Written by Xiaoling Zhang.

The Chinese official media outlets, especially the “Big Four” as Yang Jiechi the State Councillor calls them — Xinhua News Agency, Central China Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), and China Daily — are making substantial efforts to increase China’s influence in the world as an instrument of China’s grander soft power engagement. CCTV, the only national TV station, is at the heart of this effort. With 42 channels, CCTV is watched by 1.2 billion people domestically every day. Of all the channels, six are international, broadcasting in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. In addition, CCTV has over 70 overseas bureaux. The total number of staff posted abroad has increased almost 10 times since 2010, with about one third of them being local employees. The global CCTV News sends free-to-air satellite signals to more than 85 million viewers in over 100 countries and regions.

What is considered the centrepiece of CCTV — the two overseas hub bureax set up in 2012, CCTV Africa in Nairobi and CCTV America in Washington DC, each contribute an hour’s programming to CCTV News every day. Both have actively sourced local and international personnel, the majority of whom have worked in private media companies. They bring with them different experiences to their new jobs, thus ensuring the expression of more subtle views on related international issues.

To widen its audience reach, CCTV enters local networks by exchanging news programs with local media organizations. For instance, in 2010, Togolese authorities and CRI and CCTV officials agreed that Radio Lome and Togolese Television would broadcast China’s French-language reports while receiving technical and material assistance for modernizing their radio and TV stations. Also, while CCTV is already available to many Zimbabweans who have free-to-air satellite receivers, in Nov 2011 a Chinese delegation visiting Harare sealed a deal with the Ministry of Information for the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation (ZBC) and CCTV to share news programming while sharing digital technology. CCTV Africa’s flagship show CCTV Live is also broadcast in Kenya domestic stations on primetime slots.

China’s recent direct investment in South African media is considered a new phase in the rapid expansion of China’s media. CCTV, backed up by the China-Africa Development Fund, was reported to have teamed up with allies of the ruling African National Congress to purchase Independent News and Media, one of the most powerful media groups in the country, which owns daily newspapers in all of the major cities including such titles as the Cape Times, the Star, Pretoria News, Isolezwe, Sunday Independent and the Mercury.

The speed and scale of the expansion of the Chinese media are especially noticeable at a time when many Western media houses are cutting back on their overseas operational budgets. Peter Horrocks, the BBC’s director of global news, reported that the Chinese are paying national broadcasters in Africa to run CCTV content, in some cases squeezing out the BBC.

Research shows that China’s soft power initiatives through the international broadcaster CCTV have achieved mixed results. Its advantages in easy deployment of resources are obvious – the “Big Four’ have all greatly increased their global presence. Its state-centred model and the “government to government” approach have achieved impressive results in countries like Zimbabwe, demonstrated by the public media coverage of China-Zimbabwe relations and interviews with government officials and public media organisations. Some African publics welcome Chinese media as an alternative to the West.

Joseph Nye argued in 2006 that soft power resources should not be confused with behaviour. Research shows that China has so far failed to achieve the outcome it wants from private media, which are greatly influenced by Western media organizations. China emphasizes learning and experimentation. It therefore may be just an issue of time – the clumsiness of Beijing as a new power. However, studies also show the increasingly expensive challenge that CCTV faces in its competition for influence with western media.

China’s non-democratic political system, which CCTV operates within, is the main causes of concern. While many welcome China as an alternative to the West, many others advocate caution in dealing with China as they fear being seen to have close ties with the Communist Party of China’ may have negative connotations.

Second, after the Cold War public diplomacy is taking place in an international environment which can no longer be described as exclusively state-centred. This new public diplomacy extends beyond the operations of governments altogether to include the activities of the private sector and of wider society and culture. Chinese officials lack experience working with civil society at home, which inhibits the efficacy of new public diplomacy efforts outside.

Third, the credibility of Chinese official media is low. CCTV continues to face difficulties reconciling its role as a loyal CPC mouthpiece and as a trusted news source that covers all topics—even negative ones—for its subscribers. The lack of alternative and independent media inside China itself makes it impossible for Chinese policy makers to draw on the expertise of the kind of media organizations that are available to policy makers in other countries.

Soft power must operate as a two-way traffic. Wang Guoqing, Vice-minister of the State Council Information Office suggest that “what’s at the top of the agenda is to find a way accepted by other nations to tell China’s story and help the international community understand China”.  In the years to come, CCTV’s global presence is expected to continue to grow. China therefore needs to make a more profound reconsideration of its overall strategy to resolve the above mentioned problems in its soft power promotion. Given the difficulty of changing the nature of CCTV these issues will most likely remain unchanged in the near future.

Xiaoling Zhang is the Head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham Ningbo China Campus. Image credit: CC by SimonQ/Flickr