China's State Broadcaster Rebranded, But the Essentials Stayed the Same

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An ad for a new CGTN mobile app
An ad for a new CGTN mobile app Credit: CGTN

China's state broadcaster has a new name for its platforms aimed at viewers outside China. It no longer goes by the unfortunate acronym CCTV -- a name that stands for China Central Television but also unintentionally evokes surveillance cameras. That's obviously a wise move, as China continues its global soft power push.

Outside China, the broadcaster now calls itself CGTN, or China Global Television Network. (Inside China, it's sticking with the old name.) CGTN has a new gold logo. It's more mobile-focused, with two new apps. Promo footage trumpets the rebrand with catchphrases: "CGTN: See the difference!"

But about a week into the rebrand, the changes appear mostly cosmetic, and the coverage still includes frequent glowing coverage of China's leaders and progress. One feature gathered man-on-the-street interviews with people about how they view Chinese President Xi Jinping: "Wise!" "Vigorous and resolute." "Easy-going." "He is a good person." "His whole family is very nice." That's verbatim.

To be fair, there is some coverage of issues that cast a less positive light on China, like air pollution or why China doesn't perform well in international rankings of happiness. But in general China wants positive coverage in its state media, to counter critical stories and investigations from Western reporters covering China. When President Xi congratulated CGTN for its rebrand, he urged it to "tell China stories well," a frequent refrain in his remarks to local media. (Many Western online news outlets are blocked inside China, and Apple just removed the New York Times from its app store in China, saying Chinese authorities had asked the company to do so.)

Since President Xi took power about four years ago, China has made an effort to get its message to the world more; the government has also experimented with new tactics, including propaganda cartoons in English – BBDO China did an over-the-top Monty Pythonesque cartoon last year explaining China's 13th Five-Year Plan. CGTN is a more obvious route.

China researcher Mareike Ohlberg sees significance in the "G" in CGTN, which stands for "global." She expects the rebranded broadcaster to focus "not only on news directly connected to China's national interests. More generally, as the U.S. has lost authority China sees an opportunity to step in" and promote its viewpoint on international issues.

While CGTN is the authoritative international broadcast from Chinese state media, the country is trying to buy influence in other media too, said Ms. Ohlberg, a research associate at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. She cites the example of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, which was bought by Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group last year. "Alibaba has a strong interest in not causing conflict with the Party," she said. Those types of arrangements "might actually be what's going to matter more in the long term, from the perspective with whether China is going to succeed in this."

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