China's voice is about to get louder all around the world
Shaped like a sharpened pencil jutting into the sky, the building in Beijing that houses Xinhua was designed to symbolise the news agency's role as the voice of the state.
That voice is about to get louder as Xinhua goes beyond the power of the written word and onto the airwaves. It intends to beam cultural programmes and TV news, all with a distinctly Chinese point of view, using television stations from New Delhi to Detroit to Dar Es Salaam.
Building a broadcast network and breaking the 'monopoly and verbal hegemony of the West are important missions that the (communist) party has conferred on us,' Li Congjun , Xinhua's president, said at an annual Xinhua gathering last year.
Xinhua launched a 24-hour Chinese TV channel in January, followed by a round-the-clock English-language channel in July. It has been busy hiring staff, shopping for TV stations abroad and looking for potential local and foreign shareholders.
The news agency's global initiative is part of a broader move by China to use so-called soft power to extend its influence around the world, while giving itself an image makeover, or at least a touch-up. And China is putting its money where it wants its mouth to be: the numbers have not been officially confirmed but it is widely believed that the party's central propaganda department has given Xinhua and two other official media organs, CCTV and People's Daily, 10 billion yuan (HK$11.63 billion) each to expand abroad.
CCTV has been China's official TV broadcaster inside the country and abroad. But to inject competition, the government pushed Xinhua to start broadcasting overseas. To compete, CCTV hopes to have 50 offices open in two years' time, up from just 19 last year. By 2012 CCTV plans to offer 11 channels in seven languages.
'China is trying every means, every possibility to raise its voice,' says Tian Zhihui, an associate professor at the Communication University of China. 'The country's image is not improving as it is rising to be an important economy. When foreigners think of China they don't have a favourable impression.'
The torch relay ahead of the Beijing 2008 Olympics was a trigger point. As the relay wound its way around the globe, it was dogged in many cities by protesters against China's polices in Tibet and other human-rights issues. The Olympics was supposed to be China's moment to shine, but Beijing felt its side of the story was drowned out.
'The torch was resisted from London to Paris to the Americas,' said Tian. 'Beijing was taught a lesson on the importance' of being heard.
Xinhua's new network is named China Xinhua News Network Corporation, or CNC. Content of both the Chinese- and English-language channels is a mix of domestic and international news, business reports and lifestyle programmes. International news accounts for about 70 per cent of CNC's English-television programming and is expected to rise gradually to 80 per cent. CNC also plans eventually to broadcast in French, Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian.
The new network is piggy-backing off Xinhua's already established newsgathering network of 140 bureaus outside China; 60 more bureaus abroad are planned.
'We are still an infant,' said Mi Ligong, director general of CNC's English TV station and a former Xinhua correspondent in Australia. 'But we want to be like CNN or BBC.'
The point, he said, was that 'now some reports concerning China are not telling the facts. We want to utter our own voice in the world.'
CNC has about 100 of its own staff, and wants to hire more. 'I just did interviews with a few candidates,' Mi said, 'but it's not easy to find talent.'
The Arab world's Al- Jazeera has been something of a model for China's state media, said David Bandurski, a China analyst at the University of Hong Kong's journalism school. In just a few years, the Qatar-based satellite channel has become widely recognised. 'This is what China wants to do,' he said.
Unlike Al-Jazeera, though, which has hired veteran international TV journalists, CNC's staff must work within government constraints, says Qiao Mu , director of the International Communication Research Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University. As for CNC's English channel, the 'programmes are just an English version of traditional Xinhua propaganda', said Qiao.
A CNC brochure says that the signal of Xinhua TV news will cover nearly 100 countries and regions by 2014 and aims to have 'global influence' by 2020. To attain that distribution goal, Mi said CNC would buy stations overseas to show its programmes. 'Acquisitions are under negotiation,' he said.
The preliminary plan is to set up at least 34 so-called regional TV stations in the next two years, including five in Africa, where China is aggressively expanding its economic presence.
Both the English and the Chinese channels are available on the internet and on satellite TV, and Mi said CNC was also accessible on iPhones and iPads. The Chinese channel is on cable TV in Hong Kong and Macau. But CNC has not found local partners to carry its shows on cable in the US.
CNC is looking for private investors both domestic and foreign, though Xinhua will hold 51 per cent of the TV venture. Making money, however, is not a top priority considering the government is bankrolling CNC. 'There is only one goal,' said a state-media insider in Beijing, and that is 'to enlarge China's influence'.
For content providers, presentation has been a problem in the past, said Kristian Kender, research director of China Media Monitor Intelligence, a Beijing-based consulting concern. For example, he said, 'in a typical Chinese documentary an expert may sit there and keep talking for 10 minutes; this kind of programming doesn't work in the West.'
Presentation issues aside, the real problem is CNC is 'still state-censored', said Bandurski. 'Under the party's control, the media is the party's media.'
One Beijing media watcher cites the lack of coverage of this summer's wage disputes in Guangdong province as evidence CNC has 'to listen to the orders' from above.
And Qiao points to Liu Xiaobo , the jailed dissident who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
CNC 'didn't report it at all,' he said. (Beijing restricted online discussion and Western TV reports of Liu's win.)
But Mi counters that what CNC's viewers really wanted to know was 'Beijing's response' to the Nobel news so 'we reported what the Foreign Ministry said, twice, but every time, we mentioned that the prize went to Liu'.