China's launching its own international news channel. Will anybody watch it?
China’s state owned broadcaster, China Central Broadcasting, has just opened new headquarters in Washington, and plans to use it as its US base for expansion. The channel is to start broadcasting English-language programs by mid-2012.
The move, second following a similar venture in Nairobi, Kenya, is widely seen as China’s latest attempt to enhance its image overseas. According to Beijing, the oligopoly of Western news agencies is giving poor justice to the country’s distinct values; it’s time China counters this negative publicity by raising its own voice. But many suspects the initiative is part of a wider plan: erecting Chinese culture as a genuine attribute of power.
Official declarations seem to agree with that. According to Xinhua, the government news agency, the world stage is a zero-sum game pitting leading world powers against each other; and after military and economic clout, it says, cultural influence is the last leg of a triathlon towards global greatness. And so, conscious that its contemporary culture lacks resonance abroad, China has recently sought to up its game: an American arm to its official TV broadcaster sure gives further weight to its cultural arsenal.
It’s not sure the channel will meet immediate success, however. China is hardly the first country to launch on a global news channel in English. CNN International, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, or even France 24 have all been created with similar ambitions: expressing a ‘different view’ of the world and better representing distinctive values abroad. Yet not all of them have been successful in pushing their own agenda, let alone make money - France 24, for example, has had to close its Arabic branch last year.
Admittedly some of these channels were under-funded, and will further feel the pinch as austerity cuts come into force. In theory this could create some space for a new broadcaster, especially if, as is likely to be the case with China, financial resources are not exactly a problem. But that would be missing the point, as the main hurdles to the venture’s success lie in China itself.
For one, establishing China Central Broadcasting as a credible source of information will prove a challenge. The channel (whose initials read as ‘CCTV’) is mostly used for funneling the Communist party’s propaganda, and remains a common laughing stock among bloggers and Internet forums. Its regular attacks on popular websites, such as the search engine Baidu, for allegedly ‘failing to control its content’, have not helped restore its image. If even the Chinese don’t support their media champion, one can wonder whether many foreign viewers will.
But the more fundamental problem lies in China’s strategy for cultural expansion. Whilst pledging to unleash ‘the nation’s full expression of creativity’, the government keeps unwavering control on those supposed to create: painting, writers, journalists. Cultural production is still seen as something that can be centrally planified, submitted to rigid specifications, and monitored all the way through to the end result. This has worked well for the economy; China is very proud of its own take on industrial revolution. But it leaves creativity out of the process, and fails to produce quality, exportable, cultural content.
The regime may one day realize this. But when it finally decides to liberalize the system, China’s artists will probably wait and see before playing the game. In the past, brief periods of cultural openness have invariably been followed by a return to repression and censorship; trust needs to be rebuilt. This will take more time than anything else. Until then China will remain Asia’s economic giant - and its cultural dwarf.