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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 / February 5, 2009


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.

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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."

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.