China’s official media: Will the West ever want to watch?


A performance imagewith more than 60 traditional drummers and an eye-catching float parade featuring Beijing’s famous scenic spots guided the opening of the Beijing International Tourism Festival. Held at the city’s Olympic Park, the 2009 event featured artists from 71 countries and 18 districts around the Chinese capital.

Amid international financial turmoil, Beijing’s tourism is believed to be an emerging pillar. Beijing aims to build itself into an international brand, akin to Brazilian Carnival or the Oktoberfest in Munich.

And with an annual revenue of 186.2bn Yuan (18.08bn euro) from tourism in Beijing alone, China’s capacity to attract foreign visitors is without question.

But it fails to attract the same interest in its media, be they products foreign or domestic. 

World Media Summit: Professional exchange or business platform?

That Western media companies have included the Chinese market in their strategies is not a secret. Rupert Murdoch has long-standing ambitions in China. Indeed, to face the challenges of the digital and multimedia era in China’s media market will require exchange and co-operation among biggest media outlets in the world.

Li Congjun, the president of Xinhua News Agency, is very aware of that. He held a series of talks during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing with the chairman’s and CEOs of major Western news organisations. Those meetings led into the consensus for sponsoring the World Media Summit,WMS, celebrated in Beijing in early October, 2009.image

Like any other event of its kind, the WMS included many generous words accompanied by the requisite speech of the Chinese president, Hu Hintao, on the importance of the role of foreign journalists in his country. That sounded pretty ironic considering the communist government still limits and restricts foreign coverage of issues like human rights.

The bottom line for Western media moguls: China must fight against its backdrop of rampant piracy and a sheltered and protected market if it aims to compete in the international sphere.

With very little to do with press freedom or professional journalism, the forum resulted in an international platform for business and trade on which all the attending organisations perpetrated a hypocritical performance ignoring the constrained reality of the Chinese media.

Chinese media in the spotlight

In order to gain insight into the news information space in China, this author has interviewed two reporters based in Beijing: David Bartram, a freelance British journalist, and George Sun Xiaoji, a Chinese reporter who writes for several Chinese websites and newspapers.

EJC: Why has the development of the media in China been so protracted?

Bartram: You have to remember that it has only been relatively recently that China has opened up to the rest of the world. For a long time the Chinese press was only writing for a Chinese audience. It has only really been in, say, the last decade that it has considered a foreign audience at all, and even now that is still only a comparatively minor concern. The Chinese media can only develop fully when it starts to take a truly global approach.

EJC: What makes journalists in the West be more pervasive than their Chinese colleagues?

Bartram: Well I think in the West there has always been a tradition of the media having a duty to hold politicians, business leaders, etc., accountable for their actions. This doesn’t really exist in China. In fact most state-run media is there for just the opposite reasons. That said, there are some local Chinese newspapers who do some good work uncovering local government corruption. Still, in China there far greater a sense of deference and respect shown by journalists towards public figures – whether they be politicians, businessmen or celebrities.

EJC: Despite the appearance of more media outlets in English, Chinese media seem to be failing to attract a Western audience. Why?

Sun Xiaoji: I don’t think the word ‘failing’ can quite exactly describe the effort the Chinese media have recently made to attract Western audiences, though it is not very successful. Here’s the reason:
I don’t work for the official media but I had heard some gossip going around earlier this year that there’s a very big project the Chinese official media is going to launch. And, of course, it is supported by the government. In a nutshell, this great project is about the establishment of a 24-hour TV channel reporting English news to the rest of the world. For example, last month, CCTV (China Centre Television) established a series of foreign language channels ranging from Russian to Slavic focused on audiences outside China. This, which seems to be huge enough, is only a small part of the whole project for the government to establish the Chinese counterpart of CNN or BBC.

I got access to some clips of the TV programmes produced and broadcast on CCTV foreign language channels and, ironically, found they are just the same as what we got on the Chinese channels. The only difference is the language. But, to the audiences who have limited knowledge about China, it is very likely they take the content in those TV programmes for granted.

EJC: What kind of approach would be necessary to attract Western readers?

Bartram: At the moment I think China’s primary concern is to create a global voice for their political opinions. This will always be a niche area in terms of the world media. Beyond that I think a simple approach is key: produce swift, accurate and entertaining news and people will read it – wherever it has come from.

EJC: China seems to be targeting the West not just with economic and political news, but also with celebrity news…

Sun Xiaoji: Absolutely true. More and more Chinese audiences need to know news outside political and economic circles. The markets of celebrity, fashion, avant-garden arts, and sports news are increasing. For example, in October the Chinese edition of GQ magazine was launched.

EJC: Is China ready to embrace the digital era? Will we be able to see in the near future potentially influential media companies in China – without the influence of any major Western company?

Bartram: China’s online population is growing extremely quickly, but it is still lagging behind in terms of digital innovation. Western digital media companies (Google and Yahoo! in particular, Facebook and Youtube to a lesser extent) are keen to secure a share of this new market but they do face local competition. Chinese censorship of certain sites (I’m thinking of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter here, all of which are currently blocked in China) could well be seen as an attempt to allow Chinese equivalents of these sites to grow without having to face established Western competition.

EJC: Do Chinese people normally trust their own media? How often do they use blogging and other social networks to keep informed?

Sun Xiaoji: I think the Chinese people don’t normally trust their own media but they don’t totally trust Western media either. Now that China has the largest blogger population around the globe, we can describe the current development of blogosphere in China as booming. Most bloggers, as far as I know, update their entries every day. This has become the most popular and easiest way for Chinese netizens to gain information and communicate with each other since a lot of them can read and write fluent foreign languages.

EJC: Are the majority of Chinese consumers ready to demand a change into the digital challenge and the transformation of their media in order for China to exercise a leadership in the world?

Bartram: Although China’s online population is growing, it is still a relatively minor section of society. That said, there is a very vocal – and strongly nationalistic – group of netizens who want China to exercise a firmer type of leadership globally. This group occasionally pulls stunts and protests. For example, I recall a few months ago when Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama, there was an online campaign to boycott French imports. The “anti-CNN” campaign was another example of this.image

EJC: The Wenchuan earthquake is the perfect example that shows how Chinese media focus more on heroic stories and touching incidents rather than death toll and the collapse of buildings. Is that seen as a way of censorship and propaganda?

Sun Xiaoji: We cannot deny that there exists propaganda and censorship when we look at how the Chinese media cover the Wenchuan earthquake last year. It’s also absolutely true that the coverage made by Chinese media is not impartial. However, the Wenchuan earthquake got full and instant coverage, which was incredible compared with the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. Although journalism freedom in China is still only a piece of slogan, I think we should see the bright side of the progress Chinese media have made.

EJC: Are Chinese media as critical of Western policies in the same way as the West is critical of Chinese policies?

Bartram: The Chinese media are generally more critical of Western attitudes than Western policies. I think the overarching desire of the Chinese government is to be left to its own devices, and this is reflective in the media. The Chinese media will rarely come out and say “What the US is doing is wrong.” It is far more likely to come out and say “Hey! Stop criticising us. It’s none of your business, and it’s hypocritical anyway.”

EJC: Is China’s image in the Western media really distorted?

Sun Xiaoji: Generally speaking, I don’t think the image of China is completely distorted by the Western media. The rub is when they talk about China, it is quite often for us to see the key words like dictatorship, inhumanity, censorship and things like that. But the Chinese audiences have known these problems very well. What they care about is how to solve those problems instead of yelling to the world that they got them, which will make the Chinese embarrassed.

EJC: Are Chinese media obsessed with Western coverage of China?

Bartram: I think it only becomes an important issue when they feel they are being misrepresented. I remember during the whole Tibet issue last year, the Chinese were very angry that Western journalists were getting facts about the issue incorrect. But then at the same time, they banned basically all Western journalists from entering Tibet. How can a country which provides no access to a story expect journalists to get all their facts right?

EJC: Would a complete political change (just like in the former communist governments in Eastern Europe) be necessary in order for China to improve its image overseas through the media?

Sun Xiaoji: In my perspective, the opening of media is one of the premises of political revolution in China.

Beyond the barriers

China’s state-run media exerts an influence beyond the borders of China, challenging digital and multimedia technologies. China has a history of censoring domestic media and sometimes setting up barriers for foreign journalists not to report inside their own country. As such, the concern should not be when or how China opens to the new broadcasting 2.0 era. Rather when and how will it give the green light to freedom of expression?

The last example of censorship took place when US president Obama visited the People´s Republic of China only to have his prodigious public speaking talents stifled by his hosts. Any chance of delivering his message via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter would have been futile, as these sites are also heavily censored.

After such displays, it is not likely the rest of the world is willing to take Chinese media seriously. Only with an ideological and political shift of their content will information developed by the Asian giant be openly consumed by Western readers.

Flickr images from worldcitizen, xiaming, never original, xiaming