Locals call it da kucha, or “big boxer shorts,” because of its shape. China Central Television’s future headquarters in Beijing is 54 stories, twin towers of glass and steel connected by an angular wedge at the top. Overlooking the Central Business District, it stands out in a city whose architecture is a mix of imperial grandeur, gray communist-era buildings, and dazzling modern construction. Da kucha will be a striking symbol of CCTV’s expanding budget and global ambition.
And of China’s other global media ambitions as well. Among other things, the government is building an English-language world service that will compete with BBC News—but with what is said to be 19 times the annual budget of BBC, currently the world’s largest news organization.
Having already achieved the status as the world’s second-largest national economy, China has decided that it also needs soft power, the ability to influence world public opinion to promote its commercial and foreign-policy interests. “To some degree, whoever owns the commanding heights of cultural development, and soft power, will enjoy a competitive edge internationally,” declared a communiqué that came out of the October 2011 plenary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Toward that end, the Chinese government allocated $8.7 billion in 2009-2010 alone to “external publicity work.”
The beneficiaries of this largesse are mostly the Big Four state-owned media corporations—CCTV, China Radio International (CRI), Xinhua news agency, and The China Daily newspaper and website. From inside da kucha and other news bureaus across the world, the Communist Party hopes to remake the negative image of China that it perceives in coverage by Western broadcasters. It hopes to replace the images of urban pollution, self-immolating Tibetan monks, and sweatshop workers with those of its rapidly growing cities and a prosperous new consumer class.
The makeover is already well under way. “This is Africa Live from CCTV News,” declared Beatrice Marshall, a CCTV anchor in Kenya, as she launched the network’s Nairobi broadcast center in January. This was followed in February by the launch of CCTV America, with headquarters in Washington, DC, and about 100 journalists and support staff hired so far across the Americas. CCTV America launched three new programs in February alone.
If you happen to switch on your radio in Galveston, TX, about 50 miles southeast of Houston, don’t be surprised to hear, “You are listening to China Radio International.” KGBC, a small AM station in Galveston, carries English-language programming by CRI, as do 13 stations in North America, including WILD in Boston and WNWR in Philadelphia. Around the world, CRI broadcasts in more than 60 languages, nearly double the number on the BBC World Service.
One of the world’s premier advertising spaces, an electronic billboard at 2 Times Square, also blinks a Chinese message. Last July, Xinhua, the government-owned news agency, leased a 40-by-60-foot LED sign there, a few months after it moved its North American headquarters from Queens to a tower on Broadway. Xinhua is already among the largest news agencies in the world, with more than 10,000 employees in 107 bureaus. In the developing world, especially, it competes on an equal footing with The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and Reuters. Xinhua’s Web-based English-language TV unit, CNC World, plans to expand into 100 countries.
At a time when most Western news outlets face budget cuts and retrenchment, the Chinese are rapidly expanding their global media presence. Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2010 that the US is losing the “information war” to new entrants like Al Jazeera and Russia Today—and CCTV.
In January, President Hu Jintao, writing in the Communist Party magazine Qiu Shi (“Seeking the Truth”), called on the Chinese to push back against Western cultural colonization: “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status….International hostile forces are stepping up efforts to implement their strategies of westernizing and dividing China, with ideology and culture being key areas fields of their long-term infiltration.”
Money opens doors, but what exactly is China selling with this new soft power? What is the Chinese version of the American Dream? As Han Han, a 29-year-old blogger, put it in a recent essay on Chinese art and culture: “The restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis. Or for us, the culturati, to raise our heads up proud.” Is this also true for China’s journalists? How can they reconcile the pursuit of truth with their government’s history of trying to control the story?