Propagating China to the World: China’s “Public Diplomacy through Media” Strategy in the Age of Globalization

 Abstract

In order to improve its global image and cultivate an international environment that would facilitate China’s continuous rise in the world, the Chinese government has developed, in recent years, an aggressive public diplomacy program. The extension of the global outreach of its media has become an essential component in the effort to propagate the country’s international image. This paper maps out such undertakings by examining developments among four major media organizations: Xinhua, China Central Television, China Radio International, and China Daily.  At the same time, in analyzing existing literature and online discussions, it appears that three factors have the potential to compromise China’s efforts:  an absence of government and media credibility; a lack of proper understanding on the part of the authorities of China’s public diplomacy audiences; and the Chinese government’s reluctance and inability to develop social media tools that directly engage the foreign public as well as encourage people-to-people public diplomacy. Although China disposes of considerable soft power resources, the strategy of “public diplomacy through media” might well be trapped in its own repressive political system.

Introduction

On January 18, 2011, six large billboard-sized screens overlooking Times Square in New York City displayed simultaneously a video-commercial with images depicting celebrities such as basketball player Yao Ming and pianist Lang Lang, and ordinary Chinese citizens. The advertising was launched just ahead of the state visit to the United States of China’s President Hu Jintao. It ran 15 times per hour for 20 hours a day until February 14, for a total of 8,400 reruns. CNN, the U.S. television cable-network, broadcasted the same promotional advertisement during primetime through February 13.

According to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, the video was part of a “public diplomacy campaign” by the Chinese government (2011), or “the effort by the government of one nation to influence public or elite opinion of another nation for the purpose of turning the policy of the target nation to advantage” (Potter, 2002, p. 46). Although relatively new to the Chinese people, the concept of public diplomacy has been put in practice by China’s government for several decades, starting with the so-called “ping-pong” and “panda” diplomacies of the 1970s, which contributed to the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations in 1979. In more recent years however, China’s public diplomacy has been uplifted to a whole new dimension, with the use of mass media techniques and international broadcasting; cultural and scientific exchanges of students, scholars, intellectuals, and artists; participation in festivals and exhibitions; the building and maintenance of numerous additional cultural centers, as well as language teaching; and the establishing of local friendship and trade associations (Gilboa, 2000). The Chinese effort has been so drastic that it has brought alarm to Richard Lugar, the former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In February 2011, the U.S. Senator from Indiana released a report noting that “in the same way that our trade with China is out of balance, it is clear to even the casual observer, that when it comes to interacting directly with the other nation’s public we are in another lop-sided contest” (Lugar, 2011, p. V).

Indeed, China has been exceptionally active in engaging the international community on all cultural fronts. Between 2004 and 2010, 322 Confucius Institutes were established in 96 countries around the world, offering classes in Chinese language and culture (Confucius Institutes Online, n.d.). In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, drawing participants from over 200 nations.  In 2010, Shanghai held the World Expo, reaching a record participation of nearly 250 countries and international organizations (Xinhua, 2010). Such circumstances are aimed at broadening and strengthening the country’s soft power, and the media play an essential role in showcasing these efforts and establishing a positive image of China abroad. The government is pouring billions of dollars into the media (Wu & A. Chen, 2009), including international broadcasting channels and the foreign-language printed press, as well as carrying out high-visibility advertising campaigns abroad.

The Chinese government has made various efforts in recent years to develop a global media presence through four state-owned media organizations: the Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), and China Daily, the English-language newspaper. Yet, issues such as the absence of government and media credibility around the world, the lack of a proper understanding of its targeted audiences, and the Chinese authorities’ reluctance – and inability – in developing social media tools to engage the foreign public and encourage civil participation, appear to be compromising some of the attempts to propagate a positive image abroad.

Public Diplomacy for the Rise of China

According to Rumi Aoyama, China’s public diplomacy in the post-Cold War era has five main recognizable objectives: “publicizing China’s assertions to the outside world; forming a desirable image of the state; issuing rebuttals to distorted overseas reports about China; improving the international environment surrounding China; and exerting influence on the policy decisions of foreign countries” (2004, p. 10-11).

Achieving these objectives has become imperative for the leadership of the country, who has long recognized that to facilitate economic and political ascent, China needs a friendly international environment. Soft power has become a key phrase in China’s political vocabulary in recent years. According to Nye, it is “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. A country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies” (2008, p. 94).

Media targeting a foreign audience is a vital part of a country’s public diplomacy infrastructure since it contributes to showcase the country’s culture and traditions, and helps to channel its policies with the outside world. The Chinese government does seem to understand that although its media are fairly strong domestically, they remain weak in the global arena. Events that occurred in 2008 further strengthened such understanding: as a series of riots broke out in Tibet during the Beijing Olympic Torch relay around the world, Western media were effective in influencing global public opinion, while Chinese media showed no “power of discourse.”

To reach such desirable “power of discourse” for its media has become an important piece of China’s public diplomacy.  In the last few years, the country has rapidly expanded the international reach of its media, seeking to upgrade their global prominence in order to offset unfavorable commentaries on China in the Western media.

Global Outreach of Chinese Media

Let us take a look at the various measures undertaken by the government regarding the four major state-owned media organizations previously mentioned as part of its global outreach efforts and activities.

The Xinhua News Agency

            With more than 13, 000 employees worldwide, and over 40 offices within China’s mainland, the Xinhua News Agency is that country’s largest media organization. It is actively working to transform itself into a worldwide news agency across media platforms with its 130 branches and bureaus outside of China. The agency started providing multimedia service in the Chinese language beginning in December 2008, and in the English language since July 2009. Such services paved the way for the organization to set up a television network, the China Xinhua News Network Corporation (CNC), inaugurated on January 1, 2010. According to Xinhua’s President Li Congjun, “the launch of CNC [was] an important move for Xinhua to enrich the agency’s business sectors, and embrace the multimedia world” (Xinhua, 2009). Although centered on its television operation, CNC’s content can also be viewed online on computers and mobile devices.

At its initial stage, the network’s World News Channel was broadcasted in Chinese only, providing programs on news events and special news bulletins. Its Chinese-language Finance and Business Channel also started at that time. On July 2010, CNC World News began to offer an English service running 24/7, and covering breaking news as well as major political, economic, and cultural news around the globe. It also plans to air news content in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian (Xinhua, 2010). CNC has grown very rapidly in terms of content production; in 2010, the network’s daily-news gathering increased from one hour to 1000 minutes, surpassing all other international television news organizations around the world (Cao & Liang, 2011).

When the network was first launched, it provided broadcasting service solely to the Asia-Pacific regions and to a few European countries. Since January 1, 2011, its English channel has expanded its broadcasting service to all countries in Europe, as well as to the Middle East and North Africa. In the sub-Sahara region, over four million households from about fifty countries are able to receive signals from CNC’s English channel. In addition, audiences in the United States and Canada are able to watch CNC’s English channel through cable network, while in Mongolia viewers can watch CNC through wireless digital broadcasting (Cao & Liang, 2011). In November 2010, Xinhua signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), establishing a multi-level business partnership in the area of international TV news service, strongly reflecting CNC’s marketing endeavors in North America (Xinhua, 2010).

China Central Television (CCTV)

China Central Television has speeded up its own global outreach since the start of the new millennium. Indeed, in 2000, it launched its 24/7 English Channel satellite, under the name “CCTV International,” also known as CCTV-9 (Zhang, 2011). In April 2010, it was renamed CCTV News to reflect its comprehensive news coverage which includes newscasts, in-depth reporting, commentary programs, and presentation of features. Currently, it is broadcasted to over 85 million viewers in more than 100 countries across the globe. In February 2012, CCTV News launched “CCTV America” from its Washington D.C. production center, adding three new programs in English for an American audience: “Biz Asia America,” “The Heat,” and “Americas Now.” According to Ma Jing, director general of CCTV America, this is a natural move for CCTV in “seeking growth in the global market” (CCTV, 2012).

The bilingual E&F Channel (Spanish and French) followed in 2004, and started to run separately in 2008. In July 2009, a 24-hour Arabic-language channel was added, reaching 300 million people in 22 Arabic countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region (CCTV, 2009). In September 2009, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Moscow, CCTV-Russia was launched. It targets about 300 million viewers in twelve countries including the Commonwealth of Independent States and a few Eastern European countries. It carries 16 programs in the form of news, features, entertainment and educational programs (CCTV, 2009). CCTV also expects to establish a Portuguese channel soon.

Its Mandarin-language international channel, known as CCTV-4, was split in 2007 into three different time-shift feeds: one for China Standard Time, one for Greenwich Meridian Time, and one for Eastern Standard Time. The new schedule allows Chinese viewers abroad to watch the same programs as people do in China, on a similar daylight schedule.

In December 2009, CCTV launched its online digital network archive under the heading CNTV (China Network Television), which offers services in various languages including Mandarin, English, Spanish, French Arabic and Russian (Xinhua, 2009).

Besides establishing more foreign-language channels, CCTV is also employing a growing number of non-Chinese as reporters, news presenters, and anchors to make the organization appear more “international,” such as Edwin Maher, a former newsreader and weatherman from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. By 2009, CCTV had employed reporters in 18 major cities outside of China. Its European headquarters in London and North American headquarters in Washington D.C. each had a team of 12 reporters (Zhang, 2011). By October 2012, the number of CCTV reporters working in Washington D.C. had grown to over 100 (Dwoskin, 2012). Currently, CCTV News is carrying out a massive recruitment campaign, hiring native English speakers to be news editors, anchors, and other personnel of newsgathering teams (CCTV, n.d.). Jiang Heping, Deputy Director of CCTV’s Overseas Center, stated that the policy of putting more foreign faces on the air could “boost the credibility of CCTV News and benefit its image as an international channel” (Jiang, 2005, p. 175).

 China Radio International (CRI)

Founded in 1941, China Radio International currently broadcasts in 58 languages throughout the world, using a wide range of transmission methods, including FM, AM, Internet radio, satellite, and podcast. In 2000, CRI joined the World Radio Network (WRN), a private London-based company that provides transmission services for radio and television broadcasters worldwide, allowing it to be aired in the U.S. without short wave. The service is available in many markets across America, including New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Portland (Evans, 2000). CRI also has 117 international FM radio partners, as well as 32 AM radio partners in Asia, Africa, North America, Europe and Australia. By the end of 2007, its total broadcasting time amounted to 556.5 hours per day, reaching more than 60 countries (China Communication Research Center, 2008).

Besides its traditional broadcasting service, CRI is also aggressive in digitalization. Since its founding in 1998, CRI Online has become available in 53 languages. Each website in any specific language offers content partially different from the others. The network’s online service also includes an iNet Radio, which is a web radio launched by its Chinese, English, German and Japanese websites in July 2005 (C. C. Chen, Colapinto, & Luo, 2010).

In another move toward globalization in recent years, CRI has established partnerships with foreign media organizations in the area of content production and sharing, such as with the Japanese broadcaster NHK. In 2007, CRI organized an event called “Sino-Japanese Four Seasons Web Talks” with NHK, with the latter airing these events live in its morning news program on the radio and the web. Programs from CRI Channel One are also featured on NHK’s radio and web for 30 minutes a day (C. C. Chen et al., 2010).

China Daily

Compared with other media outlets discussed here, China Daily’s move toward globalization is more modest. Founded in Beijing in 1981, this state-owned English-language newspaper launched its U.S. edition in New York in February 2009, with the aim to feature reports about North American business as well as observations about China’s rapidly changing economic, cultural, and political landscape (Xinhua, 2009). While China Daily began publishing in America in 1983, its newly launched U.S. edition is tailored to U.S. readers and focuses more on “the interactive communication between China and America,” according to its Deputy Editor-in-Chief Qu Yingpu (Xinhua, 2009). Since 2009, the newspaper has opened offices in six major cities in the US, including New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston.

To gain global prominence, China Daily also keeps a close pace with innovations in the field of digital technologies. Its own website was set up in 1994, and originally published contents in both Chinese and English. In 2010, a French edition was added. Besides its websites, the newspaper also provides Mobile Portal services featuring a mobile website, a mobile newspaper, and a mobile terminal, as well as 13 wireless terminal products including iPad and iPhone applications (China Daily, n.d.). China Daily USA also updates its contents on Facebook and Twitter regularly. 

The Limits of China’s Public Diplomacy Through Media Strategy

Despite all its media outreach efforts in recent years, China’s popularity has declined in the West as shown by international public opinion polls reversing the previous steady annual increases (d’Hooghe, 2011). A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2012 indicates that “China’s image has slipped in several countries over the last year.” The percentage of Japanese with a favorable opinion of China plummeted from 34% to 15%; in France, China’s favorability ratings dropped from 51% to 40%; in Britain from 59% to 49%; and in America, people have become less disposed to rate China positively, from 51% in 2011 to 40% in 2012 (Pew Research Center, 2012).

Although no definitive conclusions can be drawn from these surveys, it could be that the negative results are the very reason why China is broadening the global prominence of its own media. However, there are signs that indicate serious limitations to China’s “public diplomacy through media” strategy.

Lack of Government and Media Credibility

According to Nye, successful public diplomacy requires “an understanding of the roles of credibility, self-criticism, and civil society in generating soft power” ( 2008, p. 94). The Chinese government appears to be failing in all three categories. In terms of credibility, Nye argues that “(i)t is sometimes domestically difficult for the government to support presentation of views that are critical of its own policies. Yet such criticism is often the most effective way of establishing credibility” (2008, p. 94). Unfortunately, the Chinese government has developed a reputation for its intolerance toward dissident opinion. The “silent” detention of artist Ai Weiwei in 2011 is a strong case in point: Ai, one of China’s most outspoken and high-profile human rights activists, was seized by police in Beijing on grounds of “economic crimes,” charges that Chinese authorities sometimes uses to try to silence dissenters (Richburg, 2011). The recent censorship by the provincial government of Guangdong to tone down the language of the more liberal Southern Weekend newspaper’s New Year editorial calling for constitutional rule (Johnson, 2013) further proves the point. The Chinese media, under the direct control and management of the Chinese government, are perceived as propaganda machines, short on credibility and legitimacy, in the eyes of many. Joshua Kurlantzick, an American scholar of Chinese public diplomacy, considers CRI’s programming as “pure propaganda” that merely repeats the official statements of the Chinese leadership (2007, p. 61). Viewing the Times Square advertising, mentioned at the beginning of this paper, one New York Times reader sarcastically commented: “We should put one right next to it showing an empty chair in Oslo” (jh, 2011), referring to the empty chair reserved on stage for Liu Xiaobo, a human rights activist, and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, at the awards ceremony. Liu, detained by the Chinese government, was unable to attend the ceremony in Norway.

In terms of self-criticism, although China has gradually attempted to move away from blatant propaganda toward a more nuanced public relations approach – even changing the name of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department to “Publicity Department” – self-criticism regarding China’s fundamental policy issues still rarely, if ever, appears in the country’s media. This lack of self-criticism actually further re-inforces the “propaganda” image carried by Chinese state media, as observed by Aoyama (2004).

“Without source credibility, no amount of communication and information will ever be effective and, worse, could even be counter-productive,” asserts Jian Wang (2006, p. 94). How the Chinese government can improve its own credibility as well as that of its media remains the most serious question confronting China’s public diplomacy.

Lack of Understanding of its Targeted Audiences

It is “not what is being said, but what is being heard” that really counts (Ross, 2002). As Jian Wang adds: Managing national reputation is not just about projecting a certain national image but rather negotiating understanding with foreign publics. Such communicative acts are premised on a precise definition of one’s audience and a measured understanding of them” (2006, p. 94). It appears that the Chinese government has not been able to generate a subtle understanding of its foreign audience in its public diplomacy efforts.

The promotional presentation on Times Square has been criticized for being “dumb” (Custer, 2011). Although the advertising shows many Chinese celebrities, their faces are still largely unfamiliar to the average American, except quite possibly for the former NBA player Yao Ming. Custer, an American blogger on modern China, comments: “I don’t think anybody is going to see that video and think, ‘Wow, Tan Dun is Chinese!’ Most people have no clue who Tan Dun is, and those who do know him already know that he’s Chinese…this ad is utterly meaningless to foreigners” (2011). Another American blogger on China, David Wolf, makes the following remark:

…the ad struck me as so much self-conscious preening, a request if not a demand for respect, rather than a friendly, human face. There are, I know, many Chinese who love the ad, and cannot understand what the problem is. Which, in fact, is the problem. The ad, ostensibly, was not meant for Chinese but American eyes…If China was trying to sell itself to the American people, did it know what Americans were ready to ‘buy?’ Because it seemed like the ad was trying to say ‘look at us – we’re strong, beautiful, and rich, so you’d better make friends with us.’…This sort of message (is) likely to fall flat outside of the Panda-hugger crowd. Indeed, it is a pretty good example of a ‘fear, uncertainty, and doubt’ campaign rather than a ‘hi, let’s be friends’ campaign. And if it was designed to make friends, I would bet the government will learn pretty quickly that it failed to work as promised (2011).

Problems such as this not only exist in advertising campaigns, but also in the daily news coverage by Chinese media intended for broadcasting to a foreign audience. Beyond a lack of understanding of foreign cultures and audience perceptions, language barriers also pose a challenge. Yiwei Wang (2008) notes that it is extremely difficult to translate Chinese political discourse or concepts into other languages, such as the taoguang yanghui (low-profile) strategy, or kexue fazhan guan (scientific outlook on development). The straight-forward translation leaves too much room for imagination or misinterpretation. The Chinese terms of peaceful rise, harmonious world, or strategic opportunities, according to Wang (2008), all lack the proper English translations to accurately express their meanings. Correctly expressing and explaining Chinese culture and concepts in a way that is accessible and clear to a foreign audience remains a challenge for China’s public diplomacy strategy. The solution to this problem calls for a better, subtler and measured understanding of China’s targets in this field.

Reluctance in Developing Social Media and Engaging Civil Participation  

To gain a measured understanding of its audience, the communicator needs to engage its audience. Successful public diplomacy no longer relies on merely sending messages, but also on establishing dialogues. From the earlier discussion on the global outreach of Chinese media, it is clear that the Chinese authorities are still developing a rather old-fashion media system, one that is based on a “one-to-many” communicative model, rather than on a “many-to-many” concept. Although the four media organizations discussed earlier all have an Internet presence, some even going as far as developing iPhone and iPad applications, these digital platforms are primarily used for the communicator to present information and send messages, rather than to engage the audience’s participation in order to establish a two-way dialogue or multi-way exchange. It is true that the four media organizations, especially CCTV and China Daily, have started to develop an official presence on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Yet, because of reasons previously stated – lack of media credibility and understanding of its targeted audiences – these sites are not able to attract the substantial numbers of visitors needed to generate meaningful feedbacks. For instance, on CCTV America’s YouTube channel, most videos have only single or double-digit visits, and most do not carry viewers’ comments. In fact, it sometimes appears that viewers’ comments are discouraged, not encouraged, the opposite of what social media are intended. Below the “comment” field of some videos, there is a warning message:  “Comments may be held for uploader approval.” Whatever words you leave in that field will first need to go through the censors before being published, a rather unwelcoming way for audience participation. This example shows that developing social media and directly engaging ordinary citizens in other countries, which is the new direction of public diplomacy promoted in Western countries (Potter, 2008), does not seem to be the concern of the Chinese authorities. This approach, of course, is somewhat understandable. Considering the mostly unfavorable survey results of Western public opinion polls on China, opening up channels for foreign audiences to comment on China’s political and foreign policies could backfire. The reluctance to develop social media tools for its public diplomacy limits the Chinese government’s capacity to directly engage a foreign public, a formula which in recent years has shown positive effects, as in the case of the use of Facebook by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta prior to President Obama’s visit to Indonesia (Ciolek, 2010).

In addition, the unwillingness to use social media prevents Chinese citizens from participating in China’s public diplomacy program. Internationally, although the government is still the driving force behind public diplomacy, the onus can no longer simply fall on the nation-state government alone (Ross, 2002). Civil participation has increasingly become an important component for the implementation of public diplomacy with positive results (Vickers, 2004). In China, however, d’Hooghe (2011) observes that civil society’s role in public diplomacy is limited, and that the views of the country’s population are seldom heard due to the authorities’ restrictions of political freedom and civil liberties. Since there are no signs that said authorities are likely to loosen their grip on Chinese society, d’Hooghe asks international observers not to expect that Chinese citizens play a fundamental role in public diplomacy.

Conclusion

China’s leadership has been recognizing for quite a while that, in order for the country to develop its economy and continue its political rise in the world, it is essential that the country improve its global image and cultivate an international environment friendly to China. As a result, the government has been developing a rather aggressive public diplomacy program that plays a significant role, notably by extending the global influence of the state-owned media in propagating a national image.

The Chinese government has spent large amounts of money and resources in trying to develop its media’s global outreach. Although it is far too early to tell the effectiveness of such efforts since China’s “public diplomacy through media” strategy is still at its early stages, three factors could potentially compromise, in part, China’s public diplomacy effects: the deep absence of real government and media credibility; the fundamental lack of knowledge regarding the aimed-for audiences; and the reluctance and inability to develop social media tools that directly engage the public abroad as well as encourage people-to-people exchanges.

China disposes of considerable soft power resources: its ancient culture and its recent economic miracle are attractive to many around the world. However, to fundamentally improve its global image in international political terms, and to cultivate a desirable image of the country as a peaceful, harmonious, and responsible world power, the “public diplomacy through media” strategy that is currently entertained clearly does not suffice. It appears caught in the net of China’s own repressive political system. 

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