In China, the number eight is considered so auspicious the government chose the date 8 August 2008 to commence what was to be the country’s biggest moment on the global stage – the Olympic Games. What preceded that day, however, was anything but lucky for the Chinese. Riots in Tibet that spring led to anti-China protests as the Olympic torch wound its way through San Francisco, Paris and London. The torch protests dominated the international media for days, much to the anger and embarrassment of China.
Following this PR disaster, China made boosting its soft power a national priority in an attempt to repair its reputation internationally. At the forefront of this multibillion-euro strategy is an ambitious effort to turn its main state-controlled news outlets, largely dismissed outside China as mere propaganda machines, into global media enterprises that can deliver a Chinese perspective on global news events. “China’s image is one of the last remaining challenges for the country,” says David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. “The whole basis of this is that the world view of western aggression needs to be countered with the Chinese view.”
Xinhua, the country’s 80-year-old official news agency, has undertaken perhaps the boldest initiative as part of this new mandate: it is developing its own 24-hour, English-language television network that will mostly cover events outside China’s borders and only be broadcast abroad. China Central Television (CCTV), the main state broadcaster, and China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, have also launched foreign-language versions of their China news products for the international market, but Xinhua is going a step further – it is moving into a new territory altogether.
CNC World (China Xinhua News Network Corporation) went on the air last July with some fresh-faced anchors, newly graduated from broadcast journalism school, and some lofty goals. Building on Xinhua’s extensive infrastructure – the news agency has some 140 overseas bureaux with plans to add 60 more – CNC believes it can eventually rival the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera for global reach, and challenge the Associated Press in the video content market. As a sign of how badly Xinhua wants to be taken seriously, the agency recently relocated its New York bureau from Queens to the top floor of a skyscraper in Times Square.
“We want to give more information to the audience, give another aspect [of the story], a different explanation than other international broadcasters,” says Mi Ligong, director general of Beijing-based CNC World. “We are trying to be an alternative. Isn’t it a good thing to provide a new alternative to the audience?” he continues, still jet-lagged from a trip to New York to sign a partnership deal with America’s NBC network.
The BBC needn’t worry quite yet – a glimpse at CNC’s studio and newsroom inside Xinhua’s fortress-like compound reveals a network still in its infancy. The set is smart – with multi-hued glass floors and walls and an LED ticker scrolling bright red headlines in English – but comparable in size to that of a local broadcaster in a second-tier American city. (A larger studio is currently under construction.) Some of the music and graphics appear outdated. And though pencil-thin World Report anchor Nie Danyangzhi reads flawlessly from a teleprompter with the faintest of Chinese accents, her delivery remains dry and overly formal.
Nie readily admits she has much to learn but like most of the other staff at the network, she’s young, tech-savvy and open to taking cues from the West. “I watch a lot of news programmes on CNN and BBC,” says the 23-year-old Sichuan native, who sports a short, news-anchor bob. “I find that some of the anchors in the West are more casual and relaxed. We don’t want to be that formal … but I think CNC is on the way to finding its style.”
Style only matters so much, though. What will determine the success of the network, ultimately, is its marketability internationally and the credibility of its reports. Unlike most media outlets around the world, the one thing CNC doesn’t have to worry about is money. The government has given its three largest mouthpieces – Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily newspaper – a reported €4.7bn to fund their overseas expansions, an astonishing sum given the downsizing in the industry.
With a colourful brochure promoting its goal of establishing 34 regional TV stations in the next two years – including five in Africa where China’s economic ties now run deep – Xinhua has been shopping its new venture around to cable and satellite operators. Thus far, CNC is available on cable TV in Hong Kong and Macau, and in January, it hit the airwaves in Africa on a network that reaches four million households. CNC is also accessible in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East via satellite TV and the internet. The deal Mi struck with NBC in November may give it a further boost. Though vague on details – the networks agreed to cooperate on “news content gathering and personnel training” – the partnership could help open doors to cable operators in the US.
What may make CNC a tough sell in the West, though, is the question of whether its news can be trusted. “The fact is many Chinese media companies see themselves first as Chinese and second as media companies … but to be successful internationally, they’ll have to reassess this,” says Florian Fettweis, a consultant with China Media Monitor Intelligence, a Beijing media analyst group. “If it comes off as propaganda, it will be difficult to attract international attention.”
Mi bristles at this type of criticism. A foreign correspondent for Xinhua for 25 years in Africa, Asia and Australia, he says CNC will select its stories based on news value and offer balanced reporting. “Our top story could be a plane crash, a mudslide killing 20 people. You would not see Hu Jintao throughout the whole programme. You might see Barack Obama more than the Chinese leaders.”
But critics are doubtful CNC will be able to operate with autonomy when it comes to controversial issues. While some of the network’s reports are objective, others are subtly skewed. One story on global warming, for instance, blamed western industrialisation dating back to the 18th century and didn’t mention China’s role at all. And while a story on Haitian elections delved into allegations of irregularities, another piece on Egyptian elections curiously did not.
There are changes afoot in China. Despite government controls on reporting, analysts say the media has become more critical in recent years, driven in part by responding to online news sites and blogs. “The biggest changes are in disaster reporting and investigative reporting,” says Zhong Xin, a broadcast journalism and public diplomacy professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “More stories that might have been hidden in the past are being disclosed and reported in detail.” For China to realise its soft power goals, this will need to continue, and not just when the Olympics are in town.
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As America’s conservative Fox network has proven, there is a growing market around the world for television news with a spin. CNC might find that its biggest potential for viewers is in Africa, where China has been dogged in its pursuit of natural resources and western media outlets do not yet have a firm presence. African businesses have been sprouting up in China so there’s growing demand for news about the country.
With trade between China and Africa at $100bn (€75bn) a year – up from $10bn (€7.4bn) in 2000 – Xinhua has made the continent a cornerstone of its expansion. It has over 20 bureaux in sub-Saharan Africa – more than Reuters. CNC also plans to open regional TV stations in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania by 2012. Xinhua’s Nairobi bureau has a Chinese television crew to shoot footage for CNC while the other bureaux hire local cameramen.
While many reports focus on Chinese companies in Africa, Xinhua is also trying to improve its breaking news. There’s been a push for education, health and cultural stories too, to give the audience “a more realistic understanding of Africa,” says Wang Lu, chief video editor for CNC in Nairobi.
Wang sees a market for CNC World in Africa, too. “CNC has just landed on the African continent and our audience is not large, but I believe that Africans will not refuse one more channel to receive world news – and especially more of China.”