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China’s English-Language Media: A Case of Over-Confidence

Apr 21, 2009


When will China ever learn? It’s not how loud you speak, or how many times you say something, but what you say that counts. Reports that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has launched a new English-language newspaper, the Global Times, should be greeted with the usual mixture of delight (yet more evidence of the Chinese jumping on the public diplomacy bandwagon) and cynicism (yet more evidence of the Chinese jumping on the public diplomacy bandwagon). The launch reveals, however, that no matter how much we observe and analyze the renaissance in China’s public diplomacy, we cannot but stand by and watch as China and its champions seem to misunderstand public diplomacy- what it is and how it is/should be practiced.

First, let’s clear up a misconception: Reporting the launch of the Global Times English edition, AP’s Christopher Bodeen wrote that this “reflects China’s recent “soft power” drive to build its global reputation, muffle foreign criticism and broadcast the leadership’s particular views on issues such as democracy, human rights and Tibet”. If “soft power” means the attempt to win hearts and minds by projecting culture and values (which is, I think, what Joseph Nye intended) then this is not the way to go about it. Instead China is engaged, at best, in public diplomacy, at worst, in good old fashioned propaganda. The Global Times’s promise to present “news from a Chinese perspective, in a fair, insightful and courageous manner” and then publish the usual accusations against the western media as being part of a large conspiracy against China does not auger well for the future of the newspaper in terms of attracting its intended audience. I have talked elsewhere, most recently in a chapter in Nancy Snow and Philip Taylor’s edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, that there is inconsistency between what China says and what China does. (China is not alone in this, of course; how else can we explain the failure of American soft power?) In other words, the message of the public diplomacy must be credible; and if there is one thing lacking in China’s English-language media, it is credibility. China’s media are no longer the butt of jokes they once were – my favorite (and the favorite of most Chinese who know it) is “The only thing you can trust about the People’s Daily (the official party newspaper) is the date” – yet credibility remains a serious problem when there is a serious inconsistency between policy and message, and when foreigners (and increasingly Chinese) have access to a range of non-Chinese media and sources of news.

The Global Times joins China Daily, and the Shanghai Daily, in trying to capture the English-language market. For those who watch TV rather than read newspapers, there is always CCTV 9, China’s English-language channel. These are all parts of China’s public diplomacy armoury, communicating China’s story and culture and to a world eager to hear the authentic voice of the nation, its people and its government ... at least that is what Beijing likes to believe.

Why does China always get it so wrong? The English-language media are rarely consumed by their intended international audience, but are rather used as tools by Chinese to improve their own English-language ability. Stories from the China Daily regularly crop-up in school and University English-language examinations. Few foreigners regularly watch CCTV 9 unless they have no other option (i.e., they are not staying in five-star hotels where BBC World is available) or they wish to improve their own understanding of Chinese by watching programmes hosted by the Canadian Mark Rosewell (known in China as Da Shan – Big Mountain) teaching Mandarin. Moreover, even internet-savvy Chinese can leap over the Great Chinese Firewall and access foreign news websites; why bother with the China Daily or news on CCTV 9 (hosted now by non-Chinese in a bold move by CCTV to boost its public diplomacy credibility) for your daily news when you can read The Guardian online?

And yet the CPC and CCTV remain over-confident in these media’s public diplomacy potential, as brought home to me during a visit to Beijing in 2007 when I was lucky enough to be invited to tour CCTV. Well, having been prohibited at the last minute from speaking at a conference, I needed something to pass the time. Most thrilling for me was seeing how the youthful directors and producers – no-one who worked there looked more than 15 years old – faced the obligatory bank of monitors displaying different television channels, one of which was showing CNN, a station that ordinary Chinese are unable to access. CNN is a model and a template, if not an inspiration to these young Chinese media-types for how to package the news.

My friend guiding me on the tour pointed out to me at every available opportunity the apparent lack of censorship at the channel: “Look,” she exclaimed at every foreign face working for the station. “A foreigner. And no-one is standing behind him to censor him.” Ho hum! It doesn’t quite work like that...

Then my friend was dismayed when I actually questioned the public diplomacy potential of CCTV 9. “CCTV 9 has an audience of 45 million all over the world, ” she declared proudly, repeating a mistake that can be found on the station’s website. “No,” I pointed out politely. “It has a potential audience of 45 million all over the world provided they subscribe to the satellite or cable package that subscribes to it.” CCTV is now also available in French (CCTV-F) and Spanish (CCTV-E) increasing further the potential but not the actual audience.

The Global Times has a future; it will survive, like the China Daily and CCTV 9 for two reasons: these media are state owned, and therefore do not face competition. Their political agenda and support mean they do not have to do things differently, and no matter the size of the audience, they will continue to appear. The Communist Party cannot lose face by letting them disappear.

The second reason is the most disturbing – the Chinese genuinely believe they are effective tools of public diplomacy. When will they ever learn?


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Great Post!

Great Post!

The launch of Global Times English edition strike me as well.I still remember reading GT Chinese version when i was in high school. It was one of the most 'patriotic'papers in China, imagine how 'independent' its English version will be...

Well, the Chinese leadership has obviously recognized the importance and centrality of public diplomacy as an integral part of China's 'peaceful rise'. But i always doubted how they real understand what public diplomacy means. I couldn't find a better word than yours - 'Over confidence' - that's excatly what it is.

Chinese politburo member responsible for propaganda and information, Li Changchun, was here in Australia a couple of weeks ago meeting high level officals at the ABC and he made this comment : "Communication capacity determines influence. In the modern age, whichever nation's communication methods are most advanced , whichever nation's communication capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values are able to spread far and wide, and that nation that has the most power to influence the world."

My guess is that he just started to read McLuhan's stuff from the 60s and truly believes 'the medium is the message'.......*.*6

With him in charge, i reckon we'll have to see China repeat its mistake over and over again. He's got 700 million yuan to squander anyway.

It's not all bad though. At least these new English-language media investments could help Local Chinese to learn English --- that is one of the primary functions for China Daily and CCTV 9 and (sadly)where the biggest share of audiences come from......

Oh, almost forgot, a question

Oh, almost forgot, a question for you Rawnsley, i always think it might be interesting if China could utilize Phoneix TV as a platform to launch a English language PD effort. Phoneix TV's tie with the Chinese government is close but subtle. It's location in Hong Kong and private ownership could provide a slight different identity. It's quite possible, in my view, for China to create a 'Chinese AlJazeera' if it's handled smartly ~ What do you think?

Hi guys, originally from

Hi guys, originally from China, I am currently a doctoral student of public diplomacy in the US. I agree that the Chinese governments may be over-confident regarding their propaganda. Based on what you wrote, however, I have to say that you are arrogant and naive too. You may know something about the U.S., but you know little about China and the Chinese communists. When you think of China, one thing is absolutely certain, that is, this country is growing smarter and stronger. Don't forget that thousands of Chinese came to the US each year and learn what you do for a long long time, and then go back to their country and use this knowledge to protect their country. But your knowledge about China always remain little and unchanged.

I really appreciate what the U.S. have taught me. I really admire what the U.S. have accomplished. But if you think you are smarter than the Chinese, I really want to remind you how arrogant and naive you are. At least I think I know China much more than you.

I know I didn't give you any

I know I didn't give you any fact, say, how the Chiense could improve their skills. That is another issue, which I will discuss in my formal paper. I just wish you to get rid of your unfounded arrogance, especially when talking about a country which you actually know little. Also, you bet China will improve their PD skills in the near future since many Chinese have understood the importante of PD very well.

To 'the doctoral student of

To 'the doctoral student of PD', care to give some solid arguments why you think this blog entry's 'arrogant' ?

As a research student and practitioner of PD myself, i think Gary's made some candid and interesting points about China's PD.

And also,i've read quite a few Gary's papers and books, i highly doubt that you know China more than him,even if you are Chinese.....

A great post Gary. One

A great post Gary. One manifestation of China's PD drive is its move to buy up air-time on FM stations in Africa. As Africa finally moves away from Shortwave there is a danger that the market leaders on that medium -- the BBC and VOA -- could find themselves stiff competition or perhaps more likely priced out of the emerging medium. This was an issue of real concern in US public diplomacy in the final months of last year. The correct response to the Chinese challenge is for the US, UK and other powers who beg to differ from the Chinese perspective to continue to invest in their international media and, where necessary, raise their game.

To david, it is defnintely

To david, it is defnintely time-consuming to explain why I feel he is arrogant. I am not sure whether he can read and speak Chinese. If not, he may never understand the essentials of this country. you may not agree, but you can ask him whether he feel the (explicit or implicit) gap between the China in his mind and the China in the Chinese minds. I have stayed in the U.S. for many years, yet I still feel such kind of cultural difference, which definitely affect my judgement about the US.

By the way, I never intend to offend Gary. I just hope he can get rid of his arrogrance (if any). Then he may be able to publish better works.

By the way, regarding the

By the way, regarding the launching of English global times, it is not an issue of over-confidence at all. It is about how to improve the paper's effectiveness. Also, the Chinese officials definitely know they were lying, when stating, for example, CCTV9 "has an audience of 45 million all over the world." But why did they say so? Do you think they are totally blind and stupid? No, they have their own plans.

Interesting point Nick. In

Interesting point Nick. In regard to Africa, you sure they are 'moving away'from shortwave? i am not familiar with what's happening over there but i do have a friend here who was a radio director in Kenya, he says Shortwave's still huge as far as kenya's concerned.

Btw, i've recently read your new book on VOA, great stuff! hope to see more of your work linking PD and Journalism

I think Gary wrote a good

I think Gary wrote a good post. He knows China and its public diplomacy well. As a Chinese overseas student, I think we should accept some criticism of the Chinese government instead of feeling offended. The criticism of the Chinese government is not equal to criticism of the Chinses people. In addition, Gary does not deny the great achievements by Chinese people.



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