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 theGlobal 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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