So there we have it, China’s answer to the much-decried international news networks began broadcasting yesterday. China Xinhua News Channel Network (CNC) will now broadcast English-language news and features, with the aim of “presenting an international vision with a China perspective”. In other words, CNC should inform English-language viewers about the Chinese point of view on international matters. But rest assured, station controller Wu Jincai pointed out that CNC will be a “news channel, not a propaganda station”.
The CNC launch provides an interesting inroad into a number of policy aspects. First and foremost, of course, CNC is part of the “stepping out” process initiated for the cultural industries in 2001. This process, to a large extent sponsored by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, also includes support for film production, Confucius institutes, It was envisioned, amongst others, to make sure that “our radio, film and television are able to have the same influence as large Western media abroad” by 2011. The objective of this process is to “make audiences from all countries over the world, especially the main countries of North America and West Europe, understand an authentic China, understand our position, attitude and point of view in major international problems”. The idea behind it being that negative attitudes towards China abroad result from a misunderstanding of China’s intention, a negatively biased press misreporting China-related matters and propaganda by Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and other dissident groups and individuals, or, in other words, the better the West knows China, the more it will like it”.
This point of view seems to be very strong in China. Even those critical of the CCP’s “stepping out” strategy still seem to think that antagonism towards China can be solved by presenting a certain idealized vision of the country (h/t ChinaGeeks). Moreover, this position reinforces the conflation between China as a country, and the CCP as a ruling party, opening doors further for the sort of government-controlled nationalism already often witnessed.
CNC also illustrates the focus of the government on form in media, rather than content. CNC intends to open a newsroom on Times Square in New York, next to Thomson Reuters and Condé Nast. Policy documents dealing with “stepping out” talk about securing channels, making deals with potential partners, but much less about editorial lines, journalistic standards and content. And even the technological side of the channel seems to be lacking. The English-language website only supports Internet Explorer, and the error message on other browsers is only given in Chinese. For many viewers, it will figure somewhere at the back of their channel range on television, if it will even be offered at all. And those watching the broadcasts report that technical quality leaves much to be desired. Lastly, the channel’s launch remained low-profile in the rest of Chinese media, only garnering a small mention in China Daily’s Around China column. It can only be guessed what this may mean.
Moreover, what those in power don’t seem to (or want to) take into account, is the fact that there are a number of well-informed foreigners taking issue with certain aspects of Chinese policy, and that this number will only grow as China’s stature on the world level rises. They do not do this out of specific spite with China as a country, but because of their own moral standards, economic interests or political beliefs, conflicting with actions of the Chinese government. Moreover, distrust with that government and its style of communication would seem to pre-empt the whole idea of learning to like the government if only it would be understood better. Quite on the contrary, “banned in China” is a much more effective marketing slogan for books and films in the West than “supported by the Chinese government”, a charge already put at the feet of Zhang Yimou, after films such as “Hero”.
From an economic point of view, CNC also might end up as unsustainable. While CNC is presently funded by Xinhua, and therefore the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, it seems plausible that at some point, it is expected to make a profit. China’s cultural industries are presently undergoing a process of structural reform, based on the idea that market principles should govern the financial side of media outlets. However, worldwide advertising income for the entire sector has been going down in recent years, and the probable lack of audience outlined above will not do much to make CNC into a promising advertising partner. Consequently, CNC will be nearly completely dependent of government sponsoring, further exacerbating the problem of journalistic independence.
Personally, I believe that any chance of a Chinese media outlet wanting to play on the international field, to survive, depends on whether they are able to “de-nationalize” themselves enough in order to become truly international. This path is already being taken by some Chinese filmmakers wanting to challenge Hollywood’s international domination. In a world where “Chinese-made” is rarely a marketable advantage, CNC might need to swim in another direction.