Will China′s regulator reshuffle turn all state media into propaganda? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.03.2018
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Will China's regulator reshuffle turn all state media into propaganda?

Beijing has announced a plan to consolidate film, news and publishing under one regulatory body. With control over all media content, China's Communist Party can project its ideal image and quash dissent.

China introduced a round of media regulation restructuring on Wednesday, aiming to improve the country's image domestically and abroad by centralizing film, news and publishing regulations under the Communist Party's publicity department.

Announced through the state-run Xinhua News agency, the move is part of Beijing's plan to impose stricter surveillance on media content that undermines the Communist Party's message. The announcement stated that the consolidation will ensure that all broadcast media "acts as the party's mouth piece."

This includes everything from films, television and video games to books and radio. Based on the plan, the publicity department would have total control over media content while setting the tone for Beijing's messages domestically and abroad.

Several state media outlets, including CCTV, China Global Television Network, China Radio International and China National Radio, would be merged into one broadcaster called "Voice of China," which would broadcast content tailored for foreign audiences.

Spreading 'socialist values'

By consolidating control of all media content, China's President  Xi Jinping is attempting to recentralize Beijing's dominance over all aspects of politics and society in China. Merging multiple state media outlets creates a streamlined institution that can dominantly project the Communist Party's ideal image.

According to David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, the restructuring would increase the Party's message control while also seeking ways to expand the dissemination of the Party's agenda and ideal image.

"The Party's idea is a highly centralized media network, with pooled resources, that can be innovative in its production and distribution of messaging," Bandurski told DW.

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To remain connected with social trends, the Communist Party in recent years has also been focusing on spreading  "socialist values" through different cultural assets such as film, music and video games. However, Bandurski predicts that Beijing's new approach of expanding its soft power through a single centralized media outlet would struggle to be responsive and to understand its audience.

"It has always been a deep challenge for Chinese state media to push their products abroad," said Bandurski. "These latest moves only compound this aspect of the problem."

In comparison with major international news outlets, the international arm of China's state-run CCTV faces challenges in growing its audience and being seen as a propaganda mouthpiece of the Chinese government.

In recent years, China has invested heavily in expanding CCTV's international reach, opening two foreign production centers, CCTV Africa and CCTV America.

According to a 2014 report by the Reuters institute for the study of Journalism, CCTV is available in 140 foreign countries with seven international channels broadcasting in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese. The report also said that in contrast to Western broadcasters closing foreign offices, CCTV is expanding. Its headquarters in Beijing cost more that $ 1 billion (€ 0.8 billion).

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Challenges to legitimacy

Bandurski said that Beijing would have to deal with growing international awareness of its aggressive posture in exploiting the open media environment in the West.

The Reuters report said that CCTV didn't face a resource problem but lacked "personnel skilled in Western content production and values." CCTV also faces a public perception problem.

"The low popularity of CCTV and its limited relationship networks mean that Chinese correspondents are not fully accepted as trustworthy and their reports are often doubted or rejected," the report said.

Instead of blocking China entirely out of the global media landscape, Bandurski suggested that other countries should remain cautious about the underlying agenda of China's state-owned media.

"We should ensure in our own societies that we understand and acknowledge the repression behind these state-led voices," he said.

China's soft power push

The restructuring also strengthens China's "United Front Work Department," a clandestine government agency responsible for advancing China's influence and interests around the world. It is at the forefront of China's growing soft power campaign.

As part of the restructuring announced Wednesday by Xinhua, the United Front will now oversee ethnic and religious issues and China's foreign affairs.

The agency works by attempting to improve relationships between the Communist Party and non-Communist elites, including other political parties, former government officials, religious groups and Chinese living overseas

Xi Jinping has referred to the United Front as a "magic weapon" for China's soft power.

To counterbalance China's growing ambitions abroad, Bandurski said that other countries need to understand how China exploits the United Front strategies worldwide through more responsive research.  

"China has made its intention brutally clear, so our eyes need to stay open" said Bandurski.

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