The tradition of top-down decision-making is a key flaw, in Xiqing’s view: “Senior party officials call the shots, and sometimes they give you orders that do not fit into the world of journalism,” he says.
At least one foreigner in the CCTV newsroom, Zakka Jacob, has a different take. Jacob was a TV presenter with India’s Headlines Today before moving to Beijing as a CCTV News anchor. He points out one advantage of being a state broadcaster: “The single guiding factor for any TV channel in India was ratings,” he says. “The absence of ratings gives me more elbow room to cover a story for what it is worth.”
Jacob says he has never heard of stories being influenced by orders from the top. He is among nearly 50 non-Chinese journalists who work at CCTV News’s Beijing headquarters, and many more are being recruited. Most are native English speakers, hired as copy editors to smooth the rough edges of the language barrier.
CCTV’s top management and editorial positions, meanwhile, are held by Chinese staff members, and the channel heads or presidents have to follow the diktats of the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Li Changchun. He is fifth in the pecking order of the Communist Party and Forbes magazine ranked him the world’s 32nd most powerful person in 2010, describing him as the man who “controls what 1.3 billion Chinese see, hear and speak.” CCTV’s recently appointed president Hu Zhangfan was editior-in-chief of the party-owned Guanming Daily. Last year, at a conference, he was quoted as saying, “The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece.” A lot of CCTV’s success will depend on how much independence these high-ranking party officials give the journalists.
China’s global media dreams hinge, to some degree, on covering regions and issues that Western broadcasters tend to ignore. “Your link to Asia” is the CCTV News tagline, and officials are betting that viewers from Asia and from developing nations will trust Chinese media more than they do their Western counterparts.
In Africa, for instance, China’s widespread investment in local industries and infrastructure has led to growing economic clout and goodwill. For Africans weary of the West’s bad-news-only coverage (poverty, political turmoil, natural disasters), CCTV offers a welcome alternative. On February 26, Talk Africa devoted its entire half hour to a London conference that brought together representatives from 50 countries to discuss solutions for Somalia. “New hope for Somalia” sounds like an overly optimistic title, but when you consider that the conference received almost no mention in the Western press, you begin to see how Chinese media can appeal to an African audience.
Still, China’s ultimate target audience remains the big economic powers of the world, the nations and regions that make or break decisions in multilateral forums: the US, Europe, Japan, India, and South Korea. These are also China’s geopolitical rivals, of course, and the most resistant to its influence.
So far, CCTV’s primary effort to reach those targets is through its business programs—Biz Asia and Biz Asia America, the latter presented from Washington, DC, and from the NASDAQ in New York. Both shows emphasize China’s position on key economic issues.
In addition to Biz Asia America, which is on daily, CCTV America airs two weekly programs. The Heat is a Saturday talk show on political topics in the US and Asia. On Sundays, the magazine program Americas Now takes an in-depth look at the Americas, particularly Central and South America. Produced by former 60 Minutes hand Barbara Dury, Americas Now will have contributions from CCTV’s 15 bureaus across the Americas, including Havana.
The DC bureau has journalists with solid American network experience, from NBC, CBS, CNN, and Fox. They have been joined by two Chinese correspondents from Beijing, along with their boss, Ma Jing, the director general of CCTV America. CCTV News America can be seen in the Washington, DC, area through MHz networks as well as on Comcast and Dish TV. Wider distribution is planned.
An angry dragon on a postage stamp was causing a stir while I was in Beijing. China Post had just released the stamp to commemorate the Chinese New Year, and this is the Year of the Dragon. But the fearsome creature on the stamp was accused by critics of scaring the world, and even some locals. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was full of sarcasm about the fire-breathing diplomacy. “This shocking creature on the stamp could well be the emblem of the Foreign Ministry,” read one Weibo post.
Dragons have been a symbol of Chinese imperial power for centuries, but the government actually prefers the cuddly panda bear, often using it as a diplomatic gift to other countries. After all, what’s more softly powerful than a panda?