The dragon furor provides a glimpse into China’s struggle with its image. The Chinese media effort to win global credibility is part of that struggle. Their mission is to bring what they see as China’s “true picture” to the world in a way that seems, well, credible. “We have a young team that needs some time to develop its reporting skills,” says Liu Ge, “but we have all the technology and other resources to compete with BBC or CNN. It is matter of five years; you shall see us in the top league.”

Perhaps. But a news organization looking to make a global splash needs a big story to put it on the map. Al Jazeera English was nowhere until the Arab Spring bloomed, a story on its home turf that it covered better than its more seasoned competition. CNN did the same with the first Gulf War, and became a household name across the world. The success of China’s global media effort may depend on whether its media can identify that big story when it arrives, and then let the coverage prove their journalistic mettle to the world in a way that declarations from well-meaning editors and officials never will. If CCTV can become the go-to channel for everyone in the world, even if only for a few days, it could change the game for good.

And when such a moment does arrive, journalists must be able to ask tough, relevant questions, even of the Chinese leadership. Does the leadership have the stomach for that?

It would be easy to dismiss CCTV ’s global push as an expression of government propaganda, but the reality is more complex: it also reflects the growing influence of China’s private sector, the peculiar brand of public-private capitalism that has powered the Chinese economic boom. While American soft power was largely a result of the creativity of its private sector, which made brands, technology, and cultural products that found global adulation, the Chinese version seems an efficient, assembly-line attempt. What’s unclear is whether it will have the same creativity and attraction for the world.

Tao Xie is one Chinese intellectual who is critical of the leadership’s narrow interpretation of soft power. Xie is an associate professor at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University, with a PhD from Northwestern University and an acclaimed book on Sino-US relations. He describes himself as someone who likes to push the boundaries with the Chinese leadership, and he often criticizes party policies, even on “hostile” networks like the BBC.

Xie sees an economic motive behind his country’s drive to globalize China’s media, movies, and academics.

“How long can you keep investing in railroads, highways, and airports?” he asks. “At some point, you will run out of urban projects. And there are signs that the economy is slowing down. The leadership thinks these low-pollution, capital-intensive cultural industries could be the next growth engine for China, at least for a short period of time.”

But can it work? “It looks increasingly to me that unless China has fundamental political change—transforming into a democracy—its security dilemma with US, India, or Japan will be difficult to soften, to say nothing of being eliminated,” he says. “Unless our system becomes more transparent, so foreigners know what our military is doing, how our decisions are made internally, and the process of foreign policymaking, outsiders will continue to suspect us. And they will invite the US to maintain strategic balance in the region.”

In soft-power terms, if the country with the better story wins, then China’s political system just may be the villain of its own piece.

Research for this story was supported by a grant from the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, for which we are grateful.

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Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow with Swaniti Initiative based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @some_buddha