Grabbing the microphone: China’s media gamble

June 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Media adviser Charles Mabbett sums up highlights from the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international media conference in Hong Kong, April 2010. This is the last of three articles in a series on latest developments in the Chinese media.

Read part one and part two.

In a bid to amplify its soft power around the world, China has invested $US6.5 billion in its central state media in what has been called “grabbing the microphone”.  It is a policy that ensures that the voice of the state is loudest in a crowded and intensely competitive media environment, and more prominent in projecting China’s image offshore.

The large state media recipients have received huge boosts to their news gathering and production resources in order to project more loudly what China’s leadership sees as traditionally a weaker voice in the ideological conflict that China perceives to exist between the West and itself.

But some China media commentators are warning that that if the ideological content remains the same, the strategy may prove counter-productive in improving global perceptions of China.

David Bandurski, a Hong Kong-based researcher and commentator at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, says the response by the central government to tackle negative perceptions of China in the international media is understandable.

While the capacity of state media organisations such as Xinhua and CCTV would be dramatically stepped up, the country still had “a huge image problem”, he told an audience at the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international conference in Hong Kong in April 2010.

There was even concern among people in the Chinese media about this strategy “because they are aware that even if the government creates the channels, what if they keep pushing the same ideological content as one voice through the state media?”

The new policy can be traced back to June 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake and before the Beijing Olympic Games when President Hu Jintao publicly announced a new media policy to strengthen “public opinion channeling”. In a managed discussion with employees at the People’s Daily newspaper, he noted that in the battle of ideas and values, the news media was key to the “West’s strength and our weakness”.

Chinese media began referring to the new policy as “grabbing the microphone” whereby the state would control media closely but give greater license to the centralised state media to pursue stories that were decided to be in the public’s interest.

Since then China has moved to upgrade its media reach.  The $US6.5 billion in funding for state media organisations and the hosting of a World Media Summit in October 2009 (attended by some of the world’s leading media players including Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, Al Jazeera, Reuters, BBC, CNN and others), are all part of the charm and information offensive intended to make China more likeable and less misunderstood.

In related developments, the China Daily underwent a design overhaul while a new competitor, The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, was launched in April 2009. International reporting bureaus at CCTV were to be expanded from 19 to 56, and Arabic and Russian language channels have been added to existing English, Spanish and French ones.

The state news agency Xinhua will also begin broadcasting a 24-hour English television news service called China Network Corp, due to be launched in June.  The intention is to make Xinhua a global brand with the capacity to compete on the same playing field as Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg.

Dr Jian Yang, a researcher and commentator on China’s foreign relations and politics at the University of Auckland, says the Chinese government’s global media strategy is something it had to do but it would take time for the strategy to pay off.

“Firstly, Beijing needs to learn how to communicate with the West. They need more staff educated in the West.  Secondly, Beijing won’t be very persuasive before it makes a serious effort at political liberalisation.”

Yang says despite its flaws, the strategy is of great significance to China. “All media have an ideological element, consciously or unconsciously. The ideological content is an important part of the Chinese media strategy. It won’t disappear for the foreseeable future. However, it won’t work if the Chinese treat foreign audiences as domestic audiences. It may even backfire if they do so.”

David Bandurski says Xinhua has a key role in acting as the state’s information conduit to China’s domestic commercial and independent media organisations. “It will be interesting to see how this expansion of soft power will play out in the near future and a key issue is whether the Chinese leadership will change its view of propaganda and control.”

He and his colleagues at the China Media Project call the government’s new strategy “Control 2.0”. There is acknowledgement among the leadership that the internet is changing the media environment and that total control of the internet is “impossible”.

“We have this generalised optimism of the web as a force for change, but change isn’t measured by technology alone,” Bandurski said. “All web portals and chats are monitored. So publishing investigative stories online is already an issue.”

The new government strategy appears to take a combination approach that involves disciplining a few netizens and journalists as well as making the Chinese leadership’s voice louder.  “In Chinese, they call it grabbing the microphone to promote their messages more strongly. This new system can tell us both about how much things have changed in China and how much control is still priority.”

For example, there is now a first instance of openness such as the increased access for reporters to get to disaster zones or the scenes of environmental issues but little follow up is permitted. “What we’re seeing on big stories is initial openness, and then no follow-up. We’re talking about reporting of the tips of the icebergs only.”

Bandursky says there has been very little investigative reporting online and it still very much happens in the traditional media. But micro-blogging was emerging as a new factor in news reporting. In a recent mining disaster, a reporter related by micro-blogging how the police were rounding up people and paying them off to stop them talking to the media. “These might be things we don’t see in a report for a paper but we’re seeing them trickle out in micro-blogs.”

He emphasised that diverse voices do exist in the Chinese media as are found among the vibrant news media scene in Guangzhou where regional state owned newspapers such as the Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan Daily have a deserved reputation for breaking new ground in reporting issues.

– by Charles Mabbett

Photos: David Bandurski – Maggie Chen/JMSC; Xinhua News Agency – Wikimedia Commons

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