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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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Can't agree more with Jing Z.

Can't agree more with Jing Z.

I really feel puzzled why whenever there is some criticism of China or Chinese government, there must be some strong response from people like the above Mr/Ms Anon as if they were personally affended. It's time to stop representing the Chinese people even though you are Chinese. This is an academic blog, so be it.

Second, I have to say, it is truely naive to claim that one must necessarily know 'much more' about China, only because one is Chinese. Sometimes, it works just the opposite way (unfortunately). To be honest, I'm not confident about how many Chinese students now know how much about China, say, the Cultural Revolution, which surely has been affecting this country so much and so long.

Finally I'd say, as a former Chinese overseas student, the most valuable thing I've learned abroad is to be objective and critical. I would prefer Mr/Ms Anon give his/her judgement of Gary after reading more of his work.

David and Nick

David and Nick

Many thanks for your comments. I am interested in the suggested demise of shortwave radio broadcasting in Africa and would like to pursue this further. My interest in both international politics and communications stems from a happy childhood listening to shortwave and DX-ing myriad stations around the world. If you are correct, Nick, it seems that Africa is experiencing its own Great Leap Forward.

David, I agree that Phoenix has great potential as an instrument of PD if handled correctly. Most overseas Chinese I know watch and enjoy Phoenix and prefer it to CCTV. It does seem to have more credibility. Indeed, I know a fast-food Chinese restaurant in Sydney shows Phoenix to its diners. Interesting question: does Murdoch have more or less credibility than the Chinese Communist Party? I encourage you to read Rupert’s Adventures in China, a wonderful account of how Murdoch penetrated the Chinese media market and found a wife.

To Jing Z and Mandy, thanks for your comments. I know that most Chinese people are not blind, and I am delighted that your education overseas has been valuable. This is how China will progress.

I must confess to being disappointed with the response of the PD student. It seems that some Chinese students today benefit from an international education but do not take on board the fundamental aspect of that education, namely critical analysis. I am a critic of the Chinese government, but I also adore China and the Chinese people – yes, it is possible to do so. I do not attack the remarkable achievements of the Chinese people and its culture; nor do I overlook the progress made after 1949 and especially after 1979 (though the great man-made famine of the early 1960s, the Cultural Revolution and 1989 Tiananmen should not be overlooked). However, I do maintain it is possible to criticise the Chinese Communist Party without criticising China. I know that is heresy in the new fiercely nationalist China. If China wishes to progress further in PD it must do two things: (i) Accept that receiving criticism is part and parcel of being a world player. This will demonstrate maturity and responsibility, as well as accountability; and (ii) understand that a criticism of the Chinese political system, any of its institutions or policies is NOT an attack on 1.3 billion Chinese people.

Should I respond? I have

Should I respond? I have written many lines, then decided to delete them. Since I understand I have no right to tell people how you should think of the Chinese communists, governments, and people. Also, there is always a disconnection between the academic and real worlds. That is my problem. But thanks for all of the above comments, which strongly remind me that many people disagree with you. That is fine. I get more incentives to be a convincing scholar, who can earn much more support than currently none:). Good luck to all of you.

Hi Gary, so glad you've read

Hi Gary, so glad you've read that book TOO! that book is one of the most interesting books about media i've ever read! and interestly enough, the author of that book is one of my bosses here and now he's trying to do what Murdoch has failed with far less resources! He's trying to get a vastly underresourced ABC international TV into China! To me that's like a 'mission impossible' but let's see how far can he go.....

I completely agree with you on what's lacking with some Chinese overseas students - critical analysis. This particular skill is not normally taught or encouraged throughout the Chinese education system and it takes years to develop. I can understand why some Chinese students would get very defensive when facing criticisms about China becasue I WAS ONE OF THEM. I still remember at my first media class here in Australia, i jumped up angrily and started lecturing my teacher when he talks about China's Internet censorship.He didn't laugh at me or dismiss my points as arrogant, instead, he said politely:' yes, i see your point, it's certainly vaild, but maybe you could see this issue in a different way.......'
That suprised me and taught me a valuable lesson: in the academic world, there's nothing personal, it's all about thinking critically and exchanging ideas and perspectives intellectually.

I am PD student in China now,

I am PD student in China now, studying PD and international communications. Before that, I had worked in an influencial Chinese newspaper for 5 years. I think I might have a better understanding of Chinese media and CPC.
I cannot agree with Rawsley. I think it is not over-confidence, but a ridiculous trying. And this new international communication(CPC calls it as international propogada) policy transformed into a struggle between different interets such as Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, the People Daily, etc. They all wish to get a share from the ambitious but thoughtlessly scheme.
This scheme is directed by the CPC, it is the biggest problem. It is the CPC that hurt Chinese media's credibility the most. How can it be possible to image that CPC will free Chinese media?
CCP knows well that it has no Discourse power in the international areana. The influences of CCTV and other party controled media maybe even smaller than some blogger. CCP leader eager wish to improve their PD ability. So, CCP has made such a scheme to flatter their leader, and to show the existence and importance CCP itself.

Sorry, the last two

Sorry, the last two abbreviations is CPC, not CCP.

Hi Oliver ~nice post~ I guess

Hi Oliver ~nice post~ I guess every westerner or someone who has lived in western countries long enough would have the same perception that China's PD drive will ultimately fail because it's directed by the CPC. I had that feeling too. But recently I started to think otherwise, especially after seeing professor Cull's testimony about CHina's PD (It's in this site somewhere, may be you should check it out). Chinese leadership obviously knew their media outlet lack credibility but should they simply give up ? I reckon what they are trying to do is to generate maxium bang with maxium bucks. Under the condition of the global finacial crisis, i reckon that might work gradually... for instance CCTV9's getting into the US through one of the biggest satellite distributors and in some African countries, CCTV9 actually outplay CNN ..This PD (or propaganda if you like) offensive is evident everywhere in the world (just recently CRI brought yet another FM band in Australia). Ordinary citizens of western countries might not be interested in watching that but i think that worked very well with Chinese diasporas and many western intellectuals studying CHina. Coupled with some exchange programs (inviting foreign scholars to visit some most affluent places in CHina), this could have a subtle interesting fact is that five years ago, when i first came to Australia, there were very few China-friendly scholars appeared in the Australia media, but now they are everywhere.

Another point might be, during a time of decling resources allocated for foreign reporting, Western media will rely more on Xinhua or China daily for news about China, the image of CHina might change in the future because of this.

CPC is quite visionary in these aspects, they are aiming for the future if that's the right word.

Over many years and

Over many years and numberless visits to China, I've developed some small understanding of the impression made on Chinese people by western comments about China's duty or responsibility or appropriate role.

In the intense sessions on Capitol Hill lately over redirecting America's economy toward use of renewable energy, there's a new buzz. The context is uncomfortable and two-fold: the enormous and growing consumption of dirty fossil fuels that contribute to atmospheric gas accumulations and global warming, and the startling fact that China leads the world in the design and manufacture of equipment for generating energy from renewable resources. This black/white profile means different things to different people here in Washington as they debate what should be done through negotiation, trade restriction and (by far the most useful action), stimulating/supporting major US investment in new technologies for exploiting renewable resources.

As if to illustrate the ambiguity inherent in the way the issues are discussed, this other awkward point has surfaced. While the US Dept of Energy continues to dither about approving a US engineered coal fired power plant design that is much less expensive than current ones as well as far more efficient and cleaner burning, China has adapted the design for new plants, approved its use and is now bringing these plants on stream. It puts into perspective the exchanges above on attitudes toward China, how Americans assess China's "progress" and its enormously capable citizens now returning there to build the country into the mega state of the future and of their fondest dreams.

Like the Chinese writer above, I too wonder at the depth of understanding behind comments from many "experts" opening their mouths here to bray about "what we must do" yet whose knowledge of China seems anecdotal, economically focused and culturally glib, who seem not to have lived there and who possess less command of Mandarin -- if any, than do I.

Moreover, the arguments that get fast traction (in DC), thanks to news media preference for controversy over comprehension, mainly focus on what China "must do" to accommodate our need of the moment: selling T bills to float our debt to fund our resurgence to regain our preeminence, ergo, to have our way. The wrenching changes we must make in our own interest are oddly muted. Too much easy chatter: too little serious analysis of what is happening and our responsibility for it.

As the facile formulations fly about what America should demand of China, Chinese citizens living in the US are saying in effect, we beg to differ. Meaning, we want a modicum of respect, face, if you like, while we go about pursuing our endeavors which comprise China's core agenda: building China.

We Americans have urgent, enduring national interests to protect -- even when we aren't protecting them through the strategic investments in renewable energy technology we should have begun decades ago: but it serves no purpose to condescend or to insist on language Chinese find demeaning.

Like it or not, despite our relative economic position, China's progress on almost every front suggests that already we have something to learn from its' successes. History will note that China's acceleration amounts to nothing less than moving the largest population, over the most varied/challenging topography, from the most reduced starting point, through the most dramatic changes, in the shortest period of time. In this sense, China's Olympic performance was the apt if pale analog to what it is achieving across the board. A little western modesty in the face of those incontrovertible achievements is both appropriate and productive.

Now, about those T bills....

Nowadays, most westerners

Nowadays, most westerners have so many misperceptions about China. Today's China is different with thirty years ago, even different with twenty years ago(1989). Historically, Chinese people are more pragmatic then westerners, now they are even more pragmatic. Communist ideology have little appealing to them, but many people, especially intellectuals and college students, also know that democracy will not come into reality overnight.
India's democracy is a big success to many westerners and some Indians. In fact, only non-westerners know the reality about India, and China.
I have not been to India, but I have many friends working or traveling in India. They see the different side with many westerners about India, which may reflect the same side of China neglected by westerners.
There have been much bribery, kidnappings and even murders occurred in India's democratic election. Local leaders and influential families can decide the ultimate results. Too many people in developing countries are accustomed to these events. China also has "democratic" elections. If you have opportunity to its procedures or institutions, you will admit that it is really democratic. But the result will surely disappoint you. Without long experiences living in these countries, westerners can hardly understand their reality.
I am living now with my wife and two-year-old son in a big city in China. I will get my PhD degree soon, and I have not yet find a job, it makes me very nervous. But the most things I concerned with China are peace and development. I hate CCP, and I hate the severe corruptions. Yet the most things I would not accept are China turning a "democratic" country overnight. It should be a very slow process.
There is an old Chinese saying: despite the rise and fall of the dynasties, it was the people who always suffered. If have no first hand experience in China or not familiar with Chinese history, it is hard for those people living in western democratic countries to understand why Chinese people always suffering. The recent thirty years is the best time for Chinese citizens in China's history, although it is cannot compare with western countries. We wish it can keep going onward.
Surely Chinese citizens are kidnapped by CCP, but it does not mean we have Stockholm syndrome. The will be the best result that we can slowly get rid of CCP. But what I am afraid is that China will repeat the history of late Qing Dynasty. Which mean the authority didn’t want to push a thorough reform, eventually it triggered a revolution. It is the last thing I wish to see.

to david:

to david:
Traditionally, Western medias rely more on Xinhua or China daily. The language barrier maybe the main reason. Today there are many excellent medias in China, but they have no english version. Research shows that news about China transmited by AP and other western medias mostly come from Xinhua or China daily. But they are "mouthpiece" firstly. News reported by them cannot reflect the full view of China.
CCP's new PD effort is to enhance these shameless mouthpiece, not to help other admirable media. It is ridiculous.



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