With a price tag estimated in the billions of dollars, the new Xinhua is an expensive megaphone. But it’s key “to breaking the monopoly and verbal hegemony” of the West, according to remarks released last year by Xinhua’s president, Li Congjun, who often sounds like he’s channeling Noam Chomsky. Xinhua declined to make officials available for this story, citing “holiday season.” But clearly the effort has to do with the new rules of propaganda, too. Where the game was once about suppressing news, it’s now about overwhelming it, flooding the market with your own information. Airbrushing photos is for amateurs.
The challenge is finding an audience for “news” that is best known for its blind spots. The typical Xinhua sentence is thick on the tongue (“out of which 20 percent were the HIV-infected persons”) and often inaccurate by design. In Xinhua’s world, the Tiananmen Square massacre never happened, Falun Gong is an evil cult, and the Dalai Lama is the Guy Fawkes of Tibet. Xinhua also gathers sensitive news—such as the full heads-rolling horror of the Uighur riots last summer—and releases it to Chinese officials alone. It’s as if The New York Times were to stamp its scoops “internal reference reports” and file them to President Obama.
Nevertheless, Xinhua may be the future of news for one big reason: cost. Most news organizations are in retreat, shuttering bureaus and laying off journalists. But the former “Red China News Agency” doesn’t need to worry about the inconvenience of turning a profit. As a result, it might do for news what China’s state-run factories have done for tawdry baubles and cheap clothes: take something that has become a commodity and foist it onto the world far more cheaply than anyone else can. “It gives them an inherent competitive advantage” says Tuna Amobi, a media analyst for Standard & Poor’s, who thinks Xinhua’s cheap news “might fly.” A subscription to all Xinhua stories costs in the low five figures, compared with at least six figures for comparable access to the Associated Press, Reuters, or AFP. For customers who still can’t afford the fees, a Xinhua aid program offers everything—content, equipment, and technical support—for free.