Global media groups knuckle under to curry Beijing’s favor

By David Bandurski — China’s World Media Summit, which opens today at the Great Hall of the People, a center and symbol of political power in Beijing, will purportedly address a whole range of development issues facing media worldwide. Chinese organizers have touted the event as “the media Olympics,” proudly attributing this baffling catchphrase to “a veteran CNN journalist.”

While the high jumpers and heavy lifters of the global media scene flex their muscles in Beijing, the nature of the forum itself should raise questions for the rest of us about China’s role as a rising global power, and particularly about its tactics and ambitions in shaping international dialogue on such core issues as press freedom and information access.

Accept it at face value and the World Media Summit has precious little to do with either press freedom or professional journalism. It’s all about business, right?

Sure. Just look at the summit’s invitation letter, which states plainly that the session will “focus on how world media will face up to the challenges and opportunities of the digital era and cash in on the network technologies.”



AP President Arrives

[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua News Agency coverage of the arrival of AP President Tom Curley in Beijing. We're used to seeing such symbolism for high-level government exchanges.]

We can expect touchy issues like press freedom to remain remote during the two-day session (despite calls by NGOs like Human Rights Watch for harder language).

The only item on the official agenda relating somewhat directly to these questions involves “shaping the future of newsrooms and journalists.” That is an ambitious proposition, to be sure. But the idea of it happening during a session of media fat cats in the Great Hall of the People, on Xinhua News Agency’s dime, is a real stomach turner.

We can even expect touchier international business and trade issues to be sidelined at the event as well, we are told.

Liu Jiawen, head of the foreign affairs department at Xinhua News Agency, told The Hollywood Reporter recently that an August 12 World Trade Organization decision concerning greater access to China’s media market by overseas news organizations would probably not come up at the summit. Why? Because, he said, the forum was “for media organizations, not government.”

And right there is the deception we must peel aside to see this summit for what it really is. Why is no one pointing this out? More than 130 media organizations are reportedly attending the summit today. Perhaps one or two could join me in highlighting the clear hypocrisy being perpetrated here.

This global summit — with phone, fax and headquarters right inside the CCP’s official Xinhua News Agency — describes itself in its official literature as “a non-governmental, non-profit, high-level media conference regularly hosted in turn by world media organizations in the countries of their headquarters.”

But Xinhua News Agency is one of the paramount official mouthpieces of the Communist Party of China, and it receives direct support from the party, so it is much more than a mere “media organization.” Xinhua News Agency chief Li Congjun (李从军), the chief visible figure behind the summit’s creation, is a member of China’s central party committee, and was also deputy chief of China’s Central Propaganda Department for more than six years before he took on the top Xinhua job.

Exactly how “non-government” can we suppose this summit is?

We could knuckle under to this deception and argue that, strictly speaking, Li Congjun, as a senior party leader, is not a member of China’s government. Sure. But by the same reasoning we could submit that the Chinese Communist Party is the world’s largest NGO.

These facts are obvious, so much so that I’m embarrassed to have to point them out. This “summit” may be dressed up as a platform for professional, “non-government” exchange — but it is really a naked ploy by the CCP to enhance China’s global influence over media agendas.

Everyone can see that, right?

These media representatives flocking in from all over the world, resting and feeding on the central government’s good graces (see “FUND”), may behave as though they are attending a conference. But this is really something else; it is an audience at court.

Everyone, from the bosses of the global media giants on down to the Iranian delegation, is hoping to curry favors by their presence. The panel presentations are just window dressing.

China has also, appropriating the language of state-to-state relations, described this as a “high-level media conference.” We can understand a great deal about the World Media Summit simply by parsing that interesting choice of vocabulary.

What does this mean? “High-level”? It means that Beijing understands and approaches core questions about the future of our media as matters principally for a global bureaucratic elite. The chief purpose of this meeting — aside from dollars and cents — is to establish China’s position within that global elite.

China has even conferred titles on the world’s media mandarins. Li Congjun, the Xinhua president and former high-level propaganda leader, is Executive Chairman of the summit’s “Secretariat,” while News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch and other “high-level” leaders of “media giants” join the shortlist of “co-chairpersons.”

In fact, the whole idea for the World Media Summit was cooked up, according to the folks at Xinhua, during informal meetings with global media bosses during last year’s Beijing Olympics:

During the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, Xinhua President Li Congjun held a series of talks with the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch, AP President Tom Curley, Reuters News Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger, Kyodo News President Satoshi Ishikawa, and BBC Director General Mark Thompson. They discussed the challenges world media organizations are facing in the digital and multimedia era. They exchanged views on increasing exchanges and enhancing cooperation in a win-win context, and reached a consensus on sponsoring the World Media Summit (WMS) at the right time.

These men decided — either consulting amongst themselves, or bowing to the decisions of Xinhua (or the CCP) — that they would comprise the World Media Summit’s governing body:

WMS Secretariat is composed of representatives of world media giants, including AP, BBC, CNN, Google, ITAR TASS, Kyodo, News Corporation, Reuters and Xinhua. The secretariat is engaged in coordination, drafting the conference program and handling administrative matters concerning the summit. Members of the secretariat meet and discuss relevant issues whenever it is needed, in which they report the latest developments and finalize arrangements for the WMS. Major issues regarding the WMS will be decided based on collective consultation of members of the secretariat.

This is beginning to look familiar, don’t you think? A self-appointed group of elites making decisions through consultation among themselves.

Perhaps we should dispense with the court metaphor altogether. The World Media Summit has a politburo.

The reference to “high-level” participation in the summit is one of the best illustrations of the CCP’s arrogant vision of our media future — despite its “non-government” pretense — as principally a matter for senior level “consultation” among “media giants”, and not something for broader participation.

And what is perhaps most interesting here is the extreme gap between the myth underpinning the CCP’s push to enhance its influence over global public opinion — the idea that Western media conglomerates have destroyed global media diversity and that China must come to the rescue — and China’s vision as realized for this summit.

Back in August, a critical piece of theory in the official CCP journal Qiushi righteously declared that “monopoly is the natural enemy of freedom.” It attacked the West for its greedy monopolization of news and information resources, and called for the creation of “a free and fair international news and information order.”

But China doesn’t want to destroy the current “news and information order.” It wants to re-draw its borders and take a larger chunk of the territory for itself.

That is why the World Media Summit itself is listed as a critical strategic measure for strengthening Xinhua News Agency’s global influence in an article Li Congjun himself wrote for the official magazine China Journalist back in February of this year.

In a section on the current state of media worldwide and Xinhua’s “core work” for 2009, Li writes:

Faced with new circumstances, new tasks and new demands, we must further strengthen our recognition of the hardships facing us, our responsibilities and our sense of mission, thoroughly applying the spirit of the 17th National Congress and the Third Plenary Session of the 17th Party Committee, raising high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics. With Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents as our guide, we must thoroughly implement the project of scientific development and thoroughly implement General Secretary Hu Jintao’s practical instructions on ideological work [What we've called at CMP "Control 2.0"] . . . [We must] uphold the principles of correct guidance of public opinion [READ: media propaganda controls] and the “Three Closenesses” [READ: media commercial development] . . .

Objective 8 on Xinhua’s master plan in this section is “accelerating the strategy of ‘going out’ (走出去), strengthening Chinese news reports directed to the outside and reports on international news, strengthening our strategic positioning overseas, perfecting mechanisms for outside dialogue and cooperation, steadily enhancing the international transmission capacity (国际传播能力) of Xinhua News Agency.”

But if you thought this was simply about Xinhua as a “non-government” “media organization” trying to expand its global market share:

According to the central committee’s strategic demand for “strengthening outside propaganda/publicity” (大外宣), we must work hard to get our own voice out at the first moment from the actual scene for important news and sudden-breaking incidents . . . constantly enhancing the affinity, attractiveness and infectiveness of Chinese news reports to the outside world, actively seizing the initiative and our right to have a say in international public opinion channeling, working to create an objective and amicable international public opinion environment.

Part of this strategy is to bring off the first World Media Summit with flying colors. And Li leads us to understand that this too arises from a specific directive from the central committee of the CCP:

[We must] actively seek out new horizons, new mechanisms, new channels and new methods in the area of outside dialogue and cooperation, particularly, as by the demands of central party leaders, successfully organizing the first meeting of the World Media Summit, building a platform for dialogue among first-rate international media (国际一流媒体), further raising the capacity of Xinhua News Agency to make its voice heard in the international news and information sector.

On the issue of China’s stand on media integration and loss of diversity, I invite readers of Chinese to turn also to this article, which reminds us that the creation of News Corporation-style media conglomerates has been a major priority of China’s leadership. And that as deputy propaganda chief, World Media Summit Executive Chairman Li Congjun was a major driving force.

Illustrating just how elitist and centralized China’s vision of the World Media Summit is, only two new media organizations are reportedly attending. We know that one is Google. But that level of representation is absolutely mind-boggling considering that “the integration of the traditional and emerging media” is given as a core topic of discussion and concern.

Transparency is another issue. On this, the summit’s opening day, we still have not seen a full list of participants or their media organizations in either Chinese or English. Whose preference was that, I wonder. The organizers at Xinhua, or jittery participants concerned about bad PR?

But this post has left me breathless . . .

Let me come to a swift conclusion by urging participants at the World Media Summit to live it up at the expense of Xinhua News Agency. Please tell Li Congjun I said hello.

And remember, the CCP’s central committee planned your lavish menu.

FURTHER READING:
2004 speech to ministers in which Xinhua President Li Congyun mentions the need to be on guard against “hostile forces”

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 8, 2009, 2:29pm HK]

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