I traveled to China last winter to get a glimpse of how China plans to make itself more attractive to the world. And more specifically, how it plans to begin to address a central question: Can many billions of dollars buy China’s international media the credibility it so desperately seeks?
Initially, at least, the signs didn’t look promising to me. Over two months and through several sources, I tried and failed to get access to the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. E-mails brought no replies, and people I spoke to were discouraging. It is almost impossible for an outsider, I was told, to get permission to visit the CCTV office. In desperation, I told CCTV that “access denied” would only reinforce the stereotype of China as a closed society. At the last minute, I received an e-mail from Liu Ge, the chief editor of CCTV News, who agreed to an interview.
CCTV’s current headquarters is an imposing, spartan building, a far cry from da kucha. The guards at the front gate let you in only with an escort, and another layer of security awaits at the building’s entrance. Inside, though, the mood is more relaxed. With spring festival around the corner, the lobby is decked with red lights and streamers. A chirpy intern guides me through long corridors and up a winding staircase until we reach a surprisingly small corner on the first floor— the newsroom and live-production hub of CCTV News, the global, 24-hour English-language news station.
Liu Ge greets me warmly and takes me to the production control room, where busy producers survey a maze of screens, deciding what to put on air. This is in January, and as I watch the anchor cuts to a correspondent in Abu Dhabi, where the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has just arrived for the World Energy Summit. Two days earlier, when Jiabao was in Riyadh, Chinese companies and the Saudi oil giant Aramco had signed a deal to develop a 400,000-barrel-a-day refinery on the Red Sea coast. Politically, too, the premier’s visit to the Gulf was significant, as the Arab Spring has caused some anxiety among officials in Beijing. Naturally, China’s global media coverage of the visit trumpeted its non-interventionist approach in Arab nations.
It provided an opening for me to ask Liu about what I saw as a significant obstacle to China’s notion of going head to head with the likes of the BBC. Because state-controlled media can be a platform for the Communist Party to air its views, its news becomes suspect to audiences who are used to journalists asking difficult questions of leaders.
Liu, who has worked in CCTV’s international news team for 16 years and has seen English programming go from 30 minutes a day to a 24-hour operation, defended her team. “The West believes that bad news is always good news,” she says. “In China, we believe in balancing news with social responsibility, so we do not provoke tensions in our society.”
Like many of her colleagues, Liu is a member of the Communist Party. She has risen through the CCTV ranks over the years, but claims her party membership and journalistic career are unrelated. “We are doing news here, not propaganda,” she insists, “and people must know that. No media is without agenda. If you look at BBC or CNN, they won’t harm their national interest. So you cannot expect CCTV to go against Chinese interests.”
So Liu does not claim to be objective. She just says that there is no such thing as objective journalism, that it’s all agenda-driven. Fair enough. There are plenty of media critics in the West who feel the same way. Still, some of China’s state media reports seem straight out of the foreign-ministry spokesman’s mouth. For example, as Western governments and media criticized China and Russia for vetoing the UN Security Council resolution against Syria in February, CCTV published a Xinhua piece on its website headlined, “Harsh rhetoric against China’s veto of Syria resolution is misleading.” The story that followed lacked the kind of balance or nuance that Westerners associate with quality journalism.
Liu knows it will not be easy to change long-held perceptions of China in the West. “I don’t think it’s a problem that we are state-owned,” she says. “A lot of our revenue is dependent on advertising, so we don’t have as strong ties to the government as some may think.”
Can CCTV become the next Al Jazeera, a serious new player on the global broadcast field? Some people familiar with the inner workings of CCTV are skeptical. One, Wang Xiqing, worked for CCTV News for nearly eight years before joining the BBC as a producer in the Beijing bureau. “They have the ambition, but I am not sure they have the wisdom,” he says.