In a 45 billion yuan (US$6.57 billion) burst designed to challenge the American, European and Al Jazeera networks for television programming primacy and seeking to change the country's image, China has set out to establish a 24-hour English language channel. But its rigid and unreformed system of news censorship threatens to torpedo its ambitious plans.
The news operation is to be run by the Xinhua news agency in co-operation with China Central Television (CCTV), the People's Daily and the Shanghai Culture Broadcasting and News Group. Its target audience will be the world's 1 billion English-speakers.
In addition, Global Times, an affiliate of the People's Daily, will launch an English-language national paper in China in May: it is aggressively hiring Chinese and foreign reporters and editors, with salaries of up to 300,000 yuan a year, plus living quarters.
Driving this is the belief of China's leaders that its voice is not being heard in the world and that western media dictate the way the rest of the world sees their country. 2008 should have been the year of triumph, the first time China hosted the Olympics and the occasion to show the world the achievements of its last three decades of astonishing growth. But many foreigners remember 2008 in China as a year of Tibetan protests, tainted milk scandals and an earthquake in which shoddily-built schools collapsed but government offices and apartments nearby remained standing. China's leaders and many of its people were bitterly disappointed.
"The strength of your broadcasting determines your influence," Ministry of Propaganda Liu Yunshan told a meeting last Christmas Day. "Whoever's broadcasting methods are advanced and broadcasting ability strong will spread his cultural ideas and value system. Whoever has that strength will influence the world."
China has already invested heavily in sending its message overseas. The government-owned and increasingly sophisticated CCTV has global channels in English, French and Spanish, as well as Chinese, and claims a total audience of 84 million. It plans to open two more, in Arabic and Russian.
Xinhua has bureaus in 100 cities around the world and sells its news, in seven languages, to 1,450 clients abroad. There are 2 million Chinese-language websites, of which about 200 specialize in news, with nearly 300 million Internet users in China. But Hu Jintao and his colleagues decided that China's message was not getting through. The clearest example was the Tibetan unrest last year. While the Chinese saw it as the work of hooligans and criminals among a people they have delivered from backwardness and serfdom, the western media presented it as the legitimate revolt of an oppressed people, like the Burmese or the Palestinians. Chinese saw this version of events as ill-informed and malevolent, written by journalists who had never been to Tibet and who had written the story even before they did their interviews.
Adding urgency to the task of setting up a Chinese CNN is the knowledge that 2009 will be a year of many trials, including the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan rebellion that drove the Dalai Lama into exile and the 20th anniversary of the democracy protests in 1989. In addition, rising unemployment due to the world financial crisis will test the government's ability to keep social order.
Beijing is inspired by the example of Al-Jazeera's English language channel, the first of its kind in the Middle East, which aims ‘to give voice to untold stories, promote debate and challenge established perceptions'. Al-Jazeera says it is available to 130 million homes in more than 100 countries via cable and satellite and is one of the three largest global English news channels, with BBC World and CNN International. It has achieved this in less than two and a half years, since its launch in November 2006.
Beijing has chosen Xinhua to lead the nascent channel, because it has 78 years of experience, the biggest network of foreign bureaus and the most journalists with foreign-language ability and experience of working abroad among the Chinese media.
It has also chosen a good moment to enter the battle. The global financial crisis has badly hit the media in the western world, sharply reducing their advertising revenue and income of their owners and making millions of people around the world skeptical of the liberal, free-market economic model. China has the highest foreign-exchange reserves in the world.
CCTV has an annual income of 1.13 billion yuan and is moving into a space-age headquarters in central Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhass. Local people call it ‘the big underpants'. So the new station will have all the equipment, staff and bureaus it needs.
Its biggest obstacle, however, will be to create a system of news which is suitable to the 21st century and can win audience from the other networks and not the model used in China.
While the world around it has altered out of all recognition in the last two decades, the Chinese information model remains unchanged – all media are under the control of the Ministry of Propaganda, which can fire staff and close miscreants at will. The ministry and its branches send a stream of instructions to the media throughout each day. Party cadres hold key posts.
The war between this apparatus and ambitious journalists seeking to change the system has been unrelenting since the early 1980s. The best example is the Southern Metropolitan Daily (SMD), launched in September 1997. It reported at length on the death of Princess Diana and the World Cup and offered the first daily consumer sections in China. It carried critical reports on crime and corruption. By 2000, its circulation had reached 610,000 and its annual advertising reached 1.3 billion yuan, a record for a Chinese paper.
But in the spring of 2003, in defiance of government orders, it printed reports on the rapid spread of SARS, the mysterious sudden acute respiratory syndrome that killed many and imperiled thousands, in Guangdong and other provinces of China.
On April 23, 2003, it published a story on the death of Sun Zhigang, a student from Wuhan who had been beaten to death in police custody after being detained without his identity documents. The story caused outrage at home and abroad and led to the repeal of the law that allowed police to detain such people. It was the first time since 1949 that a newspaper revelation had changed the law.
Enraged, the Guangzhou government went after the SMD editor, Cheng Yizhong, and two of his senior associates. All three were arrested and charged with economic crimes. Cheng was released without charge. after five months but banned from working for the paper again. His two associates were released after serving reduced sentences, in February 2007 and February 2008 respectively. Both protest their innocence vehemently.
This was in Guangdong, the province with the largest amount of foreign investment, the closest to Hong Kong and the pioneer of reforms. It could not tolerate a real newspaper.
With China descending into increasing protest because of the economic meltdown, that raises questions among media analysts whether the new station will be allowed to compete with CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera and broadcast news on the basis of timeliness and accuracy, without the heavy hand of the censor.
Al-Jazeera in particular has raised the standard of television journalism across much of the third world, with its aggressive reporting on situations the leaders of Muslim nations in particular would like to let alone, while being extremely critical of the west. Whether the new channel can report objectively on Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, Tibet, Xinjiang or other sensitive topics, on which the censors lay down the most stringent guidelines, remains to be seen. The answer will determine its success or failure.