China’s Global Propaganda Is Aimed at Bosses, Not Foreigners

Chinese reporters overseas are rewarded for whiny nationalism, not persuasive argument.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy illustration
Foreign Policy illustration

It’s not unusual for political events in Britain to be disrupted by screaming protesters, but it’s rare for them to have a press card. At an event Sunday on the fringes of the Conservative Party Conference, hosted by the cross-party group Hong Kong Watch, Kong Linlin, a reporter for the Chinese state English-language TV station China Global Television Network (CGTN), began shouting at the panel that they were liars, traitors, and “fake Chinese.” When asked to leave, she slapped a young attendee and eventually was removed by police.

At another TV station, this bizarre and embarrassing event would probably get the reporter fired. As several foreign correspondents in China pointed out, a foreign reporter who did the same at a Chinese press conference would have their credentials revoked and be kicked out of the country—as happened to French journalist Ursula Gauthier for writing an opinion piece on China’s oppression in Xinjiang.

But instead, CGTN promptly circled the wagons, claiming that Kong had been “asking questions” and “suffered a physical attack” at a panel of “Hong Kong separatists.” Within hours, the network had a statement from the Chinese Embassy on its site, defending the reporter’s freedom of speech and attacking the event itself as “meddling in Hong Kong affairs.”

That points to the peculiar truth of the whole matter. Kong’s behavior may not have been a spontaneous outburst of outraged patriotism but a deliberately performative event, intended to boost her own career. And the twisted incentives that made that a good idea for her are also the ones that, as I learned in my own time in Chinese state media, continue to hold back CGTN’s attempts to become an effective international propaganda organ.

CGTN has had many names, starting off as state broadcaster China Central Television’s English-language station CCTV-9, becoming CCTV News for a while with a spinoff called CCTV America, and eventually rebranding the whole shebang as CGTN in December 2016. That rebrand came with increased funding and a personal stamp of approval from Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, as well of talk of coordinating propaganda efforts under the umbrella of “The Voice of China.” It was the second big push for China’s foreign-facing media, following a huge influx of funding in 2009 after the Beijing Olympics.

There were two possible models for a station like CGTN, flush with the cash of an autocratic state that wanted a global voice: Al Jazeera and Russia Today. Qatar’s Al Jazeera offered the ideal of being a serious news station that presented an alternative perspective on the world. Russia Today, now known as RT, was in contrast a genuinely effective and disruptive propaganda outlet that spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt to Moscow’s advantage.

In 2009, it was Al Jazeera that was usually held up internally as the example CGTN should be working toward, yet by 2016 the standard was very clearly RT. That came about because of China’s firmly nationalistic, censorious, and anti-Western swing under Xi, beginning from late 2012. With that shift came increasingly close ties with Russian media; Chinese state media began to reproduce Russian pieces, especially on Syria, and Dmitry Kiselyov, one of Russia’s most prominent propagandists, started to make regular visits to China.

But neither of these models can work for CGTN. Al Jazeera is effective because of the range of discussion it allows and the quality of its reporting on the Middle East’s issues. It helps that the state that sponsors it, Qatar, is tiny, so that while the station has problems reporting clearly on Qatari issues, it can cover many other subjects well. CGTN, like all mainland media, is subject to the massive and growing regime of domestic censorship. It’s possible, if increasingly difficult, to carry out good coverage of real issues in China, like corruption and medical fraud, while steering clear of obviously off-limits topics like Xinjiang, Tibet, or the Communist Party leadership; the excellent site Sixth Tone has managed to pull this off by walking a very delicate line and publishing almost entirely in English, as do private media such as Caixin. That’s impossible for an institution as high-profile as CGTN, though.

Nor can it copy RT’s success. RT, which launched in 2005, built its audience in the West by presenting itself as alternative media, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. It was happy to go to extremes of either left or right, bringing on everyone from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to 9/11 conspiracy theorists to Alex Jones, and it gave its young journalists, often brought in from the world of activism, a relatively long leash. It’s a product of Russia’s own media regime, forged in the chaotic and open 1990s and still far less censorious—and more openly able to indulge in conspiracy theories—than China’s. It also mirrors wider strategies: Moscow wants chaos it can exploit, while Beijing wants a stable world order—on its terms.

Some of RT’s flexibility was lost with the invasion of Ukraine, when open propaganda was forced to the fore, prompting some hosts to publicly quit. But it’s still much more open and less innately risk-averse than CGTN is forced to be. Chinese media can’t bring on figures like British leftist politician George Galloway or WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange because of the danger that they might, at some point, turn against China—leaving whoever booked them politically vulnerable. Incidents that RT could shrug off, such as political scientist Yascha Mounk slamming Russian President Vladimir Putin live on air or James Kirchick damning the station as propaganda for a bigoted state, would kill careers at CGTN.

Instead, the guests on CGTN shows like “Dialogue,” where guests are grilled by the host on issues of the day, have been a parade of well-meaning, cautiously spoken Westerners. Even Dialogue’s host, Yang Rui, keeps his anti-Semitism and misogyny to Chinese social media instead of the show itself. The only allowable passion is full-on Chinese nationalism of the kind on view in the hit movie Wolf Warrior 2, of a kind deeply unappealing to foreign viewers—and even that is off-brand and politically risky for CGTN unless sanctioned directly from the top.

CGTN is thus stuck with a fundamental problem. For the channel to be successful as propaganda, it has to appeal to a foreign audience. But the elements that would be persuasive to foreigners, whether informed reporting or political extremism, are anathema to the people the station answers to back home. Actually growing the station’s audience is far, far less important to the midlevel party apparatchiks who ultimately control it than making sure they avoid political errors.

Risk must be avoided at all costs, especially in a political environment as fraught as China’s is at present. That’s how CGTN’s ended up as deeply boring as it is, a mixture of stale, prolix rhetoric and anodyne documentaries. Like most fringe stations, it doesn’t report its actual viewing figures but only the number of people it can “reach”—but it doesn’t even show up on the U.K.’s official cable TV numbers. On YouTube, it has half a million subscribers—a sixth of the number who subscribe to RT and a fifth of Al Jazeera English’s. (Most of the subscribers appear to be Chinese, judging by the comments section.) It has had some success in Africa, but almost none in the West.

When it comes to individual reporters, this creates a strange set of incentives. I didn’t work at the network, then under the CCTV umbrella, during my time in Chinese state media, but at its belligerent print cousin Global Times, just down the road in Beijing. Global Times was a little bit more flexible than CCTV and more capable of going full frothing-at-the-mouth nationalist in print in order to draw in readers. Unlike CCTV, where backstabbing your office rivals over political errors was common and corruption was rife, Global Times was also a clean and collegial environment. Even in the relatively liberal years of 2009 to 2012, though, I was regularly asked to make headlines “more boring,” lest snappy wording accidentally cause official worries. I watched, too, as the limits on what we could cover constricted month by month after 2013, before I left in 2016.

But I became reasonably familiar with CCTV’s workings thanks to colleagues and friends who had previously worked there, or who left Global Times for CCTV jobs—especially after increased funding meant more opportunities. Like most Chinese media institutions, most of the Chinese staff working there have no real love for the government or the party. If anything, being young, often foreign-educated, and disproportionately either female or gay men, they tend to the liberal side of Chinese politics. After a year or so, they usually either learn to resign themselves to the increasingly stiff limits of state media or quit for jobs in public relations.

There are always a few, though, who try instead to promote their own careers through stirring up an image of themselves as champions of poor, oppressed China. Full-blown nationalism, sincere or not, has long been a route to potential exposure for Chinese wannabe celebrities—usually not on state media itself, but using their position as a platform to attempt to drum up a social media frenzy. (I’ve had a CGTN host, who I will mercifully leave unnamed, try to do this by attacking me on Twitter and reposting parts of the exchange on his Chinese social media accounts; to my amusement, his efforts flopped.) As China’s relations with the West further sour, this mood of aggressive victimhood may become more appealing.

This seems to be what Kong, who has a record of attacks on Western media’s reporting in China, was trying to do. She was likely inspired by a recent incident in Sweden, where a Chinese family’s anger after the police removed them from a hotel for being belligerent to staff went viral on Chinese media and resulted in the Chinese Embassy demanding an apology. There’s a good chance her behavior wasn’t real outrage at those dastardly separatists on the panel, but a deliberate performance—one that, as the embassy’s response shows, is well in tune with the mood of the moment. Even if Kong fails to go viral, it will still give her clout within the CGTN hierarchy, making her more likely to be promoted and less vulnerable to political attacks from others. Other CGTN and CCTV journalists have already posted in support of her, disingenuously describing her behavior as asking questions, as have figures like Global Times editor Hu Xijin. This may be genuinely misinformed support of a colleague, but more likely it’s bolstering their own position within the often viciously cut-throat internal politics of state media.

Yet it’s a riskier game than perhaps people like Kong realize. The original poster boy for such self-promotion was the baby-faced CCTV anchor Rui Chenggang, who built his reputation leading a campaign against the presence of Starbucks within the Forbidden City and claiming to speak for “all of Asia” when stealing a chance to ask a question intended for Korean journalists from then-U.S. President Barack Obama. Rui started in English-language CCTV and then became a household name in Chinese domestic media.

Four years ago, he disappeared during the rolling purges of Chinese institutions under Xi, accused of taking bribes. His name was wiped from the Chinese internet, and it’s still unclear what happened to him; a report from 2016, rapidly deleted, said he’d been sentenced to six years in prison, while there were rumors that he’d committed suicide in jail.

I hope that no CGTN reporter meets a similar fate to Rui’s, even those who have decided aggressive nationalism is a better course than professional dignity. Most of them are just keeping their heads down and trying to get by, and to do good reporting when they can. Western institutions should recognize that CGTN and other Chinese state media is propaganda, not journalism—but they should also keep in mind how fundamentally self-defeating the whole exercise is.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer