China spends 45 billion to extend media's global reach
HONG KONG - "There is a big gap between China's image among foreign people and its idea of itself."
Renmin University Journalism Dean Yu Guoming is bang on in his observation, an argument we have been making here for quite some time. Many of the problems which arose during the Tibetan protests and torch relay controversy came from Chinese surprise that people overseas could have such strong feelings on these subjects -- and feelings that were anathema to China's official view. China was able to "reform and open" over thirty years, but it's been far less successful in convincing those abroad of its global views and context.
The South China Morning Post (all articles behind a paywall) has run two stories today about Beijing's RMB 45 billion investment in Chinese media organizations which target global audiences. The first, "Beijing in 45b yuan global media drive", says the cash will be available to agencies which come up with worthwhile projects to enhance their global image:
Management at CCTV, Xinhua and the People's Daily have been busy meeting consultants, inviting experts to brainstorming sessions and drafting proposals.
"Xinhua has a plan to expand its overseas bureaus from about 100 to 186," the source said, suggesting it would have bases in virtually every country in the world.
Another media source said Xinhua planned to create an Asia-based 24-hour television station to broadcast global news to an international audience.
"I was invited twice for brainstorming meetings on the establishment of such a television station, which would not just broadcast news on China, but on everywhere in the world," a different source said.
The media sources said Xinhua was ambitious about building an "influential and reliable" station like the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network.
"With Al-Jazeera as the model, the station would enjoy greater freedom of speech from the central authorities than Phoenix TV on political and current events," one source said.
Meanwhile, the Global Times, a daily tabloid owned by the People's Daily and known for its nationalistic tone, has decided to launch an English edition in May, becoming the second national English newspaper, after China Daily. The paper has begun recruiting English-speaking editors and journalists.
CCTV has announced plans to launch Arabic and Russian channels this year, aggressively expanding its team of overseas reporters and recruiting foreign-language professionals.
The plus side for media people in China is a plethora of new jobs, according to the second article, "Big offers for English speakers in media jobs":
In a speech last month, Li Yuanchao , chief of the party's Organisation Department, encouraged recruitment of overseas talent with a "free ideological mindset".
Ms Zhang said the speech effectively lifted policy restrictions on attracting foreign experts, boosting CCTV's efforts to attract staff.
Meanwhile, the Global Times, a daily tabloid owned by the People's Daily, has announced a plan to hire an executive editor, a deputy executive editor and 60 reporters with English expertise to help put out its English edition, to be launched in May.
Recruitment advertisements for at least 10 native English speakers as "consultants" have been widely circulated on various news outlets and websites.
Many English reporters in other Beijing-based media organisations said they had received "very competitive salary package" offers from the Global Times as the head-hunting campaign becomes more urgent, with some saying apartments were being offered as well as high salaries.
"I was told that an editor could be paid 300,000 yuan (HK$341,000) a year, with a one-off offer of an apartment," one reporter said.
China Newsweek, a China News Service-owned weekly popular among young Chinese people, is speeding up preparation for an English-language edition to be published in the US.
A Beijing source said that the weekly would be backed by 200 million yuan in capital from CNS.
As with Communism itself, this media plan is good in theory. There's no doubt that there is a gaping need for more Chinese viewpoints in the great discussions of the day. If Qatar can have an internationally-influential television channel, surely China can too. And there's no reason why the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, CNN et al should have a disproportionate sway on what we see and hear.
China's point of view and context for that point of view are sadly lacking, as I'm reminded of each time I'm asked to guest on a foreign radio station. But before we start considering an international Xinhua TV channel, what happened to CCTV 9? Isn't CCTV 9 supposed to present China's view to the world? Is there a point in lauching a second one without fixing the first?
The problem isn't lack of TV channels or media outlets that present China's case to foreigners, it's the lack of any media outlets that present China's case well. If Xinhua's new TV endeavor is run in the same manner CCTV is, with the same group of life-long communist party members in bad suits calling the shots, it will be doomed to failure. In fact, I'd go one step further: any mainland Chinese run media outlet will be taken less seriously as long as general media controls are in place.
Which brings me to my second point: the credibility of the media in China. China could open a hundred news organizations and blanket the world with China's point of view, but it would be greeted with just as much suspicion as it is now because China, despite all of its advancements, remains a one-party state with absolute control over all domestic media. This investment in more coverage may help to a degree: sure, we all know that China Daily is a government mouthpiece, but we read it because we get to know what the government thinks and it provides a decent (I'm being generous) roundup of what's going on in the country. A new Xinhua TV Channel or Global Times newspaper may provide the same. But at the end of the day, it's a lot of money being thrown at the symptom. China can't buy itself credibility. Not even for 45 billion.
To be successful, in my humble opinion, the new international TV station or newspaper must be given free reign to cover what it wants. It needs to be run on a system of merit and good journalism, not longevity, adherence to party principles, or loyalty to China (that sounds outdated, but that's how media organizations are still run in mainland China). If it selectively avoids sensitive subjects (for example, not running a story on the June 4 vigil in Hong Kong each year), perhaps people can look past it if the rest of the journalism is quality. But one lead story on Hu Jintao's win-win visit to Lesotho, which adheres to the One China Policy, and, well.... you get the picture.