As many Western media organizations battle with decreasing revenues, the Chinese government sees an opportunity to promote its political values abroad. That is done by buying space in foreign newspapers, as well as expanding the global presence of the Chinese state media.
Berlingske, one of the world’s oldest newspapers, was last Tuesday published together with a 12 page lift-out insert paid for by the Chinese embassy in Denmark. One of the articles in the insert highlighted China as a responsible and peaceful player on the global political stage; yet another article stressed that life has never been better in Tibet, thanks to the Chinese authorities’ respect for local culture and religious freedom.
Personally I was surprised, but not shocked. Last summer, the Chinese embassy in my native Sweden bought a whole page “ad” in one of our largest newspapers to justify China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, just before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that those very claims were invalid and in contradiction to international law.
Look beyond Scandinavia and the phenomenon, naturally, proves to be even worse. An insert called “China Watch” is regularly published with leading medias such as the Washington Post, the Telegraph in the UK, Le Figaro in France, and Australia’s Fairfax Media. It is paid for by the Chinese government, and edited by China Daily, a state-run newspaper.
China Watch is also published online by the above mentioned media companies, and is described on the Telegraph’s website as: “Bringing you informative and diverse stories about contemporary China’s dynamic development, including the latest news from the Technology, Business, Travel, Culture, Society and Sports sectors.”
In between the lines, of course, there is no shortage of political articles. When the first edition of China Watch was published in Australia last summer, its eight pages dismissed the Philippines stance in the South China Sea, and emphasized the gains Australia could make from a free-trade agreement suggested by China. (In Australia, China Watch is now published monthly together with the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the Australian Financial Review, all outlets belonging to Farifax Media.)
Indeed, there is no lack of Chinese funding for buying pages or inserts in foreign publications. Already in 2009, then president Hu Jintao unveiled a US$7 billion budget to expand the global presence of state medias such as China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television Network (CCTV), and the likes during the coming years. (This sum can be compared to the US$289 million that the British government recently granted the BBC to expand its operations over the coming five years.)
Apart from simply buying space in already established medias, China is also developing its own media organizations for a conscious push overseas. The already mentioned China Daily today hires over 500 reporters, of which 70 are stationed abroad. Apart from its Hong Kong edition, the newspaper also runs a U.S. edition and an African edition, as well as an Asia Weekly and European Weekly edition.
Also, China Radio International is broadcasting around 400 hours daily on 38 different languages, but more resources still has been injected in the national newswire Xinhua. Of its over 3,000 employees, about 400 are found in the 170 or so overseas bureaus that the wire is now boosting. Xinhua publishes its material in eight different languages, including Arabic and Portuguese, and already last year reportedly got well over 100,000 paying subscribers abroad, in the form of media companies and various organizations.
Since Chinese state media don’t necessarily have to make any profit, Xinhua can “outsmart” Western competitors like Reuters and The Associated Press by simply offering lower rates, which in part explains its success in Africa and Latin- and South America.
The financial muscles of Xinhua can also be seen by the fact that it has regularly been buying billboard space at Times Square in central New York for commercial and propaganda purposes since 2011. After the Hague ruled against China in the South China Sea last summer, Xinhua for an undisclosed sum ran a video on the Times Square billboard to defend China’s territorial ambitions — 120 times every day during two weeks.
And during the recent New Year weekend, China also announced the creation of a brand new media organization named China Global Television Network (CGTN), with the purpose of ”rebranding China.” Upon its establishment, CGTN received a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping, who urged the new broadcaster to ”tell China stories well” to the world.
The Global Times — an English-language daily managed by People’s Daily — provides an excerpt from the president’s letter: “CGTN should tell stories about China well and spread China’s voice well; enable the world to see a multidimensional and colorful China; present China as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and an upholder of international order; and make efforts to build a community of common destiny.”
For good measure, Liu Yunshan, head of the central propaganda department, filled in that CGTN should ”highlight new ideas and strategies of state governance with Xi [Jinping] as the core.”
CGTN is set up by CCTV in a bid to integrate broadcasting with online resources to create a multi-language, multi-platform media group. Hence, CGTN will operate from the state of the art production facilities already established by CCTV in Washington as well as in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Since CCTV launched its first 24 hours news channel back in 2000, the expansion has been rapid, and CGTN will now be taking over the responsibility over broadcasting that is being done in six different languages.
An Uneven Fight
With the phrase “tell stories about China well” in mind, all countries naturally want to do their best to market themselves abroad. But there is no equivalent to China neither in ambition nor in resources. Spendings on media might be outperforming the BBC’s budget by far, but it still only represents a fraction of the Chinese government’s orchestrated effort to exchange raw cash for soft power.
David Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University, estimates that China spends about US$10 billion every year on external propaganda, which also includes soft power initiatives such as culture, sports and educational funding of the Confucius Institutes that have been popping up in hundreds of campuses around the world during recent years. To put things in perspective, Shambaugh compares this with the US$666 million that the American government spent on “public diplomacy” in 2014.
Still, when it comes to media policy, the differences are ever more striking. Obviously, many western medias may have their own agendas, but none of them are soaking up billion of dollars in state aid to carry out an outspoken political mission.
For all the hundreds of million of dollars the BBC is receiving from the British government, no sane British prime minister would demand the broadcaster to “tell good stories about Britain.” On the contrary, a vast share of the funding is utilized to scrutinize the country’s establishment.
In the U.S., the public media sector is even smaller, its biggest fully state funded actor being Voice of America with an annual budget of just over US$200 million. As with other American soft power vehicles such as Hollywood and Motown, the media sector is privately owned which grants a freedom and creativity that Chinese counterparts can only dream of.
For anyone doubting the state of freedom of the Chinese media, it was less than a year ago that president Xi personally paid a visit to the offices of China’s three most important party media organizations — Xinhua, CCTV, and the People’s Daily. When wrapping up the visits with a symposium, the president declared that: “All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity.”
It is also worth noting how China has been slipping to place 176 out of 180 in Reporter’s Without Borders’ index over global press freedom, behind countries like Iran, Somalia and Sudan. China was also dubbed “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” for several years before just recently being surpassed by Turkey. Still, over 40 Chinese journalists are found behind bars today.
Despite this increasing repression, Western media organizations have been reluctant to cancel their deals with China. The Washington Post, for instance, has been publishing China Watch since 2011. Money talks, and in a time of decreasing revenues for media in general and print ads in particular, it might be hard for many to ignore the Chinese checkbook.
One notable exception is the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which cancelled its negotiations for cooperation with CCTV back in 2015, after its Chinese reporter Gao Yu was paraded on the Chinese broadcasting network before being sentenced to seven years in prison.
Taiwan, of course, is also a target of Chinese media, and how to tackle China’s propaganda push abroad reminds a tricky question. But given the resources and determination of the Chinese government, fighting back using the same means would be doomed to fail. It would also be a moral failure; the best solution is rather to keep on producing truthful high-class journalism and compete with quality rather than quantity. That, in combination with carefully checking the actual source when reading news about China.