Beijing Hopes Propaganda Will Build Soft Power Abroad

Government Wants to Improve China's Overseas Image, but Media Expansion Plan Faces Editorial and Political Obstacles

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Chinese newspaper and magazine publishers have grown rich on advertising from local and multinational marketers eager to court local consumers over the past two decades
Chinese newspaper and magazine publishers have grown rich on advertising from local and multinational marketers eager to court local consumers over the past two decades Credit: Normandy Madden

BEIJING ( -- Western broadcasters and publishers have spent years trying to find a way into China's tightly-controlled media industry with little success. Now it looks like Chinese media will gain a foothold in foreign markets first.

China's government has committed at least $6.6 billion to expand the international presence of state-controlled media companies such as national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV); the official state-run news agency Xinhua; People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party; and the Shanghai Media Group.

The plan, which was first reported in The South China Morning Post, comes at a time when western media, particularly newspapers, are downsizing and even closing. The global recession has curbed ad spending in the U.S. and other developed markets and consumers are increasingly turning to the internet for news.

Chinese media companies, meanwhile, have grown rich on advertising from local and multinational marketers eager to court local consumers over the past two decades. Now they can also count on the deep pockets of China's Communist Party.

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.

Xinhua, for example, is talking about starting a 24-hour global TV network modeled after Al-Jazeera, a TV network headquartered in Doha, Qatar, with a focus on news for and about the Arab world. CCTV, which already broadcasts four international channels in Chinese, English, French and Spanish, plans to launch Russian and Arabic channels later this year. And the People's Daily wants to launch an English-language edition of its Global Times tabloid paper in May.

Tibet protests led to propaganda plan
China's bid to create a base of soft power globally through media has been in the works "for the better part of a year," said Thomas Gorman in Hong Kong, chairman and editor-in-chief of CCI Asia-Pacific, the publisher of Time Inc.'s Fortune China edition.

The discussion was ratcheted up last spring, when the torch relay for the 2008 Olympic Games became a touchstone for western anger at China's involvement in Tibet. There was a groundswell of feeling among party leaders (as well as Chinese citizens) that coverage of Tibet in western media is unfair and one-sided, due to an inherent bias against China.

Other governments have used local-language media in the past, such as Voice of America, the radio and TV broadcasting service of the U.S. government.

But China's plans exceed all other efforts in scale and sheer investment, raising questions about how long it will take the government to implement such a massive global propaganda scheme and whether it can succeed.

"The stakes are high because the plan has enormous political sensitivity. Putting aside the financial risk, if they're creating content for overseas consumption and get [the strategy] wrong, the content could have a range of risks in the foreign policy sphere," Mr. Gorman said.

All state-owned media embarking on international expansion "will sign off on enormous risk. That means they need the right people in charge, that in itself is a long drawn out process. I don't expect to see any major Chinese media players doing a fifty-yard dash outside China. This will percolate for a while, and each deal will be considered through a lot of different filters."

They also lack experience in overseas reporting. More than 100 western media companies have some kind of presence in China. "On the other hand, look at the number of Chinese media companies that have a true local presence in foreign markets. It's zero. Everything reported globally is produced in Beijing and relayed by remote control," Mr. Gorman said.

Local media used to censorship
China's adoption of many free market economic principles has not extended to the notion of freedom of speech. State-controlled TV stations and print titles were incubated in an environment of censorship. The Communist Party can control what they consider to be China's best interests through local media.

As a result, local media companies will likely stumble in their first attempts to provide credible and appealing content for an international audience. And will local media be willing to criticize China or accept criticism about China?

"Content is king," said Steve Garton, executive director-media at Aegis-owned research firm Synovate in Hong Kong. Chinese media companies "will face the same challenges as any other media owner in terms of building and retaining viewers in what is already an editorially competitive environment. It will be a tough battle to get people's attention.

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