CCTV headquarters in Beijing. For an organization that is supposed to be emanating soft power, the building has a touch of the Death Star about it. Photo: Reuters
CCTV headquarters in Beijing. For an organization that is supposed to be emanating soft power, the building has a touch of the Death Star about it. Photo: Reuters

China’s leading television network, CCTV, is launching a new global media platform aimed at rebranding the country. The announcement was made on the state-owned company’s website, but the force behind the initiative was made clear in comments from President Xi Jinping carried by Xinhua news agency.

“The relationship between China and the rest of the world is undergoing historic changes. China needs to know better about the world and the world needs to know better about China,” Xi said in a congratulatory letter to the China Global Television Network, as CCTV’s new arm will be called. Xi urged CGTN to “tell China stories well,” Xinhua reported.

CGTN will have six TV channels, three overseas branches, a video content provider and a digital media division, and will offer content in multiple languages, Xinhua said.

China has been seeking to build global influence through “soft power” initiatives, such as the Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese culture and language, the state-backed acquisition of film industry assets and investments into global sports teams.

The media is another key focus. In 2009, the government budgeted US$7 billion to increase the presence of CCTV, Xinhua and other state media globally — that compares with the US$289 million the UK government is giving to the BBC World Service to expand its operations over the next five years.

China’s media push comes as the journalism industry in many Western countries is undergoing massive cutbacks in resources as it struggles to cope with digital disruption and changing consumer demands for news. Meanwhile, the gap is being filled by a resurgent Russian government-backed media, and well-funded outfits like Qatar-backed Al -Jazeera.

None are quite so well-funded as China’s though, with the government willing to commit hefty sums to ensure swanky offices, top-of-the-range equipment and editorial budgets most newsrooms would die for. On top of that, China’s media is riding in the slipstream of the country’s overseas investments — with a very clear mandate to “raise the creative strength, charisma and credibility of our external discourse, telling Chinese stories well, transmitting China’s voice well, interpreting Chinese characteristics well,” as Xi put it earlier.

Indeed, China’s media ambitions don’t stop at promoting its own industry. Beijing is also pushing journalism with Chinese characteristics onto the world, and in particular trading partners in developing nations — some of whose leaders welcome a style of journalism that is tailored to meet the needs of the state and not the people. Through the China-Africa Media Cooperation Forum, for example, China offers to help train African journalists in its style of reporting.

Xi’s view of what that style should be was made clear in February after a visit to CCTV’s offices in Beijing.  All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity, Xi said, according to Xinhua.

Xi has presided over a dramatic winding back of freedom of the press —both in terms of coverage by foreign journalists as well as what the domestic media can cover. A survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in 2015 found 80% of respondents believed their conditions had worsened or remained the same. China ranks 176 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 Press Freedom Index — dropping one place from a year earlier.

China’s domestic media suffers from political interference and harassment, low technical and ethical standards, and chronic low pay. The state maintains control through outright ownership; oversight by an estimated 15 state bodies to ensure journalists toe the Party line; imprisonment, harassment, torture and other coercive means; and the use of vaguely worded legal threats, including that of breaching official secrets that are not defined and are arbitrarily applied.

Journalists must study correct ideological beliefs. The two-volume, 738-page training manual for 2013 sought to rectify what it says is the growing problem of “false news’’ with detailed guidance on ethics, accuracy, objectivity — and the ideological framework of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Chapter 2, for example, is a 61-page discussion of journalism and Marxism.

Responsible reporting in the eyes of the Party means upholding social values — critical reports on ethnic minorities, suggestions that women are not equal to men and disparaging comments about the elderly or disabled are all forbidden. But so too are reports that threaten the territorial integrity of the state or that deny the leading role of Marxism-Leninism, “Mao Zedong Thought” and Deng Xiaoping’s political theories. Calling for Western style democracy is barred.

The concept of the media as part of the check and balances that hold the powerful to account and inform public debate is toxic to the Party. That was made clear when Chinese journalist Gao Yu landed a scoop when she got her hands on an internal CPC memo know as Document 9 — and landed a 7-year jail sentence for leaking state secrets.

The memo is worth quoting at length:

Anti-China forces are “defining the media as `society’s public instrument’ and as the `Fourth Estate’; attacking the Marxist view of news and promoting the `free flow of information on the Internet’; … The ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of press, oppose the Party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology…

“We must not permit the dissemination of opinions that oppose the Party’s theory or political line, the publication of views contrary to decisions that represent the central leadership’s views, or the spread of political rumours that defame the image of the Party or the nation…

“We need to strengthen education on the Marxist perspective of media to ensure that the media leadership is always firmly controlled by someone who maintains an identical ideology with the Party’s Central Committee, under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership…

“We must reinforce our management of all types and levels of propaganda on the cultural front … and allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread.”

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