China’s $6 Billion Propaganda Blitz Is a Snooze

Beijing’s propaganda works at home, but it can't compete globally.

A man walks past a roadside poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on Oct. 24, 2017. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past a roadside poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on Oct. 24, 2017. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

In a world on the brink of chaos, China has decided that what people everywhere need is more good news — as long as it’s about China. China is creating a giant media outlet called Voice of China, combining the three state television and radio broadcasters aimed at overseas audiences: China Global Television Network, China Radio International, and China National Radio. The hope is that by combining resources and output, China will have a broader platform to spread its message overseas.

But will Voice of China succeed in boosting China’s international image, especially given the dubious performance of previous global state media pushes?

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret that he has very high hopes for China as a new superpower on the world stage, having broken away from his predecessors’ low-key approach. Like Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” “Voice of China” is a calque, directly copied from a U.S. model — in this case, “Voice of America.” But despite the country’s economic, industrial, and technological might, China has a serious problem with its international image. The Chinese Dream doesn’t sell abroad, at least in the developed world — and the censorship and restraints that have always held back Chinese media abroad have been redoubled in the age of Xi.

That’s why the Chinese leadership has put significant effort into improving China’s soft power globally, with state media playing a key part.

Voice of China is the latest move in a global $6.6 billion media expansion campaign involving TV, radio, and newspapers that started in 2009 during the presidency of Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor

The merger of the three state media broadcasters was also part of a significant government overhaul in March to streamline departments and centralize control, re-emphasizing the Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate authority. Voice of China will also be directly overseen by the State Council and managed by the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department. It’s a long-running idea; there are reports in Chinese media from 2001 about a proposed merger of these three organizations, though nothing apparently came of it until now.

Besides the groups set to merge as Voice of China, the country’s giant state media machine includes newspapers such as the English-language China Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper the People’s Daily, and the Global Times, owned by the People’s Daily, which is a nationalist tabloid with both English and Chinese-language editions. (I was an editor for the Global Times in Beijing between 2013 and 2015.) All these outlets have expanded significantly since the global media campaign launched in 2009. Large numbers of foreign professionals, such as myself, were hired at media outlets in Beijing, while China Central Television (CCTV) launched bureaus in Kenya and the United States. The English-language edition of the Global Times was launched in 2009.

In theory, the global push has been successful. CCTV is broadcast in 140 countries in multiple languages, while China Radio International broadcasts in 65 languages. CCTV even rebranded its foreign-language news channels as China Global Television Network (CGTN) at the end of 2016. The rebranding also included the launch of a CGTN app and increased social media presence on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, all banned in China. China Daily puts out international editions in Hong Kong, the United States, and Europe.

In contrast to the staid People’s Daily and China Daily, the Global Times’ English edition has attracted lots of attention — but not necessarily for the right reasons. Its aggressive editorials pull no punches excoriating any country or foreign politician whom China has an issue with, such as calling U.S. President Donald Trump “as ignorant as a child” or branding the United Kingdom as fit only for travel and education. In March, one feisty editorial urged China to prepare for a “direct military clash” in the Taiwan Strait.

However, despite almost a decade of overseas expansion, China state media are still widely — and largely correctly — seen as being editorially biased and full of propaganda, and they still struggle to attract large audiences.

That’s not going to change. In fact, it looks likely to get worse.

Voice of China was formed with the goal of “propagating the party’s theories, directions, principles and policies” as well as “telling good China stories,” according to a Chinese Communist Party document released by Xinhua, the nation’s official news agency, on March 21.

Herein lies the problem. The redoubling of efforts to push the party’s theories and principles abroad is at odds with boosting China’s overseas image. In this age of widespread internet use and the popularity of social media and nontraditional forms of media, people have become more averse to clumsy state-run propaganda than ever.

“The creation of Voice of China is about centralizing control and consolidating resources, [in the belief] that this will allow China to project its voice more effectively. But the challenge for China’s leadership will be how to project voices that somehow resonate with people around the world while maintaining a unity of voice,” says David Bandurski, co-director of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “This is an internal contradiction China has struggled with for years in its external propaganda. And it’s possible that this consolidation could only worsen the problem.”

It’s also basically impossible to use media to promote China overseas while domestic journalism languishes. Not only is media in all forms heavily censored in China, but journalists also have been the target of a crackdown in recent years. As a result, there is growing disillusionment in the profession as journalists are allowed to do little more than parrot the official line.

A reporter’s eye roll on live TV during the National People’s Congress in March was a perfect example. By rolling her eyes at another reporter asking a long-winded question during a press conference, a Chinese journalist seemed to speak for many in the country who are tired of the charade that local media has become. The reality in China is that any journalist who dares ask a government official critical questions would almost definitely face serious punishment. The eye roll media storm was followed by censorship, a predictable response from the authorities, and then an official ban on video parodies.

Investigative journalism has been severely curtailed, while reporting has become increasingly censored. Beijing’s expulsion of at least tens of thousands of migrant workers last November and December, for instance, saw limited and heavily restricted domestic news coverage.

State media outlets, even the firebrand Global Times, are the ones most subject to these restrictions. At times, Global Times journalists were once able to put out relatively daring pieces on issues like local corruption, rural poverty, and gay and lesbian discrimination. But these are increasingly rare — and are drowned out by bombastic nationalistic editorials and news stories on problems in foreign countries or toned-down domestic news reports. Sensitive topics like Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang are delicately reported on, and the official party line is adhered to. From personal experience, even innocuous quotes such as those from a foreign executive about pollution in Beijing are removed completely.

Voice of China might take its name from Voice of America, but the two will likely be worlds apart. A quick look at Voice of America’s website shows stories covering news such as the gun reform rally on March 24 in which tens of thousands of Americans marched on their capital. That story would be impossible to run in China. For instance, the CGTN website features news sections such as “China Cares,” “China Breakthroughs” and “Tradition of China.”

CGTN pales even when compared to Russian state media, themselves no slouches in the propaganda game. Despite the strong anti-Western sentiment of RT’s reporting and programs, they at least feature some newsworthy content. This is something CGTN can hardly do, with stodgy news reporting and bland programs dominating its lineup. Russian state English-language TV network RT, formerly Russia Today, has gained attention for its strident anti-West reporting and interviews. It often features controversial figures such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage, a former leader of the British far-right UK Independence Party, and Edward Snowden, whereas even informed viewers struggle to recognize CGTN’s guests.

RT doesn’t mind whether it goes to the far-left or the far-right. But Chinese state media, reporting, and punditry can only act from a very narrow, officially approved scope, and the risk of the political extremes is too much. Instead of fascists and radicals, then, Chinese media is left with elderly politicians and business executives. Producers and reporters can be punished or fired for reporting on topics or expressing views that go beyond the official stance. Even in the relatively liberal era of the 2000s, it was common for reporters to be fined significant sums of money or even lose their jobs for making “political errors.” So while CGTN’s studios might seem slick and their overseas bureaus as numerous as those of their Western counterparts, the actual content is a mix of brutally tedious propaganda and bland documentaries. The audience is always the bosses in Beijing, not the average viewer overseas.

Yet there is one area of international media where China might actually dominate — overseas Chinese-language media. But rather than using state media to make inroads, China has simply bought up existing media outlets or obtained the loyalties of their owners. Around the world, from Australia to Hong Kong to Europe, many Chinese-language media outlets are owned by individuals or companies with strong links to the Chinese Communist Party. Overseas Chinese communities are increasingly exposed to media coverage that is heavily pro-China and toes the party line in refraining from reporting on sensitive news events in China.

Among Chinese communities with little exposure to wider media, the CCP’s efforts might be paying off. But when it comes to reaching a global audience, no amount of repackaging and rebranding can succeed if the product itself is unchanged. As long as China’s leadership cannot differentiate between propaganda and journalism, the Voice of China will stay unheard.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.