Xinhua News Agency

Beijing can't hide its ink-stained fingerprints

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am

The mainland put on two contrasting displays of its might last week. Off Qingdao, the navy paraded before the world's media even if, in a sign that the PLA's new openness only goes so far, it chose not to show off its latest generation of nuclear-powered submarines. But perhaps the more significant demonstration of Beijing's determination to project its power beyond its borders came with the launch of the English-language edition of the Global Times.

While newspapers around the rest of the world are closing, or slashing budgets, Beijing is stepping up its efforts to counter what it regards as the often negative image of China abroad. It plans to do so by boosting the English-language sector of the mainland media. A US edition of China Daily, the bland broadsheet that is the official English mouthpiece of the government, was launched earlier this year. Meanwhile, Xinhua is setting up an English-language TV station that will complement CCTV 9, the English channel of the state broadcaster.

Yet it is the arrival of an English version of the Global Times that signifies Beijing wants to up the ante in the propaganda war with the west. A popular tabloid affiliated with the People's Daily, it is best known for its sometimes hysterical responses to any overseas criticism of the mainland.

But changing the west's long-ingrained perceptions about the mainland is easier said than done, especially when the vehicle supposed to be doing that is firmly under the control of the Communist Party's propaganda department. Their fingerprints are all over the Global Times, indicated by the fact that, like every other newspaper, its front pages were dominated by the navy's show of strength.

Employing the officials of the propaganda department to try and change the way the west sees China is as counterproductive as a mainland TV manufacturer hiring Jackie Chan to advertise their products. Both paranoid and inept, the propaganda officials displayed their customary lack of nous last week by blocking access to stories on western media websites about the 10th anniversary of the banning of the Falun Gong movement.

Actions like that are precisely the reason why the foreign press are sceptical about Beijing's motives on almost every subject. And it's not just the complete lack of freedom of information on the mainland that riles western journalists. It's the unconvincing excuses, or plain lies, used to justify preventing reporters from covering sensitive stories.

And who is likely to trust the Global Times, a newspaper so obviously state-controlled that it features absolutely no advertising, the lifeblood of all media? But then, with the party as its proprietor, it has no need to make a profit.

It is astonishing that authorities have not grasped that the lack of a free media is why people treat Beijing's pronouncements with suspicion. Until that changes, it will make no difference how many newspapers and TV stations the government launches. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter how it is packaged.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist