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?
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.”