It’s an iron rule and a cautionary note for anyone attending a forum hosted by the Chinese government or its proxy institutions, including state media: You will be ratifying a declaration of principles, whether you have reviewed the text or not.
So, after news executives from five Central Asian states met in the Chinese capital with the editor-in-chief of Xinhua News Agency earlier this week to discuss “strengthening media cooperation” and “working toward the building of a China-Central Asian community of destiny,” the men around the table, with a phalanx of national flags standing sternly behind, sealed the deal — with a declaration.
Initiated and hosted by Xinhua, a news agency directly under the government and the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the forum was billed in media reports as an important “result” of the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi’an on May 19-20, and attended by Xi Jinping. The Xinhua event was attended by executives from Kazakhstan’s Central Communication Services, Kyrgyzstan’s Kabar national news agency, the Khovar National Information Agency of Tajikistan, the Turkmenistan Oriental News Service (ORIENT), and the Uzbekistan National News Agency. All are official news services under the control of their respective governments.
What exactly does the China-Central Asia News Agency Forum Beijing Consensus say? The full text of the document has not been released. And perhaps no one will ever know exactly what the declaration says. But even so, it has served its purpose — seeking apparent public recognition of the political principles underlying China’s media policies and strategies.
It is general practice in the case of such forums for China to reference the “ratification” (通过) of various statements and declarations (and even supposed mutual charters of quasi-institutions hosted by the Chinese partner) with full fanfare in the state-run media, even though they may never see the light of day.
The broader objective is to give run-of-the-mill exchanges and ad hoc events an elevated diplomatic air, the semblance of multilateral diplomacy, while political language is slipped in to suggest that China’s concepts are making international inroads. The symbolic “ratification” of the CCP’s political principles is ultimately what matters. No surprise, then, that while the Beijing Consensus with Central Asian media leaders was mentioned by scores of official media outlets this week and appeared on more than 100 other websites, all of these were iterations of a single official news bulletin from forum host Xinhua.
Based on what we can glean from the official Xinhua release, there are two basic principles underlying the Beijing Consensus “ratified” on May 23.
Joining Hands for Media Control
First, the document says, according to Xinhua, that “the media of China and the five Central Asian countries have unique advantages and play a bridging role in telling the stories of China and the five Central Asian countries well, enhancing mutual understanding and trust among people, promoting exchanges and mutual appreciation of civilizations, and advancing the construction of the China-Central Asia community of destiny.”
With its reference to “telling stories well,” this passage validates a CCP worldview in which the media’s primary role is to uphold a positive view of the national leadership and maintain social and political stability. It is a view that militates against all criticism, arguing that this undermines “mutual understanding.” The reference to a “community of destiny” in the above passage is language central to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy — rejecting universal values such as human rights in favor of state-centered multilateral exchanges.
In practical terms, China hopes not just that it can achieve stronger relations with Central Asian states at the formal diplomatic level, but that it can have the cooperation of media in the region to ensure that domestic public opinion about China is conducive to its ambitions as a global power and as a regional trade and security partner.
The West is Out to Get Us
Next, the document says, according to the Xinhua release, that the world is now in a turbulent state, and “the times and history are unfolding in an unprecedented manner.” This is a stock Xi Jinping phrase that is now routinely used in the state media to justify governing with a strong hand, including on media policy. It signals that these are times to uphold unity and eliminate dissent. The phrase is used in this context to suggest also that China is a strong and dependable pilot in the storm.
“The media of China and the five Central Asian countries should pool their efforts and make a concerted voice to enhance the discourse of emerging markets and developing countries and promote international equity and justice,” the Xinhua summary of the declaration continues. This passage reflects the official CCP view that the international discourse environment, dominated by what China generalizes as “Western media,” disadvantages the country and its leadership, shaping a predominately negative global view of China.
The Beijing Consensus solicits sympathy for this view among Central Asian media partners, with the subtext that they must together resist the depredations of “Western” news values. This is interwoven with a statement of concern for the welfare of developing countries — long a pillar of Chinese foreign policy.
Beyond the above language, the Xinhua readout of the Beijing Consensus indicates that the parties present agreed to strengthen their cooperation “under the framework of multilateral mechanisms.” Tellingly, the report includes in this category events such as the World Media Summit (世界媒体峰会), which was first held in 2009 in order to bring major global media outfits into Xinhua’s orbit.
As CMP reported more than a decade ago, the first World Media Summit (WMS) emerged from a central CCP directive that was enacted by Xinhua. As Li Congjun (李从军), a former propaganda official who was then at Xinhua’s helm, wrote in 2009 in the Party’s official Seeking Truth journal:
[We must] actively seek out new horizons, new mechanisms, new channels and new methods in the area of external dialogue and cooperation, particularly, as by the demands of central party leaders, successfully organizing the first meeting of the World Media Summit, building a platform for dialogue among first-rate international media (国际一流媒体), further raising the capacity of Xinhua News Agency to make its voice heard in the international news and information sector.
At the first summit, Li Congjun was styled as “WMS Executive President,” which made him head of a “presidium” comprising top executives from News Corporation, The Associated Press (AP), Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Google, Al Jazeera Media Network, and the New York Times Company. WMS headquarters, state media said, was located inside Xinhua.
The summits continued on a regular basis from 2009, foreign media executives naively obliging their Xinhua hosts, as though oblivious to their real intentions. Chinese state media even reported at one point that there were plans for a subsequent WMS event at the New York Times.
Beyond the embarrassing (for foreign media executives) efforts by Xinhua to brand the WMS as a multilateral media organization with real participation and real values, successive summits have introduced declarations. The third WMS, held in Doha in March 2016, concluded with a “Doha Statement” that conveyed, according to Xinhua, “the consensuses reached by the world media leaders.”
In a telling statement of just how little such statements matter substantively, the full text of the statement, which was once carried on the official website of the WMS, hosted on Xinhua servers, is now unavailable.
In late 2013, after I wrote a rather confrontational bit of context for the Second World Media Summit, calling out executives for international news media taking part, a Hong Kong-based executive for a major Western newswire met me for drinks at the Foreign Correspondence Club. He confided that media executives had seen the event merely as a networking opportunity — a chance to shake hands, and hopefully open doors in an environment mostly closed to international media. Moreover, he said, the event had been hastily planned by China. They had only learned about it perhaps two weeks before, and China had pushed them hard to attend.
Not much time, then, to have a careful look over that declaration.