by Lilian Rogers
This is part one of a three part series that will take an in-depth look at China¡¯s new venture in its overarching media strategy and worldwide soft power campaign, CNC World. Subsequent installments will focus on CNC World as part of China¡¯s soft power strategy and provide an in-depth analysis of the broadcasts themselves.
Link to part 2, CNC World and China’s Soft Power Agenda
On July 1st of this year, Xinhua News Agency launched an English-language, 24-hour global news channel entitled CNC World. Currently, the channel is only broadcasting in Hong Kong, but broadcasts are also available via the internet. The Xinhua leadership definitely has its eyes set on expansion though, with plans to open stations in major cities in North America, Europe, and Africa by 2010-2011. The channel is supposed to be available through global satellite by the fall, and Wu Jincai, controller of the station, says the channel aims to reach 50 million viewers within its first year. He also stated the channel will carry about 70% international news and 30% news about China with breaking news, travel shows, sports and weather.
Judging from the online offering of CNC World, the channel covers a broad range of topics, focusing on news, features, and human interest type pieces, and boasts 10 programs in total, ranging from world news, to an economy report, to an environmentally themed segment called ¡°Green Voices¡±. The channel also has programs like ¡°China Report¡± and ¡°China View¡± and with the ubiquitous presence of their tagline, ¡°A New Perspective¡±, it is pretty clear that one of the main goals of the channel is to provide an alternative, or should we say a Chinese, outlook on world events.
In fact, many see the creation of this new station as an integral part of China¡¯s soft power strategy. Spreading China¡¯s reach and influence has been a longstanding goal in the Party agenda. The creation of CNC World is the next logical step in a run of English-language media expansion in China. According to an article in the New York Times, China Central Television (CCTV), China¡¯s biggest state-run TV broadcaster, has been expanding overseas. The China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper, has been revamped, and People¡¯s Daily, the state-run newspaper, just added an English edition of the Global Times.
The increase in English-language media is both an issue of “face” as well as a matter of practicality. The Chinese government wants to be an active player on the global stage, and that means having some type of international mouthpiece. Especially since Beijing officials have complained about biased Western reporting in the past, specifically in regard to riots in Tibet as well as during the 2008 Olympics. Party officials have also claimed that biased Western reporting has hurt their interests abroad, mainly in terms of image. Party officials have invested hopes of bolstering their national image as well as counterbalancing Western media into English-language projects such as CNC World. But will it work?
There are many obstacles facing CNC World, and expectations are anything but high. The general consensus seems to be that the channel has potential to satisfy both its foreign audience and the intentions of the Party, but limitations such as censorship and logistical issues may be too difficult to overcome. In a Sinica podcast (see after the 20-minute mark), moderated by Kaiser Kuo, four discussants agreed that CNC World could be a success but only if it adequately handles certain “sensitive” issues. Gady Epstein, the Beijing bureau chief for Forbes magazine, comments that CNC World probably has sufficient hardware, meaning technology and money, but doubts the quality of their ¡°software¡±¡ªthe people and training. Evan Osnos, Beijing staff writer for the New Yorker, lays out three conditions for the success of CNC World. First, the quality of the product must be good enough to edge out the competitors. Secondly, the channel must be low-impact; if it comes across as an ¡°overt foreign policy prong,¡± it will lose credibility. Finally, the ultimate test will come when a controversial and embarrassing event occurs within China. CNC World will probably be adept at covering everyday news, but CNC World¡¯s credibility and ability will truly be seen when it has to report on a major event in China. If the channel is unable to report on China accurately and critically, then no one will look to CNC World as a credible source. Despite these difficulties, Jeremy Goldkorn, from the blog Danwei, warns that ¡°the ability of Chinese media workers should not be underestimated.¡±
One of the biggest issues CNC World faces is the question of credibility. Censorship is prevalent at all levels of Chinese media, resulting in condemnation from the watchdog group Reporter Without Borders, which ranked China 168th out of 175 in terms of press freedom this year. The group is particularly troubled by Xinhua, which it has labeled the ¡°biggest propaganda agency in the world¡±. Xinhua News Agency is a part of the State Council of China and reports directly to the Party¡¯s Publicity Department and Public Information Department.
Xinhua¡¯s reputation as a propaganda tool may severely damage CNC World¡¯s credibility. An article in the Wall Street Journal explains how Xinhua runs CCTV, drawing upon information only provided on the Chinese-language version of its official website. CCTV is described as ¡°the mouthpiece of the Party and the government¡± and its foreign language channels as ¡°reaching a new stage in external propaganda.¡± The assumption is that CNC World will be run like CCTV, that is, as a propaganda station. However, unlike the rest of state-owned media in China, which must be fully state-owned, Xinhua only owns 51% of CNC World, according to an article in the Financial Times. The article continues to quote Mr. Wu, who seems to understand reservations about CNC World¡¯s impartiality: ¡°Setting up a TV station is a very straightforward thing. But because we are from China and we are Xinhua, everyone harbors some doubts about us.¡±
Just how impartial CNC World can be may turn out to be the deciding factor in the channel¡¯s success. In a online debate forum in the New York Times, Ying Chan, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, thinks highly of Chinese journalists, but views censorship as a debilitating force, saying: ¡°As long as CNC World has to take directives from the Chinese Communist Party, it is unlikely that it will be able to honor its pledge to deliver news that is fair and credible.¡± Jim Laurie, a consultant to CCTV, also chimes in stating: ¡°If Chinese TV wants to gain international credibility, it will have to have freedom from media censorship. That day is still very far off.¡±
However, there are those that say China¡¯s media has become increasingly open, citing a number of expos¨¦-writing journalists as well as more independent media groups. An article from the official state newspaper, People¡¯s Daily, has even claimed that market-oriented media groups in China have ¡°shifted out of the role of propaganda tool to that of watchdog¡±. This is mainly due to the commercialization of the industry, according to Yu Guoming, a media professor at Remin University, who argues that as the media industry has grown more commercial, it has become more sensitive to public demand. Jeremy Goldkorn, in the aforementioned Sinica podcast, agrees, commenting that the Chinese media has become tolerant of, if not dissenting, at least a wide variety of opinions. This especially applies to English-language media, and Kuo acknowledges an openness that is in sharp contrast to just 5 years ago, when he has been invited to speak on CCTV 9, the state-run English Channel of CCTV.
Still, censorship undoubtedly occurs in Chinese media and this will probably affect CNC World¡¯s ability to engage an international audience, according to Justin Ku, founder of Blue Ocean Network, a private English-language TV station: ¡°Addressing an international audience can only work if you speak their language and understand their minds. But they are state-owned, so they are not free to do that¡± (10). The question of audience is an important one. It is unclear who exactly the audience for the news station is, and CNC World certainly faces competition from other international news stations.
CNC World will not be shown in China, in order to protect CCTV, ¡°one of CNC World¡¯s main flaws¡± according to Yu Guoming, a journalism professor at People¡¯s University in Beijing. He goes on to say many expats in China or Chinese who are trying to learn English could benefit from the station. This could end up blocking out a significant potential market for the CNC World product. In an article in the Guardian, Professor Li Xiguang of Tsinghua University¡¯s journalism school says not allowing CNC World to be broadcast in China will lead to its demise. He thinks that the lack of a competitor such as CCTV will lead to stagnation in the quality of CNC World¡¯s product.
But while CCTV and Western domestic stations may not be competition for CNC World, international stations such as BBC World, CNN International, and Al-Jazeera will present formidable challenges for the fledgling station. These stations have been around for a while and are regarded as having high levels of reporting, backed by strong resources. There may just not be room in the international news market for another station, unless CNC World is able to provide something special. CNC World won¡¯t have to worry about profits right away though, since the Chinese government has been pushing full-force ahead with its media projects, whereas Western media companies have been scaling back.
Only time will tell how successful CNC World may end up being. It certainly may be a while before the station reaches homes in America. But right now the CNC World team has its hands full in trying to quash doubts about Xinhua¡¯s ability to provide high-quality, objective reporting that can truly shed light on the Chinese perspective.