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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Great Chinese Media Offensive

November 22, 2009

By Wieland Wagner
Spiegel (Germany)
November 20, 2009

China's image in the world hasn't been the best
lately. Now, Beijing is pumping billions of
dollars into a global media campaign in an effort
to reverse that trend. Chinese television may be coming soon to a TV near you.

China's answer to Larry King wears a suit and tie
instead of suspenders. His fame hasn't yet spread
quite as far as the renowned CNN television host,
but Yang Rui, 46, has come far in his long march
through the media world. Beijing now wants to
engage his help to break the media dominance of
Western TV and to realign global opinion with its own.

It's still early in the morning at the television
center in Beijing, and, since Yang doesn't host
his "Dialogue" program until the evening, the
star of CCTV-9, the English language channel at
China's state-controlled television network, has
time to talk about his mission.

Yang says he wants to "enhance China's prestige
in the world." The outside world, he complains,
repeatedly criticizes China -- especially Western
media that are obsessed with the sensational. He
says Western journalists prefer listening to
separatists who oppose Beijing rather than
reporting the accomplishments of China's
communist leadership in an "objective and balanced" way.

He speaks in a gentle, friendly manner -- in the
precise English he learned as a student in Great
Britain. Here too, outside the studio, he remains
the consummate gentleman, never rising into the
shrill tones favored by many a government spokesperson.

The Battle for Global Opinion

Yang embodies China's new ambitions. As Asia's
leading power, China wants to become a global
media player -- one focused above all on
maintaining its own image. After the rebellion in
Tibet last year and the public relations disaster
surrounding the Olympic torch, Beijing recognized
that it was no longer possible to retain control
over its enormous empire only with police-state
tactics directed at its own population.

Rather, the country's leadership decided, China
needs to assert itself to the outside world --
and it believes that is best done with the help
of a controlled media apparatus. And Beijing is
fighting the battle for global opinion on three fronts:

* the Internet, brutally monitored domestically
but also used to broadcast CCTV-9 worldwide;

* new English-language editions of party
newspapers, intended to enhance China's reputation in the rest of the world;

* the global development and acquisition of television networks.

Several TV networks already compete to deliver
China's patriotic news to the world. The
government's official press agency, Xinhua,
supplies around 50 foreign media services such as
Reuters and CNN with television news in English.
This summer, several months earlier than planned,
CCTV launched an Arabic language network for 22
countries with a total of 300 million potential
viewers. The project was rushed due to the unrest
in Xinjiang, as China tried to shore up support
among Muslims following the brutal oppression of
Muslim Uighurs in the autonomous region.

English Language News Network

The state TV network also kicked off a Russian
channel in September, with over 100 Chinese and
20 foreign employees. Spanish and French
programming exists already, and a Portuguese
language network is in the works. By late 2011,
the media giant plans to include 10 global TV
channels, including its own English language news network.

It is certainly not uncommon for Beijing to
generate ambitious new plans, but the media
offensive is being led by Hu Jintao, head of
state and of the Communist Party, personally. Hu
lamented last year, on the occasion of the 60th
anniversary of the party organ People's Daily,
that the West is strong and China is weak when it
comes to international public opinion. And that,
he said, has to change. "The battles in the
fields of news and opinion will become more
fierce and complicated," Hu predicted.

China does possess an important advantage over
the West's crisis-plagued media industry in the
coming propaganda war -- the Communist
government's coffers are full. Beijing reportedly
plans to pump the equivalent of €4.4 billion
($6.5 billion) into its global media campaign.

In addition, advertising revenue is rising at a
good pace despite the recession. The giant CCTV
network, which has recently completed a gigantic
new headquarters in Beijing designed by Dutch
star architect Rem Koolhaas, brought in €350
million in advertising in just the first quarter
of this year. That may not sound like much
compared to Western revenues, but it's 19 percent
more than in the same period last year.

Degree of Implausibility

But despite the money, China faces high hurdles.
Beijing's greatest disadvantages are its lack of
experience with Western tastes and, above all,
its state-run media, which are far from
independent and often come across with a
corresponding degree of implausibility.

One notable exception was Caijing, a financial
magazine that consistently tested governmental
boundaries with its exposés of corruption and
misdoings in the business world. Last week,
however, magazine founder and editor in chief Hu
Shuli, 56, threw in the towel in the wake of a
grueling internal power struggle.

More than journalistic skills, Beijing expects
allegiance from its media representatives. "We
must strengthen the party's leading role in
radio, film, and television," declares Wang
Taihua, director of the State Administration of
Radio, Film, and Television. When CNN or BBC
broadcast images critical of China, Beijing simply switches monitors to black.

Even within the country, the government station
CCTV is often ridiculed for its crude propaganda.
The evening news consists of a pair of stiff
newscasters reading off party resolutions, which
can go on for several minutes each. There is no
advertising on the evening news, yet the program
is interrupted twice -- first to celebrate
"pioneers of time" and then to remember "heroes and role models of the people."

Higher-ups do allow the foreign language channels
a little more latitude. Yang describes proudly
how he invited two American professors onto his
live program, where they argued against the death
penalty. For Chinese standards, Yang showed a
degree of courage. Nonetheless, he's still worlds
away from a critical journalist's desire to
provide the public with unbiased information.

On the Global Scene

More than anything, China's leadership wants to
see its successes as a nation recognized. The
same impulse inspired its opening spectacle at
the 2008 Summer Olympics, meant to impress TV
viewers the world over. Now Beijing is drawing
more Western professionals from the PR and media
industries into its services, to present itself
even more perfectly on the global scene.

One example of these partnerships is 5CTV, a
television network founded in 2008 by the Chinese
governmental information authority together with
American investors and launched at a fancy party
in Los Angeles. William M. Campbell, chief
executive officer of the new network, declared,
"Our goal will be to bring China to the world, and the world to China."

Campbell, who headed Discovery Networks in the US
until 2007, demonstrated how he plans to market
China in an interview with Cai Wu, China's
culture minister and the powerful former head of
the state's Information Office. The American
businessman placed his right hand submissively on
his chest and asked the Chinese official "for
some thoughts about 5CTV and for some advice I
can share with our Western and American viewers."

The United States, however, is at most a sideline
for Chinese strategists. A much more important
region is the Middle East. China depends on
countries there as suppliers of raw materials,
but also as allies in the United Nations, as Yang
explains. Beijing risked alienating Arab Muslims
with its harsh treatment of the Muslim Uighurs;
al-Qaida even threatened attacks on China in
response. As a result, the country is attempting
to persuade Arab viewers to see the benefits of China's policy on minorities.

Friendship Offensive

On its new program, Chinese newscasters speaking
in Arabic deliver the latest from China and
around the world, and elaborate historical
documentaries that recall friendly ties between
China and the Arab world, for example through the Silk Road.

Meanwhile, this friendship offensive is being
complemented by the ventures of private
businessmen such as Wang Weisheng. Wang acquired
an entertainment network in Dubai more than three
years ago, then expanded it into the financial
channel Arab Asia Business TV (AABTV). Now he
broadcasts around the clock with bilingual
information about the Chinese economy aimed at Arab businesspeople.

Gao Du, 36, head of AABTV, receives visitors in
his TV studio in Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai.
"We produce around 60 percent of our programming
in China and the rest in Dubai," he explains.
Next up is expansion into Europe and India. "We're thinking globally," he says.

Then there's Ye Maoxi, a media manager and real
estate tycoon from Wenzhou in eastern China, who
recently acquired the British satellite channel
Propeller TV. Traveling in Europe this spring
with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Ye learned of
the channel's financial problems and decided to buy it.

'They Have Hollywood'

Attacking separately, then triumphing
collectively -- in the end this may just be the
formula that allows China's new media giants to
take over the world. Yang Rui, the TV anchor,
comments, "when the United States wants to keep
our country from advancement, they mobilize their
private NGOs and criticize us on human rights and
democracy. So why shouldn't our private businesspeople act on China's behalf?"

Yang is proud of what his country has achieved,
and remembers clearly why he decided to become a
journalist 26 years ago. He was studying in
Shanghai at the time, when an official from the
State Administration of Radio, Film, and
Television came to recruit new talent. "She told
us that foreigners imagine people with braids and
bound feet when they think of us Chinese." Yang was shocked.

Now, he himself is the one presenting foreigners
with a politically correct image of China. But he
knows he can never quite measure up to the real
Larry King at CNN. "He can get every star guest,"
Yang says. "After all, he knows them all." And
the US has another advantage China will never be
able to compete with: "They have Hollywood."
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