BEIJING (AdAge.com) -- China's parade through Beijing on Oct. 1 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic was a massive display of military might. Just days later, the government switched to soft power by hosting the first World Media Summit.
The summit, held over the weekend in Beijing, attracted big guns, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, who addressed the delegates at the Great Hall of the People. It also drew senior executives of the world's top media companies, such as Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp.; Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press; Satoshi Ishikawa, president of Kyodo News; David Schlesinger, editor in chief of Reuters; Richard Jeremy Sambrook, director of the BBC's Global News; and Jeffrey Gralnick, an NBC News special consultant.
That Beijing was the venue for the event is bizarre, as censors working for the Communist Party maintain rigid control over what Chinese can say, read and write. In fact, the summit was organized and of course covered by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, a party mouthpiece.
Also, China remains almost entirely closed to foreign broadcasters. Only short blocks of Western programming air on local cable and satellite networks, and the content is fluff, such as Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants.
News channels such as CNN International and BBC World are limited to hotels and compounds housing foreigners. Social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have been blocked for months and Western search engines all have to agree to censor information about sensitive topics such as Tibet and Taiwan on their Chinese sites.
In his address, Mr. Hu did not call for greater freedom of speech in China, although he did promise to uphold the rights of foreign media working in China. Nor did he talk about concessions that would make it easier for foreign media companies to operate in China.
Instead, he talked about the importance for media organizations to find "common ground" amid increasing digitalization and called for stronger cooperation among media players globally.
"Facing unprecedented opportunities and challenges, media organizations around the world should conform to the trends of the times [and] use their distinctive assets and advantages to convey the messages of peace, development, cooperation, mutual benefit and tolerance."
In his own address, Mr. Murdoch took another stab at consumers who don't want to pay for online content: "There are many readers who believe that they are paying for content when they sign up with an internet service provider, presuming that they have bought a ticket to a content buffet. That misconception thrived on the silence of inarticulate institutions which were unable to challenge the fallacies and humbug of the e-establishment."
Mr. Murdoch also encouraged the development of digital media in China, saying the country "will ultimately decide its own fate, but unless the digital door is opened, opportunities will be lost and potential will not be realized."
Digital media offers a rare glimmer of hope for foreign broadcasters eager to expand in China. Web-based media operators are not as tightly restricted about airing foreign programming as traditional broadcasters. At the same time, the rapid digitization of China's pay-TV system means the number of channels on air in that country is growing much faster than the production of new content. There is a need for programming that cannot be met solely by China's entertainment industry. The current vacuum could create a foundation for growth.
What was the point of Beijing's invitation to the world's media moguls to China?
"It's all about soft power and it certainly doesn't mean China will get easier for foreign media companies," said Peter Herford, a professor at the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communications at Shantou University in southern China, and a veteran of CBS News in the U.S.
Last January, China's government announced it has committed at least $6.6 billion to expand the international presence of state-controlled media companies such as Xinhua; the national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV); People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party; and the Shanghai Media Group.
The funds will be used to hire hundreds of Chinese reporters, publish and broadcast content in more foreign languages, open news bureaus in just about every country in the world, acquire overseas media assets and launch special projects -- all to improve China's global image.
The summit in Beijing last weekend was a similar effort by China to flex its marketing muscles overseas, a fact well known by Mr. Murdoch and his rivals in attendance. They went anyway, and politely cheered China's efforts, hoping the door to that country's lucrative media market might get just a little closer.