Reading David Bandurski’s ever keen observations over at China Media Project in “As China shout its line on Tibet, is anybody listening?”, I got struck by deja vu all over again. Three times.
First, there’s the endless drumbeat of the official line in Chinese media Bandurski illustrates thusly:
In People’s Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Guangming Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Economic Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
At Xinhua, etc. etc. etc.
And so on. Which, of course, is echoed repeatedly in English as Tibet to set “Serf Liberation Day”, or minor variations thereof. You can even read about it in Esperanto, along with full coverage of the two conferences last month. Which reminds me of my all time favorite bit of heavy handedness from Chinese English media, the special report page Xinhua produced titled “Condemn Falun Gong”, in which the headlines report all sorts of groups doing just that: a forum, overseas Chinese, the students of Chongqing, “people of all circles”, and then, so as not to leave out people without circles, simply “people” condemn it, in case you weren’t sure if you were invited to join in the festivities.
Bandurski then reminded me of the news that China is investing 45 billion RMB in CCTV, Xinhua and People’s Daily to “accelerate “going out”” and go global with its news operations to set media agendas. The maximum any one of them can get is 15 billion, which is alot more than CCTV-9 has ever seen, but wait a minute. I’ve heard most of this before. Li Changchun has been saying more or less the same things about “going out” since 2003, albeit I’m guessing he’s not referring to the Three Represents as often. The same goes for soft power – just because America finally has a president who likes Joseph Nye doesn’t mean the Chinese just discovered him too. It’s been a perennial favorite for years, and been applied to everything from CNN to Korean soap operas, and always boils down to “China doesn’t have enough”.
First of all, one bit going around is that China is inspired to start its own Al Jazeera. That was something heard in 2004 and repeatedly thereafter from Li Xiguang, Tsinghua professor and at that time newly appointed director of CCTV International. Li was behind the relatively tame revamp of CCTV-9 at the time, when they hired Edwin Maher, and launched Spanish and French language channels (and five years later, how many people watch those?).* Now, CCTV is on the verge of launching Russian and Arabic channels, and plans to have seven different languages on 11 channels by 2012. I count six including Mandarin. Is there a Cantonese CCTV, or are they going to launch the world’s first global 24 hour esperanto network? Point being, that 15 billion RMB gets sliced 11 ways. Most importantly, what kind of strategy is this? Al Jazeera made its mark primarily through exclusive journalism in one language – it’s own – and then expanded into English. At this rate, the Big Underpants building in Beijing is going to be the Tower of Babel, or worse resemble the EU’s translation center.
Besides this lack of focus, there are other reasons China can’t have an Al Jazeera:
- Size matters: Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, which is about 11,000 square kilometers (4,400 square miles). To put this in perspective, all of Beijing is 16,807 kilometers. But their primary Arabic business covers the entire Arab world. Al Jazeera offices have been closed or raided because of negative reporting in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain. It’s not beholden to the governments of 99% of its regional viewers. That’s one of the reasons Al Jazeera was so successful.
- Nobody wants to hear about Qatar: Qatar has about 350,000 citizens according to Wikipedia, and around another 700,000+ expats. There is news to be reported, and Al Jazeera has been criticized for not looking in its own backyard too closely, but the country is just too small to be a generator of globally significant events (except about Al Jazeera itself). By contrast, China sneezes about the dollar and markets turn.
- Al Jazeera’s main mission is not boosterism: China is flatly stating they want a Chinese network to boost their reputation. The Emir of Qatar, by contrast, has allowed editorial independence and Qatar doesn’t really need it anyway thanks to size and oil. Not to mention perhaps the Emir understands that it doesn’t work. Soft power does not seem the Emir’s main interest, at least not in the way Chinese officials and scholars tend to think of it.
- They made their bones with regional Johnny-on-the-spots and call-in shows: Al Jazeera’s primary success was in Arabic, not English, with bureaus reporting live on the scene, even if it is only horrifying images of bodies (not typical fare for Chinese media). How often has Chinese language television been breaking news for their domestic audience with investigative interviews or live reports? Not so much. Al Jazeera’s popular live call-in shows, meanwhile, have often involved shouting matchs and free debate.
Finally, Bandurski also points out that China shipped a happy Tibetan monk all the way to Canada to say how not mad he is about anything. Well, three years ago China was building the largest embassy in the U.S., designed by I.M. Pei, and their ambassador had started gladhanding people in diners in Iowa. That didn’t pay off huge either.
China may have a respectable global news franchise yet, but throwing money around and talking about copying models that don’t fit isn’t going to make one.
*Li Xiguang’s speech on World Press Freedom Day in 2004 about coverage of the Iraq War by Chinese jounalists is fascinating. He basically savages CNN and Fox for spewing U.S. propaganda, but also savages the Chinese government for essentially “turning over” state TV to Rupert Murdoch.
UPDATE: SARFT said today that CCTV International’s four existing stations now reach 100 million households. I’ll just point out two things: first, reach is not the same as viewers or trust, and second, if that’s the case it wouldn’t make much sense to spend the 45 billion on a new network, but rather in integrating Xinhua’s overseas bureaus with CCTV International. Will turf wars and red tape make this difficult? Who knows.
21 thoughts on “Chinese Al Jazeera? No Chance.”
Great piece, Dave. You nailed it.
Chinese government are stupid. blah blah blah.
Chinese government are evil. blah blah blah.
@Dominic: I’m confused. Is that suppose to be your opinion of the Chinese government, or of my opinion of the Chinese government?
Cuz if you mean mine, evil? No. Stupid? At least as much as any other government, which can be quite a surprising amount.
First, 45 billion RMB is a lot of money. Large quantity of money can do a lot of tricks, including glamoring up some otherwise sleepy outfits.
The most important factor you may have overlooked, is the increasing worldwide importance of China, plus the news and opinions in China, to many outsiders who would care less of Tibet, Falungong, or whatever the political nuances. For example, lately there have been a lot of quotes in your typical news & blogs (not normally China-centric) directly from Xinhua and China Daily. For example, when Zhou Xiaochuan wrote his piece on the new international reserve currency, many want to know more. As of today, the total market cap of Chinese banks is already larger than the combined one of their US and UK counterparts. So people will watch CCTV when it becomes available in their cable/satellite lineup, for reasons quite different than most topics covered in today’s China-centric expat blogs. Maybe by watching this interview with this PBoC analyst, I may gain advantage in my retirement fund allocation; or, there is a fight in the other part of the world, I wonder what the opinions in China are…
The Chinese government’s image abroad (and arguably at home too) is one of intolerance and strictness. The best way to shake off this image is not to bore the world to death with propagandistic media coverage, but to become (wait for it), er, tolerant and liberal. Doh. Ah, but that might threaten some people’s power and privilege. Hmm, aint gonna happen then. Better just bring on the propaganda, and give us a good laugh.
Uh, I was being ironic, you know, saying opposite of something for emphasis. So, I actually think highly of Chinese government: opposite of evil and opposite of stupid.
Why would anyone “think highly” of any government? They’re all staffed by dishonest, power-hungry, anti-freedom shysters.
But is the Chinese government evil? It is a good question. Certainly some of its actions, like jailing people who criticise it, fit the definition of evil if you support freedom of speech. A counter argument to that would be that it is not evil because it is acting for the greater good, which is the preservation of social stability. However, I would counter that that argument is based on an unproven premise. Nobody actually knows whether greater freedom of speech would cause mass unrest; it hasn’t been tried (recently). And supporting that, there is plenty of evidence to show that the type of information censored is negative information about the government. That’s how I see the situation through my blinkered, misguided western eyes.
@Dominic, @Mark: if you want to argue about China being evil, go somewhere else. That’s not the topic du jour here.
@JXie: Oh, I don’t underestimate the power of money to make things shiny, and shiny definitely goes a long way. I just think shiny only goes so far.
Yes, people may tune into CCTV if they have an exclusive interview with Zhao Xiaochuan, but alot of people will turn to their own countries media because that’s where they’ll find out about how it effects them – an international network can’t provide that localization. People who do their own economic analysis might tune in, but not if they think the interview is going to be like a Bush press conference with alot of softball, pre-prepped questions so Zhao can stay on message, they won’t exactly consider it must-see-TV. And yes, that’s precisely what Jon Stewart and others have accused CNBC of doing, but CNBC isn’t exactly aspiring to be a global news juggernaut. They cater to day traders and people who work in the markets, mostly.
As for opinions in China on a conflict abroad… let’s just say alot of people are going to read it as the government’s position, not the people’s.
“if you want to argue about China being evil, go somewhere else.”
Faced with such brusqueness, I think I’ll do exactly that. A “please stay on topic” would have sufficed.
JXie. as dave mentions, it all depends on who controls the opinions. viewers would be looking for impartial opinion and, as things stand, it seems unlikely that a PBoC analyst on CCTV would be impartial. Also, it should be noted that CCTV9 is available on many cable feeds but is simply not watched. This again is because of the content. T
he only way CCTV can work internationally as either a news or entertainment model is through content (trustworthy in the case of news, compelling in the case of entertainment). At present, we are along way away from this and I don’t see how 45 billion will help, unless it can be used to hire new mindsets in both government and media owners.
Dave, money can buy you more than some shiny objects, but also software and people — reporters, news editors, anchors, etc. Good news reporting is about being timely, accurate, and having boots on the ground. Money, can buy you good people, which can bring you all that.
Al Jazeera was started in the 90s, but it was largely limited to an Arabic regional outfit, instead of being internationally viable until the Iraqi war. All of sudden, people in the likes of Sao Paulo, Johannesburg & Madrid started tuning to it instead of CNN or BBC, which outside of the US and the UK is considered not trustworthy in its Iraqi coverage. In a way, the Iraqi war “made” Al Jazeera.
There are a boat load of Chinese stocks & China-centric ETFs a non-Chinese can invest outside of China. On top of it, almost all commodities now are mostly China play. There are a hell lot more than a pre-prepped interview CCTV can do. My point is that this fact to CCTV can be like the Iraqi war to Al Jazeera.
FWIW, I watched Jon Stewart’s CNBC pieces (including the Cramer interview) and more so the seemingly popular reaction in horror. Much like the juries in the OJ Simpson trial, these people seem not to understand conditional probability.
I think JXie has a point. CCTV9 is now included in DISH Networks’ basic package in the states, I don’t think Al Jazeera is in it, people can watch if they want to.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show had a segment during the Olympics featured Rui Chenggang who used to be the anchor of CCTV9’s Business Report (now he is on CCTV2). Apparently, somebody is watching.
You mean China has an Al Jazeera (CCTV+Xinhua) and the new moves will ruin it ?
you talk about the CCTV’s viewership. I would like to point out that it is not as bad as you think. I know many people in the West who know the English channel of CCTV like it, not necessarily because of its coverage of news or politics, but its cultural and documentary programmes. and some people like its news programs simply because it offers a different perspective. I think when ideology is not involved, CCTV can be very good.
Hi Dave, how are things in Quanzhou?
No chance, I would hope at least. Yet, then again I think about channels like Fox News and the likes and get a little less optimistic. I would count on the blogosphere to expose them though! We have Anti-CCTV already haven’t we? http://www.anti-cctv.net/default.asp?page=2
Al Jazeera’s English Program – I don’t understand the Arabic – really stands out in my eyes because they try to get to the roots of things and let the grassroots speak. They have a clear stance in the Israel Palestinian conflict, but they do show all sides and let all sides speak. Sure the facts never speak for themselves, but they are still in my eyes a credible, professional source of news. It is my best liked source of world news here in Hong Kong.
BTW, the Chinese Western-Media-Conspiracy theorists would do good to watching the Al Jazeera’s coverage on China in general and Tibet, Xinjiang in particular. It isn’t a tittle more “positive” than the average BBC/CNN stuff. How could that be?
How many people outside of China pay for a subscription to the People’s Daily? Who wants to watch blatant propaganda unless one is a China expert trying to read between the lines to guess at what schisms are going on within the CCP? But it could be a nice stimulus package for out-of-work propagandists.
@Jxie: “Good news reporting is about being timely, accurate, and having boots on the ground. Money, can buy you good people, which can bring you all that.”
Absolutely right, and I didn’t say the money is a complete waste. I said Al Jazeera wouldn’t be a good model for how to spend it.
“Al Jazeera was started in the 90s, but it was largely limited to an Arabic regional outfit, instead of being internationally viable until the Iraqi war. All of sudden, people in the likes of Sao Paulo, Johannesburg & Madrid started tuning to it instead of CNN or BBC”
Those people in Sao Paulo, Johannesburg & Madrid did not tune into Al Jazeera during the first 3 years of the Iraq War, unless they knew Arabic. They tuned into other stations whose reports cited Al Jazeera broadcasts, or the Al Jazeera English language website which launched in 2003. Al Jazeera English wasn’t available until 2006. Al Jazeera was globally noticed because of its Arabic reporting. So the Chinese corollary would be CNN or RAI or whomever relying heavily on CCTV’s Chinese language reporting on China. Maybe you could say such a thing happened for the Sichuan earthquake, but I don’t think anyone considered it a new world-changing voice from the Chinese media landscape.
And as for CNBC, my point is that some people criticized them for trading skeptical journalism for access to CEOs. CCTV financial news, especially interviews of government officials, would be subject to the criticism even more because they are a government organ.
@AC: Appearing on the Daily Show wasn’t a bad idea for Rui Chenggang, but that’s not exactly an indicator that he or CCTV has made it. And here’s my question about Rui Chenggang: besides his campaign for a flashier, hipper CCTV in expensive loafers and his Starbucks in the Forbidden City campaign, can anyone give me examples of him breaking exclusive news or interviews that everybody was talking about the next morning that wasn’t about him? Honest question, I’m willing to believe there is, but all I know him for is showboating.
@richardlee: that may be true, except that the funding is aimed at news, not cultural and documentary programs, according to these reports.
@Christoph: Quanzhou is Quanzhou, as usual.
“Al Jazeera’s English Program – I don’t understand the Arabic – really stands out in my eyes because they try to get to the roots of things and let the grassroots speak.”
I don’t think that CCTV English news programs have much of a reputation for that.
@jay: I actually had thought about it being a form of stimulus as well, especially in light of Evan Osnos’ New Yorker post about the Beijing bureau of the Chicago Tribune closing, with a local employee moving on to another job. Al Jazeera got talent from the closing of foreign bureaus, and that is one thing I think CCTV certainly could copy with results.
“I don’t think that CCTV English news programs have much of a reputation for that.”
Certainly not. Imagine a show like “Inside Tibet” (like “Inside Iraq” on Al Jazeera). ROFL!
This sounds like a development which deserves keeping an eye on it.
Is there anything interested for you western guys on CCTV? For me ,i jsut watch it as to improving my english. But i feel awkward to listen chinese speaking chinese sometimes. Most of news are same as CCTV-1,even the ads are same. Seems there is no creative ,except lauguage .
Just a short note to say I think you’re a bit short-sighted in your views about the potential of a Chinese “Al Jazeera.”
China is emerging in a big way from its shell, and many people worldwide want to learn more about it. When you combine overseas Chinese + China-oriented foreign business circles + huge international interest in the Middle Kingdom, that’s a fairly broad global audience.
Personally, I don’t watch CCN or Al Jazeera much, since I don’t have a TV and don’t care for how they present their news. But it can’t be denied that these media have a big impact on world opinion. It’s only to be expected that China will learn from the global media industry and, in the not too distant future, launch a widely watched international station.
Few people watch TV news for its objectivity, and we can expect China will present news in a way that can certainly fool a good number of people much of the time. Like their super patriotic counterparts over at CNN, etc.
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