Beijing launching a 'Chinese CNN' to burnish image abroad

But winning credibility as an objective news source will be a hurdle, experts say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Something was missing from Chinese state television's live coverage of President Obama's inaugural speech two weeks ago. As he recalled how "earlier generations faced down fascism and communism," viewers here were suddenly returned to the studio, where flustered presenters stumbled to fill the unexpected airtime.

As officials plan to launch China's own international TV news channel in the next year or two, burnishing the country's image abroad while challenging CNN, BBC, and other broadcasters, the incident illustrates how hard it will be for Beijing to realize that dream.

"China's image is very important, but the first question is the image of the medium itself," cautions Gong Wenxiang, journalism professor at Peking University. "If the medium lacks credibility, it is unthinkable that it will improve the country's image."

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Such reservations do not appear to be restraining official ambitions.

The government is reported to have set aside more than $6 billion to launch the TV station, to nearly double the number of foreign bureaus belonging to the official Xinhua news agency, and to upgrade the ruling Communist party mouthpiece, the People's Daily.

The drive reflects a new burst of enthusiasm in China's long-running but generally unsuccessful effort to present a positive image to the world.

"The strength of our voice does not match our position in the world," complains Yu Guoming, deputy dean of the journalism school at People's University in Beijing, who has acted as a consultant on the government's TV project.

"That affects the extent to which China is accepted by the world," Professor Yu adds. "If our voice does not match our role, however strong we are we remain a crippled giant."

An international opinion poll last year by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., appeared to support that conclusion. In only seven of 23 countries surveyed did majorities express favorable views of China, and the long-term trend is toward more negative attitudes.

News you can use – to influence

Chinese officials are well aware of the role their media might play, if successfully deployed, in boosting Beijing's "soft power" around the world.

In a speech last month, the Communist party's top ideology official, Li Changchun, was blunt. "Communications capacity determines influence," he said at a celebration of China Central Television's (CCTV) 50th birthday.

"Whichever nation's communications capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values spread far and wide and ... that has the most power to influence the world," he said.

China's current efforts to make its case internationally, mainly through CCTV's English, Spanish, and French channels, have had "quite bad results" admits Yu, partly because "they ignore Western audience's requirement of balance."

That kind of propaganda, he insists, will have no place in the planned TV station's broadcasts. "We will try to produce news the way that Western media do," he says. "Only by reporting objectively can we create a respected and influential TV channel."

But American efforts to establish a government-backed news channel abroad have also struggled to win credibility as an objective source of information. Al-Hurra ("The Free One"), an Arabic-language TV station launched in 2004 and broadcast in the Middle East, has failed to gain much of a following.

To emphasize its aspirations for independence, China's news station will be based abroad, perhaps in Singapore or Thailand, Yu explains, and Xinhua, which has been tasked with launching the channel, will seek private investors as partners.

Control vs. credibility

Some observers, however, are dubious. "Control of the media is absolutely paramount for the [Communist] party," argues David Bandurski, who heads the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

"They are not going to dispense with the notion that media control is central to their power in one fell swoop," he adds.

Certainly Mr. Li gave no signs of such a reversal in his speech at CCTV headquarters. "We must enhance our consciousness of politics ... firmly establishing the Marxist view of journalism," he insisted, "constantly improving our capacity to correctly guide public opinion."

Mr. Bandurski sees the Chinese government's international media plans as the global dimension of its new approach to news management – actively seeking to influence the agenda rather than relying on simple censorship.

"They recognize that when they censor, they just create a vacuum" likely to be filled by Western reporting the authorities do not like, says Bandurski.

Censoring can also be inconsistent in its rigidity. When a protester hurled a shoe at Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during his speech this week at England's Cambridge University, one CCTV channel cut away from its coverage while another kept on broadcasting.

"The new focus," Bandurski continues, "is on how to drive the agenda."

News is a matter of national security in China, and the authorities sometimes frame their forays into the world of international media in military terms; officials have likened big media groups, for example, to aircraft carriers, acting as platforms for the projection of Chinese interests.

"The outreach effort is very natural because of the growing strength of the nation," says Professor Gong. "They [officials] are clear about what to say but they don't know how to say it with the best results."

And so long as the party insists on controlling the media, China will have difficulty convincing foreign viewers to consider its point of view, he adds. "They have realized the problem of cross-cultural communications, but before serious political reform takes place they cannot do much."

Bandurski puts it more bluntly. "They've got a lot to learn," he says, "about how to create credibility."

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