In its home market, the Discovery Channel has earned a reputation for never letting reality get in the way of a good story. Once home to respected wildlife documentaries and science specials, the network is better known these days for such colorful titles as Naked and Afraid, Deadliest Catch, American Chopper, and, of course, Shark Week. The network’s volte-face from education to entertainment has even become something of a pop culture punchline.

But what Discovery stands accused of with regards to China is no laughing matter. According to a group of US Congressmen, the channel is “whitewashing genocide” against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in far-western Xinjiang. In an open letter last month to the president and CEO of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, six Republican representatives called World’s Ultimate Frontier — a new co-production between Discovery and CGTN, the international division of state-run broadcaster CCTV — “an obvious work of propaganda on the part of a totalitarian, adversary regime.”

Known in Chinese as “Entering Xinjiang” (走進新疆), the first trailer for the series features a cast of starry-eyed foreigners marveling at the sights, sounds, and tastes of the region, where the UN Human Rights Office says crimes against humanity have been carried out by the Chinese state. As mass detention, torture, cultural persecution, and forced labor go on behind the scenes, the hosts eat snacks and gawk at happy, dancing minorities.

In their letter, the congresspeople urge Discovery to “suspend this partnership with CGTN immediately and to abstain from entering into any similar partnership with any other agent of CCP influence.” In fact, when it comes to co-producing with the CCP, this latest venture is far from Discovery’s first — and likely will not be its last. At CMP, we’ve cataloged a few of these conspicuous collabs, including a documentary series extolling the virtues of Xi Jinping’s leadership, and (in what masquerades as a straightforward survival series) another that traces the route of the Red Army’s Long March in the 1930s.

The difference, this time, is the heights from which support for World’s Ultimate Frontier seems to have come.

Productive Partnerships

In an article published in May last year in the pages of Research on Ideological and Political Work (思想政治工作研究), a journal published by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong (慎海雄) — himself a deputy propaganda minister — highlighted World’s Ultimate Frontier as an essential “external communication brand” for the Party.

The May 2023 edition of the CCP journal Research on Ideological and Political Work includes an article from deputy propaganda minister and China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong mentioning World’s Ultimate Frontier.

“We have worked to build a Chinese discourse and a Chinese narrative system, so as to make the image of a credible, lovable and respected China more vivid and lively,” said Shen, directly referencing remarks on global propaganda Xi Jinping made at a collective study session of the Politburo two years earlier. Shen continued by saying that CMG would “optimize mechanisms of cooperation with international mainstream media, creating such foreign communication brands as Entering Xinjiang and Rooted in China.” This passage by the head of the group overseeing Discovery’s co-production partner, CGTN, clearly indicates that the Entering Xinjiang (World’s Ultimate Frontier) program was conceived on the Chinese side as directly serving the external propaganda goals of the state.

China has made clear in policy-related statements on international communication that what the CCP now calls a “Chinese discourse and narrative system” relies largely on borrowed foreign distribution channels, particularly as efforts to build credible state-run channels overseas have in many ways faltered. For more than a decade, the Singapore-based subsidiary Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific has been one of China’s most reliable avenues of foreign distribution for state-backed television productions, giving them the potential access to a global broadcast network reaching over a billion viewers in more than 230 countries and territories.

China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong — himself a deputy propaganda minister — highlighted World’s Ultimate Frontier as an essential “external communication brand” for the Party.

Starting in at least 2012, according to Chinese media reports, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific launched cooperation with the China International Communication Center (CICC), again directly linked with the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, which yielded a string of co-productions included the 2017 China: Time of Xi, an unctuously positive three-part documentary on Xi Jinping that aired ahead of the Party’s 19th National Congress. The 2022 production Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), the six-episode series retracing the Long March, was released by Discovery along with a several Chinese partners, including the Central Propaganda Department’s Overseas Promotion Office (中宣部对外推广局) and CICC.

These deals seem to have been brokered at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific by vice-president Vikram Channa, who has overseen an extensive China portfolio and regularly taken part in state-led cultural initiatives. Channa is, according to state media reports, a member of the expert committee for the Orchid Awards, which honors individuals and organizations in the cultural arena who have contributed positively to what the CCP calls people-to-people exchanges. The awards are organized by the China International Communications Group (中國外文局), or CICG, which like both the China Media Group and CICC is directly under the Central Propaganda Department.

Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific vice-president Vikram Channa (first from left) attends the May 2023 launch of the Understanding China documentary series. Standing second from the right is Li Zhihui (李智慧) of the Central Propaganda Department’s Overseas Promotion Office.

CICG is one of China’s most prolific producers of official documentaries, many through its China Review Studio (解读中国工作室). Among its recent productions is the 2022 A Long Cherished Dream (柴米油盐之上), directed by the Oscar-winning director Malcolm Clarke, who said he hoped the film could “make China a little bit more sympathetic to the rest of the world.” The documentary, which was distributed by Discovery across Southeast Asia, was held up by state media as a prime example of a domestic documentary achieving maximum effect overseas. “A Long Cherished Dream innovatively employs a multi-participant Sino-foreign co-production and collaborative distribution mechanism, achieving a substantial international dissemination impact,” the propaganda department-run Guangming Daily reported.

In November last year, Discovery’s Channa was credited as a co-director for a series of documentaries called Understanding China (读懂中国), and took part in a related launch ceremony in Guangzhou. The series is a cooperation between Warner Bros. Discovery and the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy (CIIDS), a center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences which states, in clear echo of the external communication strategy outlined by Xi Jinping in 2013, that it is “committed to telling China’s story and spreading China’s voice.”

Telling Whose Story?

In World’s Ultimate Frontier, Xinjiang is presented as a magical holiday destination: a playground for outsiders where you can explore the snowy wilderness on horseback, experience a cultural melting pot in historic Kashgar, or relive the storied Silk Road trading routes. Its version of the restive and long-suffering region is a lot like the typical portrayal for domestic Han audiences in PRC state media. This, we are essentially being told, is what it means to “tell China’s story well.”

Camel trains, dances, motorsports, and desert off-roading — there are many ways to redirect the message in Discovery’s latest co-production with CGTN.

Discovery may indeed be engaged in storytelling as it works directly with the leadership in Beijing to tell China’s story. Audiences might find these stories compelling, at times even exhilarating — like the romping, sand-kicking journey the hosts make through the dunes of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert in episode two of World’s Ultimate Frontier or the daring motorsports of episode 4.

But from China’s standpoint, the ultimate goal of the series is to distract global audiences with spectacle and banter, turning their eyes away from the real and tragic story facing many thousands of Uyghurs that have been incarcerated, displaced, exiled, and painfully separated from their loved ones in the ongoing campaign of repression.

There is nothing entertaining about the reality facing many in Xinjiang, away from the cameras and documentary crews. If Discovery profits by offering a global audience for Beijing’s efforts to obscure and distract from this reality, it at least has a moral obligation to be upfront about who is ultimately footing the bill.

Dalia Parete


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