Three Steps to Improve Chinese Soft Power

The rejection of Southern Media and Chengdu’s B-Ray Media’s offer to purchase the ailing U.S. magazine Newsweek is just the latest setback the Chinese have encountered in their desire for acceptance by the international media.  Chinese political and corporate leaders have regularly complained that “their story” is just not getting out, and as such, China is often misunderstood by the outside world.    So, Beijing (and in this case Guangzhou and Chengdu) are more determined than ever to expand China’s media influence beyond its borders through acquisition and the launch of new english language television networks to portray China accurately and fairly.  In addition to feeling both misunderstood and occasionally victimized by the Western media, the Chinese are also eager to expand their cultural influence abroad to complement their increased economic, political and military power.

Public Radio International’s (PRI) “The World” recently produced an excellent overview of the Chinese ambition to enhance its soft power capabilities:

Regrettably, in my opinion, the Chinese are approaching their media initiatives in much the same way they are other sectors of the economy.  When the country’s leading computer manufacturer wanted international legitimacy and did not know how to build its brand overseas, Lenovo went out and bought it through the acquisition of IBM’s Thinkpad mobile computing division.  Similarly for Geely’s recent acquisition of Volvo and so on.  While this strategy can work for cars, computers and most other manufactured products, ideas are different — and media is nothing more than the electronic transmission of ideas.  Whereas the underlying ownership of a computer company, be it from China, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea matters less so long as the device meets the consumer’s expectations, with media that underlying ownership can often define the customer’s perception of the content’s integrity.  The fact that politically conservative Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News is relevant just as Al Jazeera struggles for acceptance with its English-language service due to its corporate parenting in the Persian Gulf.  Simply put, ownership matters.  Therefore, the Chinese acquiring Western media brands will not bring it the validation and acceptance Beijing so dearly wants.  So what will?

Here are three ideas Chinese media leaders should consider:

Don’t Imitate the West’s Media Models, Build Your Own

Chinese leaders have often said they want to create their own versions of CNN and Al Jazeera to offset the perceived biases in international coverage of China.  Each time the Chinese use these loaded terms like “CNN” and “Al Jazeera” it sets an expectation in outsiders’ minds that they want to create a free, open media channel comparable to what is available in the West. As evidenced in the “The World” radio segment above, this is NOT the Chinese objective.  Therefore it is critical that the Chinese not define their media ambitions in distinctly Western terms and instead they should create their own.  There is no better example than the Fox News Channel.  When FNC launched in 1996, Rupert Murdoch did not say he was creating the next CNN.  Instead, he boasted how he developed an entirely different kind of news channel.  Today, FNC dominates in the ratings and stands apart from its cable news rivals in the United States.  China’s media channels, too, should stand apart from comparable international outlets rather than offer a poor imitation.

Get engaged, with or without your own TV network

Chinese political and corporate leaders are instinctively reserved about engaging the international media.  I experienced this firsthand as a young Beijing-based foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in the mid-90s.  Back then, in the pre-internet era, “no comment” was sufficient to make journalists like myself go away.  Today, when companies and governments do not engage in the broader debate, it creates a vacuum that critics and others in the blogosphere, Twitterverse and elsewhere are more than eager to fill with their own narrative.  Take for example the United States government’s experience with Al Jazeera and other Arabic language satellite TV networks.  For many years after September 11th, Washington banned its diplomats from appearing on networks it deemed “unfriendly” to the United States.  So whenever a critic of the United States appeared on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya’s talk shows, there was no one there to articulate the U.S. position.  Ultimately, the White House recognized this was counterproductive and not only lifted the ban, but embarked on a bold effort to provide sophisticated media training to its Arabic-speaking diplomats so to enhance their on air presentation skills.  Today, American policy is clearly articulated and vigorously defended on networks across the Middle East.

Transparency will ultimately serve Beijing’s long term interests far more effectively than hiding behind the veil of “no comment.”  No one better demonstrates than Liu Guijin, China’s top diplomat for African policy who regularly engages the international media.  His strong command of English and fearlessness to challenge embedded negative narratives about China’s engagement with Africa serves as an excellent example for how Chinese officials at various levels can be effective at communicating Beijing’s positions.

Credibility Must be Earned, So Hire the Right People to do the Job

To date, the Chinese government has launched no less than three english language TV networks: 1) CCTV9, 2) Blue Ocean Network and 3) the new CNC.  They have done an amazing job securing distribution around the world on cable and satellite systems.  So what’s the problem?  No one watches! In a world where viewers have overwhelming choice, editorial credibility and quality matter.  If the Chinese government wants a viewer in Atlanta, Georgia to turn away from any of the 400 channels available on Direct TV to tune in CCTV9, it must provide a very compelling viewing experience.  Unfortunately, CCTV9 and the other networks fail miserably in this regard because the people they have hired to produce their content are simply not up to the task.  I do not mean to be flippant or disrespectful in any way of the people who work hard at these channels but they do not meet the standards common at most other international news networks.  Typically, the people who work in China’s english language media fall in to two categories: 1) they are very green and use the opportunity to work at the China Daily or CCTV9 as a way to gain experience or 2) they are older refugees from the West who either cannot or do not want to compete in the more cut throat newsrooms in Australia, the U.S. or the U.K. among other countries.

We all know that you get what you pay for in this world and Chinese media leaders would benefit enormously from investing in experienced talent and once again follow the precedent of Al Jazeera.  When Al Jazeera English launched several years ago, the Doha-based company went to every major international news network from the BBC in London to CNN in Atlanta to CNBC Asia in Singapore and skimmed off the best talent with offers of better pay and enhanced editorial creativity.  Just as Al Jazeera English has its own anti-U.S./anti-Israel embedded negative narratives that these journalists have been able to work around, there are enough experienced journalists who would be willing to work on a Chinese product so long as they are paid at international standards and offered sufficient editorial opportunities.  The leaders of CCTV should abandon their reliance on inexperienced and out-dated talent if they want to their shows to get the airing they deserve.

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