell sounds for traditional media around the world and a state-financed newcomer has little competition. The big state media companies have already begun looking for international media assets, and CCTV’s English channel has developed an audience in Africa and Asia. Observers suggest Chinese media could follow the same path as Al Jazeera, which was met with skepticism just over a decade ago but is now a global news player. So, will media consumers one day find boxes ofGlobal Timeson New York street corners? Will viewers in the United Kingdom flip between BBC, Al Jazeera and China TV? Most importantly, will the PR campaign influence the way we think about China?
In a word, no. First, there’s the money problem. Despite the large upfront investment, long-term sustainability looks doubtful. The English-language state media has minimal advertising revenue, and there’s little indication these will be money-making ventures. Global Times, for example, is expected to lose RMB20 million in its first year of publication. The government puts money in, but it doesn’t get money back, says Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU). Over 10 or even five years, the government can’t sustain such costs. If the government stops the subsidies, what will happen? Beijing has stayed mum on how long it plans to bankroll the expansion, other than to point out that improving China’s communications capability is a priority, and the outlets themselves have not defined their business models. Regardless, for long-term success state media will need to crack North America and Europe — much tougher markets than Africa and Asia.
A second, but perhaps even more serious problem, is the issue of content.Although there have been marked improvements in recent years, the Chinese media continues to either ignore sensitive issues or report only one side of the story. These issues include, but are not limited to, the Three Ts — Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan. Stereotypes about China are often highlighted simply because they are glossed over. In order to attract an audience overseas, the Chinese press will need to fundamentally change its presentation of current affairs.
This is not likely to happen, however, as long as all media outlets are owned and run by the state. The Chinese government, frustrated with the way China is portrayed by Western news organizations, has made no secret that the expansion of overseas propaganda, as party insiders call it, is intended purely to influence the way the world perceives the country. In January, Li Changchun, a CCP Politburo Standing Committee member, said that officials must vigorously sing the praises of the achievements of the CCP, socialism, the reform policy, and the great motherland. Wang Chen, the head of the party’s overseas propaganda division, said the media should boost capacity to broadcast, to positively influence international public opinion and to establish a good image for our nation. Those words don’t bode well for increased press freedom.
One hope for Chinese global media, then, may be for it to diversify its ownership. According to BFSU’s Qiao, If we let other interest groups into media ownership and management, they can manage as the market requests. They can try to please its audience. If management evolves, the content will of course change. They have to think about investment, advertisement, audience interest.
The most obvious path to overseas success — a solution for both the money and the content problems — is a model that allows private investment. Consider Phoenix Television, a privately owned Hong Kong-based broadcaster run by a former People’s Liberation Army colonel. Phoenix runs five different channels targeting mainland China and other markets with a substantial Mandarin Chinese-speaking population.
That’s a good model for state media to follow, says Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese media and culture studies at Duke University and dean of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Everybody knows that Phoenix has a very strong government backing, but it does not appear as state media. Liu adds that it’s premature to talk about privatizing state media, but that there are ways to water down state control, including the formation of joint ventures with international media companies. That’s important to appear credible, he says.
Of course, even if the state loosens its grip on the media, it does not mean that the Three Ts will be fair game. Indeed, CCTV, Xinhua, China Daily and others will receive a cool reception abroad if they continue to fawn over their owners and present only the rosiest picture of China’s state of affairs. In journalism there’s an old saying, Bad news is good news. If all the Chinese news is good news, expect foreign audiences to change the channel.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.