China is about to embark on a multibillion dollar media expansion overseas, including the establishment of a 24-hour English language all-news channel modeled after CNN. These are only the most recent steps in a methodical strategy for Chinese state media to “go global” and make “the voice of China better heard in international affairs” — a plan set in motion by President Hu Jintao immediately after his accession to power in 2002. Since then, Chinese state broadcasters have considerably strengthened their foreign news operations, enhanced foreign language services and established the supporting bureaucracy to get the government’s message out swiftly when news breaks.
The sheer scale of these plans raises many questions about China’s long-term objectives. Can state-run broadcasters, whose traditional role is to be the “throat and tongue” of the Communist Party, really turn into competitors for the likes of CNN and the BBC? Or could China’s quest for international audiences lead to a loosening of the tight censorship rules that continue to straightjacket its reporting? There is, after all, something natural in the aspiration of a rising global power to match its newly acquired economic might with a corresponding increase in its “soft” power, and its growing involvement in world affairs with a bigger voice in the international arena. Many governments do just that with state-sponsored broadcasting, like Voice of America or Germany’s Deutsche Welle. So what’s different with China?
The difference lies in the strong control the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party exert over news and information. Sure, in recent years China Central Television (CCTV) and even the People’s Daily look slicker, more contemporary and less political than in the past. But this has not changed the fundamental premise that all information on state-run channels must reflect the government’s views.