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 in the Great Hall of the People.
The gathering also drew senior executives from the world's top media companies, such as Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., Steve Marcopoto, president of Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System Asia/Pacific; Tom Curley, chief executive 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.
Foreign sites like Twitter Still Blocked
The venue for the event was ironic since censors working for the Communist Party maintain rigid control over what Chinese can say, read and write. In fact, the summit was organized 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, like Nickelodeon's SpongeBob Squarepants.
News channels like 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 like Tibet and Taiwan on their Chinese sites.
In his address, President 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 of media organizations finding "common ground" in the face of a move towards 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."
Foreign players find hope in digital media
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 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 in 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. That vacuum could be an opportunity.
China's real goal was soft power diplomacy
What was the point of Beijing's invitation to the world's media moguls?
"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.
In January 2009, China's government announced a commitment to spend at least $6.6 billion to expand the international presence of state-controlled media companies such as Xinhua; 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 effort, hoping the door to that country's lucrative media market might inch open just a little more.
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