In the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in early March of this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that her country is losing the “information war,” naming China’s CCTV, along with Al Jazeera and Russia Today, as key rivals. “During the Cold War we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell we said, ‘Okay, fine, enough of that, we are done,’ and unfortunately we are paying a big price for it,” she said.

Global media expansion

In recent years, China has been actively projecting a new international image as a responsible and peaceful global player. China is learning the tools of soft power to gain a better reputation abroad. Confucius Institutes — non-profit public institutions aimed at spreading Chinese language and culture internationally — are mushrooming. Another key part of the strategy is the spreading of Chinese media abroad. In 2009, the Chinese government reportedly committed as much as CNY 45 billion (U.S. $6 billion) to global media expansion in, as President Hu Jintao described it, “an increasingly fierce struggle in the domain of news and opinion.”

China has been actively increasing public diplomacy strategies while Western media outlets, both official and private, are cutting back. CCTV-9, the state-owned English TV channel, which features news and cultural shows, is broadcast worldwide. The English version of Global Times, which is affiliated with the official People’s Daily, was launched in April of 2009. According to its website, it boasts to have over 500 special correspondents and contributors worldwide. In July of 2009, the state news agency Xinhua started providing news broadcasts on European supermarket screens.

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The growth of China’s media presence overseas has been remarkable. In Southeast Asia, state-run China Radio International, which supplies light fare and upbeat news and features, now broadcasts in English 24 hours a day, while the Voice of America broadcasts 19 hours and will soon be cut back to 14 hours, said Paul Blackburn, a former public affairs officer of the United States Information Service who served at four American embassies in Asia in the 1980s and ’90s. Blackburn also pointed out that while America may have the private CNN International to rival CCTV-9, it has “nothing comparable” in the realm of public policy.

In February 2006, CRI launched its first overseas FM radio station in Kenya, providing 2 million Kenyans with 19 hours of daily programmes in English, Swahili and Chinese about major Chinese and global news. The move was followed by CRI’s second FM overseas station in Laos in November of 2006, offering 12.5 hours of daily programming in English, Laotian and Chinese. In November of 2010, CRI opened a station in Tijuana, Mexico, marking its first Spanish-speaking station in Latin America and its 50th overseas station. CRI is now only second to BBC in terms of its number of overseas bases.

More scary than friendly

However, winning the public opinion of a global audience is no easy task. Ultimately, a reputation for objective journalism is based on credibility, which has to be established over a long period of time. The problem with China’s increasingly international media giants is that they suffer from a lack of credibility due to the fact that they are clearly the official voice of the Chinese government. This undermines their ability to report a reality that transcends party and official interests.

China’s international image, especially as perceived by the West, remains poor despite all the resources being spent. In Western democracies, there is a widespread perception that China’s state media are promoting Beijing’s political agenda. China’s crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights at home, and reluctance to criticize and interfere in countries with poor human rights records are seen as detrimental to the credibility of its state media, which are regarded as the “mouth and tongue” of the Communist Party. In addition, China has been criticized by the West and neighboring countries for its lack of transparency about its military expansion as its power grows. Certainly the Chinese media can do a better job in explaining the challenges and opportunities brought by the country’s ascendancy.

A case in point was China’s publicity campaign ahead of President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the U.S. in January this year. A video called “Experience China,” featuring basketball superstar Yao Ming, internationally renowned pianist Lang Lang, astronaut Yang Liwei and other successful and prosperous Chinese figures, was shown on the screens of New York’s Times Square. While sophisticated in presentation and rich in the dazzling arrays of famous personalities, its reception was mixed in the face of a critical Western audience. The video was described in some U.S. media outlets as “out of touch with its America audience” and “more scary than friendly.”

Richard Burger, a public relations consultant focusing on China, commented in an interview with the Voice of America that when China’s policies go against their message of being benevolent, “It is very fast that the public forgets the ads, and all they remember are the much more dramatic facts of China’s human rights record.”

China’s international image took another hit in February/March when the authorities intimidated, detained and beat foreign journalists who were reporting on the “strolling protests” in major Chinese cities inspired by revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. The crackdown drew criticisms from the international community, including the U.S., European Union and Amnesty International, and was regarded as an abrupt departure from the promises made by China’s leaders to move to a more friendly media environment following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Shanghai February 2011

Arrest made during a second, unsuccessful, attempt to ignite Jasmine Revolution

Shanghai, China, February 2011 by Remko Tanis

China’s credibility problem

China’s international media push is a welcome move. It is a reflection of the post-Cold War pluralistic world order. But it also offers a different window on the world from Western-centric outlets like the BBC and CNN. As a case in point, the excellent coverage of the Arab uprising by Al Jazeera offers the world a refreshing perspective, and illustrates the importance of the presence of a diversity of voices from under-represented regions.

As China continues its huge spending on communications channels abroad, its limits will become clear. Dazzling public relations is no substitute for credibility, which is key to winning influence in a critical global audience. The fallacy is that the government’s tight grip on communication channels is detrimental to editorial integrity and objectivity. A better strategy is to loosen the grip on the media and allow a freer environment. If liberal and democratic spirits are part of America’s soft power, then China has already got it at home.

Independent-minded journalists at liberal print media such as Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis Daily (both under the Guangzhou-based Southern Media Group) and the Beijing-based Caijing Magazine have been delivering top quality investigative journalism, and are widely respected by local readers and foreign China observers.

However, China is moving in the opposite direction, as outspoken journalists perceived as consistently critical of the government are being targeted one after another. In January this year, Chang Ping, one of the most respected journalists in China, was sacked from the Southern Media Group. In March, Time Weekly opinion editor Peng Xiaoyun and outspoken Southern Weekend commentator Chen Ming respectively received dismissal and sabbatical notices. They are known for covering controversial stories, such as the imprisonment of food safety advocate Zhao Lianhai, and the prejudices Chinese media carried while reporting on Beijing’s brutal crackdown of the riots in Tibet in 2008.

As China is spending billions of dollars to make its media go global, it also needs to rethink its heavy-handed approach on media control and suppression of free speech. The world welcomes a diversity of voices, including that of China, but not one which is distorted, censored and sanitized.

Andy Yee is a writer, blogger and translator from Hong Kong. He writes about Chinese and Asian politics at Global Voices Online, ChinaGeeks, openDemocracy and East Asia Forum. He holds a Masters in East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.