Unsolicited advice for Xinhua’s new CNC TV news outfit

To listen to people moan about the fact that China has sixty “Confucius Centers” in the US to America’s zilch-nada in China you’d think the Chinese were wrapping up hearts and minds around the planet while America gets relegated to the public diplomacy junk-heap alongside the usual despotic malcontents. While I’ll concede that China has an advantage in being able to roll out cultural centers in the US while smothering our own poorly funded efforts in red tape, I’m inclined to see that imbalance as the result of the tolerance and openness that have been part of America’s strength for the last 234 years. Give or take.

Readers in America: When was the last time any of you went to a Confucius Center? I thought so. How about watched a Chinese television program or a Chinese movie that wasn’t directed by Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige? See any Chinese brands last time you walked down the street? Ever had an American tell you they think Hu Jintao is super cool? Driven a Chinese car lately? Right. Whereas here, people feast on American pop culture (especially TV and movies), the street corners are a plague of American fast food labels and Buick is an aspirational brand. Leaving aside your opinions as to the value of McDonalds and Starbucks as ambassadors of American values, let’s not get all hysterical about the Confucius Centers or wallow in insecurity about America’s cultural influence until poor American refugees start seeking a better life in Fujian.

In fact, China’s government is well aware of its soft-power deficit with regard to the US (see also this article on Danwei), and has been investing in building up its capabilities. International news is one of the key areas of investment, thus the revamping and expansion of China’s foreign-language media organizations. This has included a refresh of the venerable China Daily, the launch of the surprisingly interesting English edition of the Global Times, the revamping of CCTV’s English language station, and more. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about Xinhua’s plans to roll out an international television news service:

China’s state news agency announced the launch of a global English-language television channel, part of a broader international push by the country’s government media aimed at countering the dominance of Western news outlets and conveying a Chinese perspective on events.

Xinhua news agency said trial broadcasts of the new 24-hour TV service, called China Network Corp., or CNC, will start Saturday, and the station will be fully operational July 1. CNC will be available by satellite, cable systems, the Internet and cellphones, Xinhua said, and will carry a range of programming on news, business and lifestyle issues.

“CNC will offer an alternative source of information for a global audience and aims to promote peace and development by interpreting the world in a global perspective,” Xinhua quoted its president, Li Congjun, as saying at a launch ceremony Friday.

Well, maybe.

I fully understand and even support the motivation behind this. China is a globally important country and has a right to be represented in international media. And as American news media continues its slow-motion implosion, you’d think this would be a good time for them to make their move. Nevertheless, I have a history of rolling my eyes at Chinese efforts to improve their international media efforts. This is not because I am some kind of cynical bastard (although that might also be true) or because I doubt China’s technical competence (I do not). It is because I feel that the natural control-freak inclinations of the Chinese government toward media essentially preclude any ability to develop a news organization with real, international credibility.

The objective–the real objective–is important. If the goal is simply to further disseminate the usual propaganda, then fine, they can do whatever they want. They’ll all feel good about themselves. But no one will watch.

If, on the other hand, the goal is to develop an international media organization that can compete with what’s already offered in English and offer a legitimately different but respectable perspective, then they’ll need to break their traditional mold a bit. Al Jazeera is perhaps the model here. It emerged from a country and region not known for a liberal approach to media and established itself as a serious and credible news organization largely on the back of its Iraq and Afghan war coverage. It did so while still presenting a point of view that was a clear alternative to most western media. They were helped along by some good journalism and slick packaging.

I don’t want to overwork the comparison. For one thing, Al Jazeera has had its problems (including serious personnel issues at their English service a couple of years ago). China certainly has the resources to try something similar to Al Jazeera, but it has some very different political and institutional factors to wrestle with than Qatar did. Also, the world isn’t necessarily screaming for an Asian alternative. Remember, Singapore has already tried the international TV news stunt with Channel News Asia, and it has had only modest international success at best. Even Al Jazeera kind of limped along for several years until it found its purpose and voice after 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. One hesitates to imagine a Chinese news organization blossoming in the heat of such a controversial international incident.

So with all that in mind, here are a few things I think China should do if it is really serious about launching a successful international television news network.

Base it in Hong Kong
Let’s face it, as wonderful as Beijing is, nobody is going to take a Beijing-headquartered international news organization seriously. By my thorough calculations, credibility will increase by the square of the distance from Zhongnanhai. This will be especially true if your parent organization is formally a branch of the Central Publicity Department, as Xinhua is. Technically that probably makes Lima or Buenos Aires the best option, but since those might be impractical, how about Hong Kong? Hong Kong is an established media hub with a veneer of press freedom that will be important in helping a new network to establish itself. It’s visa situation will be easier for pundits and professionals, especially the foreigners (see the next point). And, hey, it’s still China, right? Beijing has no trouble calling the shots in Legco, so it could probably manage a Hong Kong-based media organization without too much headache.

Hire pros to do it
Al Jazeera raided the BBC Arabic service when it started, and then raided the BBC again when it started its English service. China should do something similar. There are a lot of good, unemployed journalists around these days, including TV journalists. Avoid the second-stringers and discount talent and hire some heavy hitters for the editing and mainstream talent. Go for some recognizable brand-names. This will be hard because most such people won’t want to work in a Chinese news organization. Basing it in Hong Kong will help, but people will have to believe it will be doing serious journalism.

Also, make sure the production values are competitive with the best out there. No college broadcasting, please.

Cover China for real
This is another area where the Al Jazeera comparison breaks down. Al Jazeera was able to concede limits to its ability to cover its patron’s country, Qatar. Fortunately for them, nobody outside Qatar much cares what happens there, and there are plenty of sexier, more powerful and weirder places in the Gulf, let alone the broader middle East.

This won’t work for China, however. China is pretty much story number one out of Asia these days. How a Chinese international news network covers China will be a key part of how it is evaluated by audiences. The real test will come when, inevitably, such an organization has to cover a serious disaster or bout of civil unrest in China. What plays domestically will not play internationally, especially when people are comparing the coverage to other international media organizations. With all due respect to the Chinese people, who have been poorly served by foreign media on more than one occasion, most people outside of China–even non-Westerners–don’t spend their time grumbling about how crappy and one-sided coverage of China is. So don’t waste too much energy tilting at that particular windmill.

I’m not sure how China could manage this. It might have to credential its own news organization’s China journalists as foreign media. Now wouldn’t that be something.

Less scolding, more seduction
We understand that this operation is there to present China’s point of view, but a little bit of nuance is called for. Sometimes, the organization is going to have to cover the Dalai Lama, or Rebiyah Kadeer, Taiwan’s DPP, or other people the Chinese government finds distasteful. The moment the announcers start slipping into hostile language about black elements, jackals (jackals always get a bad rap), splittist criminals, etc. it’s all over. By all means, be more sympathetic to the Chinese government point of view, but do without with the theatrical, throwback language that alienates foreigners and reminds people that the propaganda mission always comes first. Find articulate, polished spokespeople to present the Chinese government point of view and let them, rather than the journalists or newsreaders, present the government’s points.

Don’t forget the rest of the world
It shouldn’t be all China, all the time. Global news organizations report on, yes, the globe. If the big news of the day is from somewhere outside of China, let’s make sure we don’t lead with what the Standing Committee did today, in protocol order, and doesn’t Uncle Wen look nice with the bouquet those schoolgirls gave him. That means opening a lot of bureaus and sending hardcore journalists to interesting places. With many western media organizations in retreat, there are plenty of parts of the globe that could and should be covered better, and where China might get better access than Western media organizations. Africa and Central Asia come to mind. China has the resources and can do this if it wants to.

Or it could all be a fantasy. I’d be interested to see China come up with something polished, interesting and watchable. There have certainly been signs of life from corners of the Chinese English-language media in the last few years. But given the history, especially in the heavily state-managed regime of television, it’s hard to be optimistic.

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32 Responses to Unsolicited advice for Xinhua’s new CNC TV news outfit

  1. kamikazewave says:

    The funny thing is, a lot of American journalism does editorialize when it comes to China. You could give the same advice to American news services hoping to regain the trust of Chinese viewers.

  2. Baoru says:

    Good advice especially the cover China for real. But I think journalists won’t think twice about doing this though.

  3. Ben Ross says:

    In terms of sound advice, I think you’ve hit it right on the button. In terms of practicality, I think we all know, none of this is ever going to happen…which is unfortunate, because if they took Will’s advice, we could potentially have a very valuable new news resource. My prediction: CCTV9 2.0.

  4. LoveChinaLongTime says:

    I find some of the best documentaries on China here in the state I’m in is from NHK! Great production value, great camera work, and truly interesting material.

    I can just predict the trash CNC will spew forth with their party mandate and third rate (read “cheap hire”) panda hugging foreign “journalists”.

  5. hualian says:

    Would an English version of Phoenix TV work?

  6. kailing says:

    Let’s see what happens… Hope we are not forced to choose between CCTV-9 and CCTV-09….

  7. Lee says:

    Real good advice Will, but you’re just casting pearls before swine. If someone in charge reads your advice, he or she would probably pick up “I fully understand and even support the motivation behind this. China is a globally important country and has a right to be represented in international media,” and says, hey, our international push has got a positive response!

  8. Julen says:

    The comparison with Al-Jazeera is very interesting and it is not the first time it comes up in conversation. As you say, Al Jazira has credibility because, unlike Xinhua, it cannot be controlled by the governments of the countries where its main audience lives. But this is not because those governments are so much more liberal, it is because the channel and Qatar are outside their area of direct control.

    In the case of China, apart from the freakish control mania of the government that you mention, there is a structural reasons why this would be impossible: the large majority of Chinese speaking citizens that would be the natural starting base for the channel (as arabs were for AJ) are all within one strong political unit.

    The only way to start something like AJ would be from an outside place like Singapore, but it would have no chance to become popular in China because *the channels of information access to the large majority of Chinese speaking people are controlled by the CCP*. This is what is completely different from the Arab World, and it is largely for this reason that CCP obsessive control efforts are so effective, while these practices usually backfire in other parts of the World.

    I risk to get into the philosophical here, but once again we see the same old story: the unity and harmony of China as opposed to the conflict and diversity of the West. When it comes to peace and stability the Chinese model is great. When it comes to creativity, innovation, credibility, competitiveness, etc. the harmonious unit can often be stifling.

  9. stuart says:

    In total agreement with your ‘to do/advice’ list for Chinese authorities. Sadly, the money quote from you post which makes most or all of them unlikely to be taken on board is this:

    “It is because I feel that the natural control-freak inclinations of the Chinese government toward media essentially preclude any ability to develop a news organization with real, international credibility.”

    Thus, without a serious change in attitude at Zhongnanhai, we will, disturbingly, get 24-hour news feeds that persist with a flattering portrayal of a harmonious Motherland under the benevolent hand of the CCP interspersed with occasional references to the ‘dalai clique’.

    Btw, Will, reading between the tweetlines are you heading back to the States? Or is there a new Sino-challenge waiting in the wings? Apologies if I’ve missed an announcement somewhere.

  10. Crispus says:

    Great advice! Seems pretty hard for the Chinese to understand others have opinions, beliefs, and feelings different, that is ‘not the same’, not ‘better’, than they do. Modifying the propaganda machine should work better and be cheaper than more of the heavy handed, narrow minded current approach.
    A lot of China is really great, the (real) people are great as well. Too bad it and they get hidden behind the phony facade.

  11. Will says:

    @Stuart: Changing jobs, but staying in Beijing. It’s a big change, but not *that* big.

    @Julens: I think you’re conflating some of the issues about Al Jazeera. My point was that it didn’t have to worry about restrictions on covering Qatar, the country where it was founded, because there is little international demand for or interest in news from Qatar. Therefore, it can afford to be essentially totally externally focused. A Chinese news organization cannot. It will have to cover China, and cover it well, or it will be worthless.

    Also, all of this is about an English language news service. Chinese citizens are not the intended audience, and popularity in China is not the government’s objective. In fact, it will be interested to see if CNC is even made widely available in China. The system I suggest would almost certainly be subject to the same controls as BBC, CNN and other international media, which are only legally available in certain places.

    But I agree with you that the conflict at the heart of this situation is pretty ageless.

  12. Julen says:

    I didn’t intend to conflate the issues. On the contrary, I agree with your point in the post, and I add mine from a different perspective (ie. you see it from the perspective of the subjects to be covered, I see it from the perspective of the target audience to be reached)

    Now, I realize that you are speaking about the English language service. But when you speak of AJ we should not forget the history of that channel. At the time when we started hearing about it in the West(in my case it was around 9/11) it was still an Arabic language channel. It developed first thanks to its success among the arabic speaking public, and only then expanded to other languages. Even today its core audience is either arabic speaking or muslims from other parts of the World.

    My point here is that to build a worldwide respected news channel you don’t only need credibility (the Luxemburg TV already has that!) you also need a large home public that will make your business significant, and then you can go hire all the BBC reporters you want. I think a Chinese TV would have a very hard time to succeed in the West even if their credibility was beyond doubt. Because most Westerners just don’t want to see the World from a Chinese perspective.

    With the new media and the internet you might argue that it is not necessary to have a strong home market and a large company to be someone in the World media. Perhaps you are right in the future, but today all the real news organizations that do real reporting internationally are still large and powerful companies.

    And the only way to be a powerful company is either by 1- being sponsored by the CCP like Xinhua or 2- Having a large public that attracts advertisers who pay the bills.

    This is, roughly, what I meant to say in the previous comment.

  13. Fred says:

    I met some of the future anchors of this channel as well as a bunch of other young Xinhua staff a few weeks ago during an internal Xinhua English assessment and was really, really impressed by the bunch. They were almost all extremely sharp, very up to date on current news, and capable of very good analysis and insight into various issues — all this during an 8 minute test. A few of them were back from 14 months in Iraq and had some very interesting observations about that.

    It was definitely a bittersweet experience though knowing that this effort is almost certainly doomed, despite the intelligence and good intentions of many of the people involved. It will definitely be a frustrating place to work.

    I hope they follow the advice here. There is a tremendous amount of potential and resource involved with this effort, both human and financial, and the world definitely needs more quality news sources, especially while most news outlets are cutting staff. I wish I could be more optimistic about this — as Will highlights so well, a few fairly simple moves could make a huge difference.

  14. Will says:

    @Julen: Thanks, I think I get what you mean now: A natural constituency for the channel. In which case, I agree. They won’t have one and it will be a serious weakness for them.

    @Fred: I know a number of very smart and talented Chinese journalists. The challenge for many them has always been the framework in which they work. I certainly hope the people at CNC get some chances to shine. I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with.

  15. FOARP says:

    Any channel which tries to push the bounds is likely to go the same way as Freezing Point, Southern Weekend, and English-language Global Times – a brief interlude of relative freedom followed by the firing/side-lining of the journalists who were foolish enough to criticise the government.

    The people who predict the channel being as being CCTV 9 Redux are probably more likely to be proved right – but, if so, what’s the point of the channel in the first place?

  16. Julen says:

    Yes, that is what I mean. The channel needs a public that is willing to watch it every day, not just switch to it when there is a riot in Tibet. It is almost impossible for such a channel to exist today independently from the CCP, for this reason and for the others you mention in the post.

    PS. Please don’t add an “s” to my name, it sounds terribly Germanic (unless you are referring to me and my mini-me, in which case it is correct to call us in plural)

  17. Will says:

    @Julen: Noted and corrected! Let me know if you acquire a mini-me or a doppleganger and I will revert to the plural version.

  18. Kai says:

    Great post. Just wanted to pad your comment count in addition to sharing it with others.

  19. Lee says:

    A great post and interesting discussions indeed. But it’s a pity that all these are not heard by the Xinhua policy-makers, who are mad about multimedia nowadays but believe new technology can help them reach an international audience without changing propaganda content.

  20. Christoph says:

    Neat and to the point. Great post. Encourages me not to stop reading China blogs altogether.
    It will be a very tough balancing act. I think your points are all essential for making the channel somewhat credible, but I strongly doubt the regime is fit for following through on them yet (and will never be) – particularly with regards to “Cover China for real.” But who knows … I’ll definitely tune in.

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  22. PJM says:

    @FOARP As a foreigner at Global Times English, it’s flattering to be mentioned in the same sentence as Freezing Point and Southern Weekend, but, hey, honestly we haven’t had anyone martyred (yet) for criticizing the benevolent folks who ultimately sign our paychecks. We’ve had resignations of some very talented staff who are justifiably frustrated with the all-stick/no-carrot management style and one young Chinese firebrand who “resigned” after he tweeted comments by the GT editor in a closed door (to foreigner staff) meeting about his concerns with the paper’s survival and how he hoped to keep pushing some issues.
    Meanwhile, it’s all Expo, all the time for the next 100whatever days…

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  24. Mike says:

    Spot on analysis. I’m working in a western media company and it is heartbreaking/worrying to see the continuing decline within the industry. It is really being hollowed out and there are real opportunities here for a cashed up player to fill the vacuum. Just having the funds to have journalists on the ground in places like Africa and South America would be a major plus for any Chinese media operation. Many major newspapers and broadcasters simply don’t have foreign correspondents any more. China could do so much if it sent a few decent journalists to the same places it currently sends its miners and resource buyers. But if they were the same calibre and had the same editorial values as those currently seen on CCTV – or on HK TV for that matter, then it would be an expensive unwatched vanity project.
    I would also have to doubt whether a Chinese TV company could credibly report on the activities of Chinese companies and government bodies in places such as Namibia (the Nuctech trial), Trinidad (the Chinese contractor controversy) and Sri Lanka (internet censorship). If China TV did not report critically and openly on such matters then it would be more like the US-sponsored (an unwatched) Arab TV service Al-Houra rather than Al-jazeera.

  25. Michael says:

    The whole exercise is doomed. If China wants to really push its soft power, it needs to take a full step backwards, abandon its obsession with state-owned news organisations and start thinking more about some of its new media companies that have started expanding overseas and do not carry the burden of being tagged as government propaganda. some even have the respect of overseas audiences. ‘soft power’ and influence is not all about news. it is about engaging with people’s lives and Tencent, Baidu and Youku are already achieving this.

  26. Will says:

    Michael, I agree with much of that. I think the Internet companies are for the moment still too linguistically constrained to be much good for soft-power with any but Chinese-speaking audiences outside the mainland (e.g. Taiwan, Singapore, the mainland diaspora). But I do think that pop culture has a huge role to play. This post was specifically about CNC. But if you asked to recommend one thing that China could to to bolster it’s soft power, it would be to free it’s film, television and music industries from state interference and let them blossom on their own.

    But, as always, I’m not holding my breath.

  27. Graham says:

    I could imagine this working only if they set up an organization totally separate from Xinhua, CCTV or any other part of the propaganda apparatus. I’m thinking here something more like the BBC, where you could say there is something like a “Chinese wall” between the paymasters and the editorial side. Just by being based in China, such an organization (CBC?) would probably have a world view more in line with that of the government’s.

    But then of course, the BBC reguarly attacks the British government, so there’s no way a CBC could broadcast inside China.

  28. Jason Lau says:

    Will,

    Great points, and all very true. They’re also the reason that this venture will not succeed at this point in time.

    Many experts have identified Chinese culture as being key to promoting its soft power and developing the China “brand”. And Chinese culture is inherently opposed to this kind of reporting that you speak of – it has been for centuries.

  29. FOARP says:

    @PJM – I saw the tweets, wrote a post on them, and then an anonymous commenter on my blog said that the guy had been “pushed out” without actually explaining what that means. I would love to hear the real story, but the only people I know connected to GT left there before he did. Drop me a line at fearofaredplanet@yahoo.co.uk if there’s anything more to the story you think I should know, comments will be treated as strictly confidential.

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  31. Eura says:

    As a Chinese, i cannot fully understand each word of the post. But as a PR student with a strong interest in public diplomacy, it’s a great and attractive article for me to get known about how a western PR profession reads the situation of China’s global reputation management and the value of its central government’s PR efforts. At least, as a person having soaked in such a one-party political culture for 20 years, even though now I’m in America, it’s really hard for me to comment on China’s government’s public diplomacy strategy and statistics in a neutral way. I’m feeling like standing between two totally opposite perspectives towards which polite and social form is good for human beings and don’t know which one is having superiority over the other one. I always keep telling myself it’s a cultural problem. But after twittering with some Chinese twitters who surmount the GFW to get the access to Twitter, I became self-doubted in terms of ideology. Thus, it’s a harsh process for me to adopt an objective attitude towards this issue. In the past, I always thought it’s reasonable for the government’s propaganda due to the developing situation of the nation requests unite the various nationalities to develop economy. But today, I’m wondering after I know propaganda is an unethical way to ignore human rights, not allowing the people to get free information, whether it’s unethical for me to make efforts to use public diplomacy to promote what the central government’s doing to the people. However, from the perspective of communication effects, continuing propaganda-style mass communication is definitely an ineffective and inefficient way to spread Chinese culture and influence the world with China’s perspective. Anyway, it’s a long way for the government and the whole people to make use of public diplomacy in a bright way. Otherwise, another big problem is due to the long-term propaganda, Chinese people seldom have a sense of participation in building China’s reputation on the level of diplomacy, and they only regard themselves as the receivers and have been used to the role. In fact, along with China’s government does something to the external public, there’s a big task for them to unite the internal public and inspire them to participate in the course of China’s public diplomacy, which’s exactly the characteristics of public diplomacy as a newborn governmental PR sub-field. All in all, I like you post and appreciate your concern with China’s rise.