By David Bandurski — The South China Morning Post created quite a stir at our office last week when it reported a 6.6 billion US dollar Chinese government program to fund international ventures undertaken by state media. One foreign journalist after another came fishing for soundbytes about how the likes of People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV) could be taken seriously. [Frontpage Image: Screenshot of news coverage of Liu Changchun’s November 2008 visit to CCTV Online].

Busy with our own projects, and wary of this story hook, we declined to comment. So we pause now to offer a few thoughts and observations on China’s global media campaign.

The question of what form these international media initiatives might take, and how influential they might be, is a complicated one. It is only too easy to dismiss CCTV as a state-run factory of untruths, but there are decent journalists working there — for such programs as News Probe, for example — and our project has hosted at least five fellows from the network.

Still, the position of the leadership on these new initiatives is critical. SCMP coverage last week suggested Chinese authorities are interested in creating an international news channel modeled on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network.

“With Al-Jazeera as the model, the station would enjoy greater freedom of speech from the central authorities than Phoenix TV on political and current events,” one source said.

It is impossible to entirely discount the idea that a CCP-sponsored international network could be given more latitude in international coverage. But I find this quote from the SCMP utterly revealing, and I wonder exactly what this unnamed source said, in Chinese.

The “from” in the phrasing of the SCMP quote suggests that “freedom of speech” is something granted or denied at the will of the party leadership. And that, far from suggesting openness, fits squarely with the notion of “guidance” we have seen recently from senior CCP leaders on the question of the “global influence” of Chinese media.

If you are a lover of freedom, your knees may go weak when you see the words “freedom of speech.” But when someone whose prerogative it is to shut you up tells you they will give you sufficient “freedom of speech,” the subtext is still CONTROL.

Nor should we overlook the significance of the contrast with Phoenix TV made in the quote by the SCMP source. The monopoly on news and information that state-run media presently enjoy in China will be extended as they “go out” (走出去), as this process is called.

Why make such exceptions for CCTV & Co? Because the basic assumption is that CCP leaders will be able to continue to exercise control as these media expand globally.

If you have any doubts about how senior CCP leaders view the role of press control in this global media-building initiative, you need only turn to the text of the December 20, 2008, speech by Li Changchun (李长春), China’s top media control official as the politbruo standing committee member in charge of ideology. [Li also spoke about these issues in November 2008].

In his December speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of CCTV, Li Changchun outlined the party’s strategy to enhance China’s global influence, of which the 6.6 billion dollar initiative reported by the SCMP can be seen as an integral first step.

I believe the gist of Li’s speech is a kind of global roll-out of what we have elsewhere called CONTROL 2.0 — that is, a new conception of media control (a “new pattern of public opinion guidance“) whereby the focus shifts from passive and reactive censorship to active influence of the agenda (of which censorship is just one component).

In the first of five summary points in his December speech, Liu said Chinese media needed “to accelerate the pace of ‘going out.'” We must, he said, have a comprehensive strategy to “take CCTV and other key central media and make them into first-rate international media with a global influence.”

The second point emphasized the importance of traditional ideological controls, what has since 1989 been referred to as “guidance of public opinion.” Liu reiterated what is now a classic Hu Jintao formula, the “Three Benefits and Three Wrongs”: “Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the party, the nation and the people; errors in guidance of public opinion lead the party, the nation and the people astray.”

CCP leaders increasingly see themselves engaged in a “global war for public opinion,” and they have become obsessed with finding new and creative ways to leverage technology to grasp what they see as their rightful share of global influence.

As Li Changchun summed up the urgency of this task in December:

Communication capacity determines influence. In the modern age, whichever nation’s communication methods are most advanced (谁的传播手段先进), whichever nation’s communication capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values are able to spread far and wide, and that nation that has the most power to influence the world . . .

For more of our thoughts on China’s obsession with building “soft power,” and on the popularity of the writings of Samuel P. Huntington, please see “Hitting Hard with Soft Power”, which traces this question back several years.

A partial translation of Li Changchun’s December 20, 2008, speech follows:

Speech on the Commemoration of the Television Industry in China and the 50th Anniversary of the Creation of China Central Television

Li Changchun (李长春)
December 20, 2008

We hold an event here today to solemnly commemorate the birthday of the television industry in China and the 50th anniversary of the creation of China Central Television. A letter of congratulations from President Hu Jintao and a message from [former president] Jiang Zemin offer full testament to the resplendence achieved by CCTV since its launch.

These achievements have stipulated explicit conditions for [the carrying out of] news propaganda work under new circumstances (新形势下的新闻宣传工作), for work toward building a modern communication system (构建现代传播体系) and raising our transmission capacity both at home and overseas (提高国内国际传播能力) – we must earnestly study and absorb them, and do a thorough job of implementing them. Taking this opportunity, I represent the CCP Central Committee and the State Council in expressing my most heartfelt congratulations to China’s television industry and to CCTV on this 50-year anniversary. I extend my regards to those comrades laboring away on the front lines of television, and express my fondest thanks to those in various corners of society who have supported the development of the television industry and CCTV . . .

Over the last 50 years CCTV has consistently upheld guidance of public opinion [NOTE: “guidance” was not formally introduced until 1989], faithfully recording the great upsurge of the Republic’s historical journey, actively publicizing the ideology, line, principles and policy of the party, and reporting in a timely manner information about various sectors at home and abroad. [CCTV] has become a faithful recorder, brave practitioner and active promoter of the building of socialism and the work of economic reform and opening. In the era of economic reforms, and particularly since the 16th Party Congress [of fall 2002], CCTV has lifted the banner high, focusing on overall interests, serving the people, reforming and renewing, upholding [the principle of] closeness to the truth, closeness to life and closeness to the masses [NOTE: “Three Closenesses” = media commercialization], strongly promoting the principles, policies and major deployments [of policies/resources, etc.] of the party and the nation . . . . [CCTV] has increasingly become an important channel through which people obtain information, an important path through which the spiritual culture of the people is enriched, a strategic position in the guiding of public opinion, and an important platform promoting the “going out” of Chinese culture (中华文化“走出去”). [Li Changchun goes on to talk about how 2008 was a tough year, and yet CCTV managed to “effectively guide public opinion in society.”] . . .

. . .We must earnestly study and implement the important speech General Secretary Hu Jintao gave to mark the 30 years since the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee and, in accordance with the demands of General Secretary Hu Jintao as expressed in his letter of congratulations, accommodating new circumstances and developments at home and abroad, spurred by the powerful impetus of deep study of the scientific view of development, we must take the strengthening of our communication capacity domestically and internationally as a major strategic task of pressing urgency, putting effort into all aspects of the building of a modern communication system (构建现代传播体系), putting effort into all aspects of enhancing our capacity to guide public opinion, putting effort into creating first-rate international media, putting effort into the building of new media (新兴媒体), and working hard to take television work to a new level.

1. We must clearly recognize our circumstances, be clear about our objectives, tangibly lifting our sense of responsibility for the strengthening of our communication capacity domestically and internationally. Communication capacity determines influence. In the modern age, whichever nation’s communication methods are most advanced (谁的传播手段先进), whichever nation’s communication capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values are able to spread far and wide, and that nation that has the most power to influence the world . . . Enhancing our communication capacity domestically and internationally is of direct consequence to our nation’s international influence and international position, of direct consequence to the raising of our nation’s cultural soft power (我国文化软实力), and of direct consequence to the function and role of our nation’s media within the international public opinion structure
(国际舆论格局).

2. We must uphold correct guidance of public opinion, from first to last maintaining steadiness and clarity in our politics . . . We must enhance our consciousness of politics, of the overall situation, of responsibility and of [our strategic] position, enhancing our political sensitivity and our political judgement, firmly establishing the Marxist View of Journalism, remaining clear and firm on questions concerning our political direction and concerning the overall situation of the party and the nation. We must keep a firm grasp and sense of degree (把好关、把好度) on major questions and sensitive questions, constantly improving our capacity to correctly guide public opinion in a complex environment.

One last note on CCTV’s credibility deficit, and its relationship to censorship. The state-run network is now facing a boycott by Chinese intellectuals, who accuse the network of misleading the Chinese public on important stories such as the milk powder scandal.

As CMP reported last September, CCTV was the host of an award ceremony last summer honoring Sanlu Group, a milk producer as the center of the scandal, even as news of poisonous milk was being covered up.

[Posted by David Bandurski, December 19, 2009, 4:45pm HK]