China spent over 30 billion euros on the Olympic Games last year. One of the aims was to give the world a positive impression of China but this did not work out quite as planned. Unrest in Tibet, disruption of the torch relay, the arrest of dissidents, and broken promises of press freedom overshadowed the impeccable organisation of the Games and their unfolding in Beijing. Now China hopes once again to develop its “soft power” and present a positive image to the world.
China Central Television headquarters in Beijing
Every night at 7 p.m., a rousing melody opens the main news programme of China’s state CCTV station. Soon it could be broadcasting to the world in English, 24 hours a day, as part of Beijing's latest media offensive.
The central leadership plans to pump four-and-a-half million euros into a campaign to sway world opinion in China's favour.
China hopes to develop its “soft power” at a critical moment in history, as faith in Western-style capitalism is waning because of the global financial crisis. China senses a chance to offer its economic and political model as an alternative.
Wang Chen, the head of the Communist Party’s foreign propaganda department, recently said China should “strive to set up a top-line global media arm that covers the entire world, is multi-lingual, enjoys a large viewership, has a large volume of information and is strongly influential."
New strategy needed to sway world opinion
David Bandurski from the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which documents the process of media reform in China, says that although it is not new for Beijing to want to project its “soft power” overseas, last year’s failed attempt to improve its image to the world hammered home the realization that a new strategy was needed urgently.
“If you look to last year and to the unrest in Tibet -- this is the kind of story that China would like to shape in the future,” Bandurski explains.
“There’s a definite perception among party leaders that China lost out in the international coverage of the unrest in Tibet because they created a vacuum -- they essentially pushed out Western media, international media, but there was no real news coverage from China’s part so the international media basically occupied this vacuum even though most of them couldn’t be in Tibet and there was still coverage of the issue. China sort of dropped the ball and it didn’t get to drive coverage or guide public opinion.”
“Guiding public opinion” is the regime’s terminology for controlling the media and freedom of speech.
Putting pressure on Chinese-language media abroad
Beijing’s control is not limited to the Chinese mainland, says Qian Yuejan from the Chinese European Post. “The Chinese government can put economic pressure on media which opposes or criticises it abroad. It tells Chinese companies in the West not to advertise in these newspapers and magazines. Opposition papers therefore then lose a great deal of advertising income.”
There is some talk among Chinese dissidents and exiled Chinese abroad that Beijing could also buy its way into Western media houses struggling to find funds amid the current financial meltdown.
But Bandurski doubts that Beijing can exert so much influence on foreign media. His hope instead is that the Chinese Communist Party will be forced to adapt to a freer press environment if it wants to compete on the international media stage.
He says it is unlikely that anyone outside of China will be impressed by propaganda-heavy messages from the central leadership.