I Watched China’s Overseas Propaganda Network So You Don’t Have To
CGTN makes me sleepy
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
China Global Television Network, a state-owned news network rebranded from the former CCTV News, launched on Dec. 31, 2016. It’s available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic and Russian — and the Chinese government wants you to watch it online for free.
In other words, Beijing wants you to woo you with “soft power” diplomacy —i.e. propaganda — and influence opinion abroad in a manner that suits China’s domestic and foreign policy interests. If you’re in Washington, D.C., you can find vending machines selling copies of China Daily. The rebranded CGTN is the television equivalent.
So I watched it, and now I want to take a nap.
CGTN can be … interminable. David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, called it “baffling” and “probably another misguided venture that will line the pockets of China’s state broadcaster while offering little in the way of globally compelling products.”
I also suspect the network will struggle to gain traction, unlike Russia’s half-cracked, dystopian English language broadcaster RT, which has built a following by blending the political left and right — while aiming squarely with both barrels at the U.S. and European political establishments.
There’s an audience for that. I’m not sure there is one for CGTN.
For instance, CGTN shies away from controversy. It doesn’t appear interested in covering problems governments are neglecting, least of all China’s, although it will tell you all about the problems China is managing on its long march toward moderate and responsible prosperity and … you get the idea.
It’s hard to like CGTN. However, it’s possible to come to understand where it’s coming from and what it reflects about Chinese soft power and so-called “public diplomacy” in the 21st century.
The day CGTN launched, Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping said the channel should “strengthen cultural self-confidence” and “to tell Chinese stories properly … and creating a favorable image of China as a builder of peace in the world, as a contributor to global development, and as a protector of the international order.”
Thus, did you know Chinese contemporary dance is growing and reaching a younger audience? Have you heard about how China is managing urbanization through sound planning in smaller and mid-sized cities? CGTN will tell you. And in case you forgot, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on a five-country visit to Africa.
Bandurski described these stories about state officials — so common on CGTN — as “betraying that all-too-familiar habit state media have of reporting the news as though interesting and significant things are done only by Party and government leaders.”
So, it doesn’t make for the most compelling television. And one reason for this is because the underlying message is situation normal. But to be fair, there are interesting stories such as a piece about a Zambian martial arts demonstration aired on Jan. 8, 2017. Another recent feature focused on MC Tianyou, a 25-year-old livestreamer who makes around $3.6 million per year, and who appeared stunned by his sudden fame.
I can also detect the logic behind CGTN’s anodyne coverage. If you’re a Chinese leader, and you expect China to grow to match or surpass the United States several decades from now, you don’t want to upset the way things are, as that would risk damaging your own rise.
What you might do instead is promote China’s culture and economy to lure everyone else into following your lead, while gradually expanding — in both overt and covert ways — into the South China Sea, Central Asia and Africa.
Now consider CGTN’s coverage of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While RT rejects the concept of fake news, characterizing the term as an attack on “a Russian T.V. channel for reporting on American reality,” one recent CGTN report described fake news as packaged lies that “may have had an impact on the election’s outcome.”
CGTN didn’t blame the Russian government for spreading fake news, although you can find articles on the network’s website citing the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments. Instead, the network followed up with a story about FiB, a Chrome extension developed by four students in the United States designed to detect and filter fake news.
Then the report pivoted to how spreading fake news in China, such as on the WeChat social network, can get you arrested and fined by the government. Not mentioned — China practices one of the most restrictive forms of Internet censorship in the world.
But you can see the difference. China wants to continue on what it perceives as an upward trajectory, and big disruptions or realignments in the global system exacerbated by the Internet, including in the United States, would be a problem.
By comparison, RT’s explicitly stated mission is to challenge the U.S.-led international order — which reflects fears among Russia’s leaders that the West is a threat to Russia and to Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin, specifically. And that’s helped RT build an audience among viewers in the United States and Europe who don’t like their governments, either.
Where is the audience for CGTN? I don’t know, at least in the network’s current form. But the more important question is whether China’s overseas propaganda efforts will change after Donald Trump, who has raised the possibility of a trade war with China, assumes the presidency of the United States.