Written by Jing Ning Conover.

The relationship between the media and the government in China is a complex issue. The government used to initiate the communication process by expressing its official stand through the media. The media then performs its role by conveying the message to the public. However, since the first decade of this century, when China’s economic success made it urgent for the government to promote its global image politically and diplomatically, we started to see a slightly different pattern. The once tightly controlled media system in China seems to be more open to change, as China developed its own international communication systems and embraced all kinds of media outlets in foreign languages, including newspapers, TV channels and online news services. One such international news service, supported by the state financially and expected to strengthen China’s “soft power”, is China’s English language news service CCTV-9, launched in September 2000 (also known as CCTV-International between May 2004 and April 2010 and CCTV-News from April 2010 until present). But the questions remain. Can a Chinese TV channel use the English language to broadcast to the world in a fashion which would make it a competitor to CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera, as government officials have hoped? And can such an English channel’s evolving special niche lead to a loosening of the censorship rules?

When CCTV-9 was launched in 2000, one of its obligations was to gradually build an audience and eventually compete for influence with dominant global Western broadcasters such as BBC World or CNN International. To a certain extent, CCTV-9’s double identity as a “propaganda machine” and “challenger to Western media” suggests a more ambiguous picture that even the production team of CCTV-9 cannot reconcile completely. The Chinese government adopts the English language channel as a publicity tool to reconstruct China’s image, meanwhile it never stops exerting its influence on the channel by holding a monopoly position in regard to information and opinions. Yet the English news production team at CCTV-9, since its launch and throughout the decade long developmental history, has gradually learned to seek certain leeway to circumvent control by the government and try to take a more active role when covering international news events. One such example is the news reporting during the 2003 Iraq war. CCTV-9 was able to make changes without going beyond the limits that the government would tolerate. CCTV-9 won a fairly large amount of autonomy in their Iraq war coverage through the bargaining process with the upper level management either by default or via clever tactics. The existence of these negotiations and compromises influenced the English channel’s future evolution and development, as seen in its re-launch efforts in 2004 and 2010. Further, such efforts raised more questions concerning how far the changes achieved could continue and to what extent they would influence China’s “Going Out” (“走出去”) project, part of its soft power ambition, both ideologically and institutionally.

By aggressively expanding its “Going Out” project, CCTV English language service launched its America and Africa branches in 2012. CCTV-America stationed in Washington D.C. strives to generate credibility and establish prestige by encouraging its reporters to catch up with more breaking news and carry out investigative pieces, which means to get rid of the Chinese government interference and have more editorial freedom. According to CCTV-America’s management team:

“one of the advantages is the fact that in comparison to the news production process in Beijing, here in America, we have less restrictions. We are much more making the news as we see will promote the credibility of our program and win the recognition of audience than simply acting as a propaganda tool of the Chinese government”.[i]

The new policy concerning the English language service, as perceived by one of the producers of former CCTV-9 and currently a core member of the CCTV-America management team, has become more favorable. According to her, the government is urged to establish two sets of directives to differentiate between domestic channels and foreign language channels. Specifically the overseas channels could measure up the guidelines/directives and define if the guidelines/directives are applicable or not and then report as the channel sees fit (外宣频道你们看着办).

Despite the breakthrough achieved and the leeway CCTV-America has when producing news, it is still an issue that news about China itself, particularly politically sensitive issues, are not allowed to be reported. When covering domestic news stories and carrying out investigative reporting, this English channel cannot achieve the same level of freedom as what it can do with international news stories. A case in point is the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In a recent research conducted by the author, among the 10 CCTV-America newsroom staff interviewed, 8 of them expressed their frustration over the CCTV-America’s delayed response in covering the Hong Kong story. As one of the producers recalled:

“Originally, we were not allowed to cover this story, however, after many rounds of negotiating with the Beijing headquarters via phone, and after we keep pushing them to make compromises by arguing that all other broadcasters with credibility are reporting it and it would be quite a shame that we can’t do it ourselves, which is a huge damage to our credibility as a reliable news outlet, CCTV news at Beijing headquarters eventually yielded. This is how we had a chance to make news stories on it”.

In comparison to other Western media that can cover the negative side of the Chinese government itself, CCTV-America can’t compete. As one of the managing directors at CCTV English service said,

I think the controlling mechanism is always there. We almost have news line-ups similar to those of CNN or BBC, but only the line-ups and some less politically-sensitive stories. On the political side, seeking change is completely impossible. We should have more freedom from the SARFT[ii], but it’s really difficult. We at CCTV News in English try so hard, and thankfully, SARFT may not understand each word or sentence we are saying here. If they can understand fully what we have said, they will be furious, probably, I guess”.

To be a credible source of information when establishing the CCTV-News brand in the international market, more freedom to develop their own editorial policy should be granted. The launch of overseas branches in Washington and Nairobi should focus on issues relating to editorial policy change, instead of the structural changes alone. The litmus test is whether it is possible to cover domestic news without limitation and constraint. Unless such fundamental changes occur, the many rounds of new bureau launch efforts ultimately will not pay off.

The uniqueness of China’s English language news comes as a rare opportunity for all parties to reconsider the relationship between the Chinese government and its media. The negotiations between the two sides require each party to consider the other player’s interests and possible reactions before coming to decisions. Even though government control still exists, the strong urge to get rid of the control and the opposition forces demonstrated by the CCTV English channel, as seen in examples of 2003 Iraq war and the pro-Hong Kong democracy, have become stronger, so that the top-down control is often forced to negotiate. In terms of financial, human resource management and operational strategy, the CCTV English language channel still needs more preferential policies, different from other domestic channels.

In conclusion, it will be difficult for CCTV News to be an instrument of “soft power”, to win recognition and catch up with other Western media, unless it deals effectively with the issues of government control. The feasible solution could be a re-structuring of the regulatory scheme. If the government really hopes for the emergence of a “Chinese CNN”, then it must establish a “Special Media Zone (SMZ)”, which resembles the “Special Economic Zones (SEZ)” [iii] proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. In such an SMZ, special policies and mechanisms concerning hiring and operating could be adopted, independent from the government, as well as financing. To go beyond being the role of government “mouthpiece” is the first step. Globally targeted television news must be independent from government control both politically and economically. It must be reliable in its news sourcing and professional in its news making. This will guarantee that CCTV-News will be able to strengthen its influence and help enrich the global information flow.

CCTV-News, as a potential communication platform which delivers the Chinese perspective definitely has broad space for future development, yet it is subject to the vicissitudes of political and economic changes in China. The English channel needs to build professional news-making and commentators teams, which is well versed in political, international and diplomatic situations, has good English language and communication skills. Meanwhile, if the top-down controlling system from the government does not change at the macro-level, tactics at the micro-level can help temporarily but will not sustain them in the long run. The future of this channel needs to be directed with a clear goal and a well-orchestrated package of strategies firmly in mind.

Jing Ning Conover received her PhD in media studies from Rutgers University. She is a Part-Time Lecturer at Asian Languages and Cultures Dept., Rutgers University. Image Credit: Jing Ning Conover.

Notes

[i]All quotations in the text come from the author’s interviews
[ii] The General Administration of Press and Publications and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) merged into a new body, the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (guojia xinwen chuban guangbo dianying dianshi zongju 国家新闻出版广播电影电视总局) in March, 2013. 
[iii] The Chinese government gives Special Economic Zones (SEZ) special economic policies and flexible governmental measures. This allows SEZs to utilize an economic management system that is especially conducive to doing business that does not exist in the rest of mainland China