The growing presence of Chinese media in America has caught much attention in recent months, but most reports from Western media sources only express voices of non-Chinese experts, and in some cases, non-Chinese employees of these Chinese media outlets. The result is a series of misrepresentations that leads us further from the truth, assuming there is such a thing.
For one, those who think Chinese media’s global ambition is a recent trend may want to redefine “recent.” China Daily, a major state-owned English newspaper, was founded in 1981, three years after Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world. Following that, in 1985, another state-owned newspaper People’s Daily issued its first overseas edition in over 80 countries and regions.
With a large bilingual billboard display of Xinhua, China’s largest news agency in Time Square, Chinese media’s presence might seem more pervasive than ever. But this increasing globalization is more than the result of the reported $6 billion the Chinese government committed to push its media abroad.
Few Western reports recognized the commercial ambitions of Chinese media because the focus has been on China’s frustration of the dominant (and often negative) Western perspective, and its surge to build a positive image in the world. “Expanding the advertising client base in America is an important goal,” said an employee at People.com.cn’s New York bureau who asked not to be named, “we are trying to reach more clients right now.”
In an interview with Foreign Policy, CCTV America’s senior producer and former “60 Minutes” producer Barbara Dury said: “The mentality (of CCTV) is expand, expand, expand.” CCTV America is a new channel headquartered in D.C. that was launched this February. CCTV is only partially funded by the state, and it earns over $2 billion in annual revenue from advertisement.
Many Chinese media outlets also wish to become the bridge to attract more foreign investors to China.
In 2010, Xinhuanet, the website of China’s largest news agency, began operating as an enterprise instead of a government institution, despite its continued funding from the state.
Not all Chinese media in America work the same way, and the differences in their organization and content regulation may show more about China’s global media expansion than anything else.
There are currently two types of state-owned Chinese media in America: those that produce content (mostly in Chinese) about America for the Chinese audience, and those that produce English content about China for the American audience.
The media outlets that produce America-related content for the Chinese audience are composed of small bureaus or workstations of large Chinese media outlets, such as Phoenix Television, Economic Daily and People’s Daily. Most bureaus have only 2 or 3 employees.
The New York bureau of People’s Daily is an exception. It has 4 employees in an office space in the Empire State Building, in additional to a reporter at the UN workstation. The content generated by the bureau is posted on a separate page on People.com.cn. The bureau functions like a small company, selling its own ads and generating revenue. There are over 12 different Chinese media outlets that have bureaus like this in New York alone, but only People’s Daily admits it is trying to sell ads to Western companies.
On the other hand, China Daily, NewsChina (a magazine linked to the stated-owned China News Service) and CCTV America produce English content. They all claim to target the “western mainstream society,” and aim to give China’s perspective on global affairs and provide information about China.
You have heard it before, the government censorship of Chinese media and its “first responsibility…should be…a good mouthpiece.” Ying Zhu, author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television, said in an interview about CCTV America: “It’s far from being the credible resource for people to seek information about China.” How will Chinese media gain credibility in the West?
First, it reiterates the goal to be “not a Chinese mouthpiece, not a Chinese propaganda tool, but a global channel produced with a Chinese flair,” as a senior CCTV executive told the American head quarter’s newly recruited veteran journalists who used to work for CNN, BBC, ABC and Al Jazeera English. The meticulous choice of staff at CCTV America is another gesture to increase credibility before the skeptical Western audience.
Fred Teng, CEO of NewsChina, said there isn’t much censorship because it is not distributed in China, “the same rules don’t apply. They have a lot of editorial freedom.”
However, a quick search on the magazine’s website of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident that was the headline on most Western media back in April and May this year, showed no result. This search actually brings up an error message that invalidates further actions until the webpage is refreshed. Whether it is the result of a governmental censorship or simply an editorial decision (self-censorship or not) is unclear.
Chen was barely covered on CCTV America, but both Xinhuanet and China Daily ran several pieces on him, conveying the so-called China perspective: pointing out the U.S.’s violation of international law in letting Chen enter the U.S. embassy in Beijing, calling Chen’s case a distraction deliberately used by the West to make China look bad, and urging the U.S. to “stop misleading the public.”
The case of the disgraced former Chongqing chief Bo Xilai also got plenty of coverage on China Daily and Xinhuanet, and even appeared in 10 videos on CCTV America’s website. All three media outlets used it as an opportunity to showcase the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to punish and eliminate corruption.
A large western misconception about Chinese media is the assumption that any pro-China view is propaganda, and any criticism is a sign of freedom of speech. Some criticism could be tailored to serve the state and create a false sense of freedom. For example, Zhu reveals that the newsmagazine program Focus on CCTV-1 in China is given a quota of two negative stories per week.
Many pro-China views on Chinese media are in fact truthful reflections of popular social sentiment, especially when it comes to territorial disputes (such as the Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan) and other nationalistic issues. Zhu points out that even though the Chinese media does not always speak for the people as it vows to, but for the government instead, “there are times when the two voices overlap.”
One may remain skeptical about Chinese media’s global ambitions and credibility because that is what democracy supports: the freedom to choose and have our own opinions. The very presence of China’s voice in the Western-dominant media market is an endorsement of Western democracy. It would perhaps be more interesting and beneficial for the West to embrace the trend of globalization in all aspects, and listen to China’s opinions about its own controversies.
This story will appear in the Fall 2012 CQ Magazine . Judy Yi Zhou is a senior at New York University studying English and American Literature.