China‘s state broadcaster is launching a major expansion in pursuit of an international audience, increasing its overseas staff fivefold by the end of next year and almost tenfold by 2016.
China Central Television hopes to win millions of viewers in the US and Africa with English-language services produced in Washington and Nairobi. It is the latest in a multibillion-pound soft power push, as Beijing searches for a “cultural aircraft carrier” to extend its global influence.
“Global competition nowadays is not just political and economic, but cultural … Countries that take the dominant position in cultural development and own strong cultural soft power are the ones that gain the initiative in fierce international competition,” argued an essay in Chinese journal Leadership Decision-Making Information last month.
Beijing has created almost 300 Confucius institutes around the world, teaching Chinese language and culture, and spent a reported £4bn on expanding state media. It has created a new English language newspaper, Russian and Arabic TV channels and a 24-hour English news station run by the Xinhua state news agency.
In a sign of how far the Chinese media reaches, you can buy the European edition of the English-language China Daily in a Sheffield and read Xinhua’s Kenyan “mobile newspaper” on your phone in Nairobi.
In Boston, China Radio International has claimed the frequency previously owned by WILD-AM – “home for classic soul and R&B” – to the surprise of listeners.
Beijing has also attempted to harness the credibility of established western media, distributing 2.5m copies of China Daily’s China Watch supplement in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Daily Telegraph.
The China Central Television (CCTV) expansion is arguably the most ambitious, although the broadcaster declined to answer queries about the plans. According to its website, it had 49 staff posted abroad in November 2010 – with 10 more in Hong Kong and Macau – and wants overseas staff to increase to 280 by 2012. That number should rise to 500 by 2016, across 80 bureaus.
At the heart of operations will be six hubs: two probably in London and Dubai and others in South America and the Asia Pacific region.
It is understood to have hired some 150 people, with Washington gaining 60 staff. Most will be working for the English- and other foreign-language channels. Zhong Xin, a journalism professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Chinese media had long wanted to expand and that incidents in 2008 and 2009 – such as protests during the Olympic torch relay and riots in Xinjiang – persuaded the government of the need, because it wanted China’s voice to be heard.
Dong Tiance, a journalism professor at Jinan University in southern China, said: “Official bodies, media organisations and academia have agreed that our previous external publicity has had problems. These overseas initiatives are improving this, for example, by hiring senior local journalists and experts.”
CCTV has hired Jim Laurie, a former ABC and NBC broadcaster turned consultant, to advise it and has offered generous salaries for local staff.
According to his website, CCTV will broadcast at least an hour of programming daily by early 2012, and four hours by June, from its new studios. It has leased 3,300 sq m (36,000 sq ft) at a central Washington address for a reported $1.5m (£953,000).
In Nairobi, the Kenyan vice-president has said Chinese officials plan to increase CCTV’s staff from 12 to 150. It has poached high-profile anchors from local networks for CCTV Africa.
Whether these efforts will be repaid in viewing figures remains to be seen. One challenge has been delivery: Xinhua’s CNC World news channel was originally available only online, although it can now be watched via Sky in the UK and Time Warner Cable in the US.
CCTV services are now available via non-profit broadcaster MHz Networks in Washington and it hopes adding unconventional means of delivery – perhaps showing programmes in shops – could extend its audience.
The second challenge has been persuading people to watch. Even at home, commercial rivals often trounce state offerings and there is widespread cynicism about news content.
Chinese internet-users last week reacted angrily to remarks by CCTV’s new boss, who said journalists’ primary responsibility was to be a “mouthpiece”. Hu Zhanfan, who gave the speech earlier this year as editor-in-chief of the official Guangming Daily, said “news workers” who defined themselves as journalism professionals instead of in terms of Communist party propaganda work were making a fundamental error.
While foreign-language state media are allowed to go further than those intended for a domestic audience, there are still tight constraints on their work.
“In general people are perhaps still suspicious about the quality of some of the news programmes,” acknowledged Dong Guanpeng, a former CCTV anchor who teaches journalism at Tsinghua University in Beijing and has advised officials on media policy. But he said CCTV could reach an audience of opinion-formers on China to begin with and that non-news programming, such as cultural shows, would increase its appeal.
Arnold Zeitlin, a veteran correspondent turned consultant who teaches journalism at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, said numerous countries had attempted similar media pushes unsuccessfully. He questioned the point of spending “huge gobs of money” on the media expansion without addressing issues such as China’s human rights record.
“I would be surprised, if not disappointed, if most people buy it,” he said. “To change China’s image it is necessary to alter Chinese policy and outlook.”