China is investing massive amounts of money, energy and prestige in creating a new impression of herself, internally as well as to the rest of the world. CCTV International tries to challenge al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN on global news coverage. The good old communist propaganda mill is developing into a sophisticated narrative through an almost unlimited variety of outlets, be it museums, history books, cinema, sports, business or – in particular – media. The state recently invested 45 billion yuan in the flagship media. What is China trying to get across? What are we meant to make of it all?
Conversation with professor Zhao Yuezhi, October 2011
According to Zhao Yuezhi, professor of the political economy of global communication at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in Canada and China’s University of Communication in Beijing as well as senior associate fellow at the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies in Copenhagen, China is grappling with how to fit a historical empire into a modern nation state, and how to reconcile inherent contradictions between a revolutionary state and a modern constitutional state. This translates into a redefinition of China, internally as well as externally – or at least an extremely ambitious attempt at this redefinition.
Zhao: China is making an effort to improve its international image. And since the early 2000s, and especially since 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese state has realised the huge gap between what the Chinese state itself thinks and the international image it believes it deserves, and how the world – especially the Western world – perceives and understands China.
I think the West’s protest against the Olympic torch relay in 2008 crystallised for the Chinese leadership this huge gap in understanding. So since then, the Chinese state has made a huge effort to boost its international image. And some of these measures include investment in state owned media for them to improve their international coverage, establishing of Confucius Institutes, Chinese classrooms all over the world, and just general effort to improve its international image.
Some of the most elaborate examples include mounting the big screen on Times Square in New York to coincide with Hu Jintao’s visit to the US last year (2010), and the massive extension of CCTV’s international coverage – China’s national TV monopoly, and also Radio International’s in many foreign languages; all sorts of efforts like that.
MH: I watch, I feel informed – by what they are not telling me and how they’re not telling it, rather than what they actually chose to tell.
Zhao: Yeah, that’s a huge challenge, because CCTV is under the straitjacket of a lot of things; because CCTV is a party-state mouthpiece its very difficult for them to say anything critical – not only on domestic situations or domestic policies; it’s even very difficult for them to be critical and independent in the coverage of normal international affairs.
It’s quite a challenge for CCTV to gain credibility among a Western audience that’s used to critical and independent coverage of global affairs. At the same time, I think, despite the State’s investment in CCTV, it’s over all capacity for journalistic work is still very limited.
Chinese journalists still rely heavily on the Western media, especially Western news agencies, for international coverage. And, especially with regard to global affairs, Chinese journalists are – I don’t think they have even developed a very independent understanding of the world … other than either repeating the government party line, or actually following the Western news media framework. And in that sense, you know, CCTV is very different from e.g. al-Jazeera, which has been able to present a more independent, critical coverage of affairs not only in the Middle East, but general global affairs as well.
… the Chinese inability to be critical, even at a moment when someone from the major Western economic leadership acknowledges that he was wrong. That kind of coverage does not appeal to a Western critical, audience, if that’s what CCTV is trying to reach.
One of my major research projects at the moment comparatively analyses global coverage by four leading TV-satellite channels: al-Jazeera English, CCTV News, BBC & CNN – and an amazing example is what I call the Greenspan moment: the moment when (1987-2006 chairman of the US Federal Reserve) Alan Greenspan acknowledged, in front of a US congressional panel, that his ideology for 20 years was wrong: i.e. his economic policy, his new liberal orientated policy was wrong! It was quite a dramatic moment for Greenspan to acknowledge that; and an amazing thing for me to discover is that al-Jazeera actually made that story the leading headline and made it very appealing in the sense that Greenspan acknowledging he was wrong.
They let the Greenspan video run for three or four minutes. CCTV ended up being very timid, didn’t even dare to say that Greenspan acknowledged he was wrong. And CCTV still established Greenspan as an authority, even at the moment when he admitted to doing wrong – and his authority was being challenged by a very legitimate source, i.e. the US Congress.
So the contrast here is, you have very critical coverage by al-Jazeera of Greenspan and the new liberal economic policy that brought the world to this crisis, versus a CCTV coverage that’s very timid, very pro-establishment, and in this case also pro Greenspan. And the Chinese inability to be critical, even at a moment when someone from the major Western economic leadership acknowledges that he was wrong. That kind of coverage does not appeal to a Western critical, audience, if that’s what CCTV is trying to reach.
MH: But what does the Chinese leadership want to convey with their new international media strategy?
Zhao: Of course, there’s the official line that they want to present a China that’s open, and according to the official slogans, trying to peacefully develop itself or “peacefully rise” – so they want to present this image of China not being a threat to the rest of the world; a China that has problems, but is trying every effort to solve these problems, and also they want to present a China that’s modern, that’s developing on all sorts of fronts. That’s what they try with that Times Square commercial screen; they use people like Yao Ming, the basketball star, Chinese actresses, or Chinese scientists to present China as a modern progressive, self-improving country – a friendly China.
This is all about the lower classes, poor people, economic development that creates inequality, housing and school evictions, growing urban-rural gap; and neo-Maoism as a counterweight to the excesses of the 1990s and capitalism with Chinese characteristics
MH: But isn’t that much the same impression China wishes to convey domestically?
Zhao: The domestic media are much more interesting with growing debate. The party line, of course, is still yes, we want a picture perfect China, stable and harmonious, according to the official buzz words. But the reality is that with the commercialisation of the Chinese media, the polarisation of Chinese society, and especially with the explosion of the Internet, you do have a more open and “polistic” image – or at least controversy about domestic issues.
In that sense the domestic media coverage has improved, not dramatically, but a lot in terms of the assertiveness of journalists vis a vis party officials, especially local officials; and in terms of the diversity, the voices that are being covered, especially voices from the lower social classes. Yes, it’s still difficult, but more people are able to get their voice articulated through the internet, and then through a kind of almost trickle down – or up – effect to the mainstream media.
This is all about the lower classes, poor people, economic development that creates inequality, housing and school evictions, growing urban-rural gap; and neo-Maoism as a counterweight to the excesses of the 1990s and capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
But that kind of debate is not being carried in China’s international media, especially in the official media that try to reach the global audience. So there is this juncture between the kind of domestic media voices, I won’t say the image the Party wants to present domestically, but I will say the increasingly diverse and defined media and the internet opinion, and then the international voice, which is so much more controlled by the party, and also so much more monopolised by just a few state controlled media organisations.; and with the voice of the elite Chinese journalists’ editors, rather than compared with the domestic situation where you have more grass roots voices.
This is a transcript of an interview in Copenhagen in October 2011, which was edited into a radio piece in Danish for DR (Danish Broadcasting)