China’s “soft power” push overplays the technical side

By David Bandurski — CCP leaders continue to prioritize the amplification of “China’s voice” on the world stage. This can be seen in their campaign of spending on core state media, including Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, with the idea that these media will “go out” and compete with international media giants, thereby tipping the scales of global public opinion in China’s favor.

In the latest development, China Xinhua News Network Corp (CNC), the new television production service of Xinhua News Agency, was formally launched in Beijing on December 31. The following day, on January 1, CNC began broadcasting in the Asia-Pacific and in certain European markets.

But in an editorial in yesterday’s Chengdu Commercial Daily, Chen Jibing (陈季冰), a professional journalist and blogger, suggested that China was placing too great an emphasis on the technical aspects of its so-called “communication capacity.”

Chen argued that China would have to surge ahead in terms of the basic quality and credibility of its information as well — an area where he says Western media have traditionally excelled — if it wished to raise its international influence.

His editorial was highly critical of Chinese news stories and their typical emphasis on the actions of party leaders over the crucial basics of professional news reporting, the so-called “5 Ws.” Using analogies from business, Chen also suggested that aggressively pushing inferior media products could have the opposite effect, drawing “contempt and ridicule” rather than raising China’s soft power.

A translation of Chen’s editorial, which also appeared on his several blogs (including here and here) follows. We strongly recommend reading Chen’s piece in concert with Roland Soong’s wonderful piece today on Han Han’s comments on culture in Xiamen:

China on the Screens of CNTV and CNC
By Chen Jibing (陈季冰)
February 1, 2010

As we stand at the threshold of the second decade of the 21st century, many people have discovered suddenly that the media (public opinion) that should generally be news reporters and commentators have all too frequently created a flutter themselves as news stories. There is no need to speak of other cases — the “Google incident” alone is sufficient to agitate political, economic and cultural nerves in the heads of people of various different viewpoints, with various concerns.

In contrast to the silence that has met foreign [news] the information with which China’s media has attacked outward has not been taken seriously. On December 31, 2009, [the official] Xinhua News Agency’s China Xinhua News Network Corp (CNC) held its opening ceremony in Beijing. On January 1, 2010, CNC formally started broadcasting in the Asia-Pacific region and parts of Europe.

Just two days earlier, at 10 a.m. on December 29, 2009, China Central Television’s China Network Television (CNTV), launched with initial capital of 200 million yuan, formally began broadcasting, and is said to be “actively preparing” for a public listing. Go back another six months to April 20, 2009, and we saw the launch of the English-language edition of Global Times, a publication under [the CCP's official] People’s Daily newspaper. The English-language version of Global Times Online was launched at the same time. [Global Times] is the second comprehensive English-language newspaper in China to be circulated nationally . . .

This series of actions was of course done in order to more thoroughly and comprehensively convey “China’s voice” to the world, in accord with China’s strategic need to raise its own “soft power” internationally. People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, as China’s “national team” (国家队) represent three different [media] segments, newspaper, newswire and broadcast television, and so the nation has given them this glorious task, and along with it massive capital injections, as can only be expected. The hope is that CNTV, CNC and Global Times can be depended upon to have some effect in promoting greater understanding of China in the world and raising the influence of Chinese culture internationally.

But for some time now, a certain specious viewpoint has had some currency in domestic media, academia and even political circles. With some measure of justification, it points out first of all that one of the most important reasons the voice of the West has a firm grip on discourse power in the majority of regions in the world lies in the strength of Western media, because Western media play a role in transmitting the value system of the West; and the strength of Western media owes to the economic and technical dominance of the West.

Put another way, the West has a much stronger communication capacity than non-Western societies, and this dominant strength in terms of communication capacity has already made, and continues to make, Western culture and value systems insidiously permeate non-Western societies at various levels, resulting in a fundamental corrosion of non-Western cultures and a process of cultural colonization (文化殖民). Putting it into political terms: the Western media, which occupy every corner of the globe, have become the most powerful and effective tools of peaceful evolution (和平演变).

We can admit that this analysis is in some measure correct, and that it does agree with the true sense of Joseph Nye’s theory of “soft power” — an attractiveness that makes people consciously follow. I am confident that it is out of such a recognition that various sectors of Chinese society — especially high-level political decision-makers — have clearly seen the need and importance of raising the international influence of Chinese media. This is why they would invest such massive state assets in CNTV, CNC and Global Times.

Nevertheless, this sort of analysis, whether intentionally or unintentionally, places too great an emphasis on the technical communication aspects of communication capacity and influence . . . and even paints an equal sign between the act of communication and the achievement of influence. And this has seriously obscured other deficiencies in the soft power of Chinese culture.

In business schools you often come across the saying that “the channel is king” (渠道为王), meaning that whoever holds the keys to communication with the consumer occupies the high ground in commercial competition. Some people interpret this as meaning simply that whoever can get newspapers and broadcast signals most effectively into the sitting rooms of the public will have the power to dominate public opinion (舆论的主导权). It should go without saying, however, that the principal of “the channel is king” is premised on the idea that “mutually competing commercial products are of equal (or near equal) quality.

This is a subversion of conventional wisdom about commercial sales, which we find embodied in such sayings as “Good wine needs no bush” (ie, good products advertise themselves). No self-respecting business school professor would tell you that all you need to do is grab hold of the sales channels and your products will beat out those of your competitors, even if yours are inferior fakes (冒牌货). Exactly the opposite, they will admonish us that if you peddle inferior products, then no matter how broad and fluid your channels are, your brand will break down rapidly and your company hit the skids.

Therefore, if mass media coverage and influence have a proportional relationship, this is only true with the further self-evident condition that your media content is of a high quality, or at the very least is basically passable. It is difficult to imagine a newspaper that tramples the truth in its news, that disseminates viewpoints grounded in fundamental prejudices, yet is capable nevertheless of influencing readers across the world simply by virtue of appearing on every newsstand in the world.

Just the opposite, we can affirm rather that if a television station is of shabby quality, the only thing it will return is contempt and ridicule, even if its signal covers the surface of the moon.

Of course, as a media professional with close to 20 years of experience in the news, I will admit that news and opinion (and other cultural products) are different ordinary goods. And their standards of quality — such as objectivity, truth and depth — are not themselves objective in nature, and have a great deal to do with the viewpoints and positions of those who receive them. But neither can it be denied that news products still have some basic bottom lines for quality. For example, in the case of mine accidents, their impact and how they should be handled afterwards may be a matter of opinion. But such facts as when and where the accident occurred, how many people were injured and how much damage was caused, the hard elements of the 5 W’s applies, and they are not subject to change on the basis of value judgements.

You can write a 1,000-character news piece and spend 900 characters describing how the central, provincial, city and country leaders are laying out relief efforts, and how they care so much for the injured, and spend just 100 characters at the end getting to those 5 Ws [of professional journalism]. But if this news report is minus those last 100 characters, in my view it is a substandard news product. Even if you manage to get every person on the planet to read it, it will have no positive impact whatsoever on their thoughts and feelings, but instead will encourage their hearty dislike.

Objectively speaking, the influence of Western media has been determined not just by an advantage in assets and technology translating into broad geographical coverage. To a large extent, it derives also from the high quality of their news content. Leaving other examples aside, while the [2004] Asian Tsunami occurred much farther from the United States than from China, and while U.S. journalists stationed in the region were no greater in number than journalists from Chinese media, the bulk of information we had in the early stages came still from American media.

So if we truly want China’s voice to gain a foothold on the stage of world public opinion, I am afraid it is far from sufficient to put our energies into communication channels and the technical side alone.

Making the world hear the voice of China is not difficult. It is partly a matter of how much money we put in. But the difficulty lies in making the world accept China’s viewpoints. In the final analysis, the origin of the influence of the media or any cultural product lies in the true and credible nature of the facts of the news and in moral values with appeal (具有道德感召力的价值观).

[Posted by David Bandurski, February 2, 2010, 3:07 pm HK]

[Hompage image by Matthew Stinson available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. Satellite dishes outside the Jinmao Building in Shanghai's Pudong District.]

4 Comments to “China’s “soft power” push overplays the technical side”

  1. [...] more important is the quality of the reporting, according to Chen Jibing. In an editorial from the Chengdu Commercial Daily translated by the Chinese Media Project, the professional [...]

  2. Ian Lamont says:

    Interestingly, Xinhua has been trying for the better part of three decades to become a world news agency, through investments in training, technology, new services, and people. One practical result was a massive increase in the number of English-language articles, updates, and other content distributed via Xinhua — based on LexisNexis’ archive of the wire service, the amount of content published annually tripled from just over 22,000 in 1980 to over 66,000 in 1990. Nevertheless, this never made much of an impact in terms of expanding China’s media influence, for precisely the reasons that the author of the essay above described. Unless Xinhua, CCTV and other state-sanctioned outlets have a vastly different approach to quality or original content offerings, I don’t see how this new campaign to win over public opinion will succeed.

  3. Christoph says:

    Yeah, Xiamen is always good for a walk, huh.
    Here is a link for a video recording of HH’s speech with a much better audio quality. What you can see also is the smirk on his face at certain parts of the speech. ;)

    http://www.dapenti.com/blog/more.asp?name=xilei&id=26384

    Cheers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    [...] For the full article, please visit China Media Project. [...]

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