He Qinglian on China's "Great External Propaganda" Campaign
The Chinese government has long believed that the “right to have one’s say” is not fairly distributed around the world, with 80 percent of news and information reporting monopolized by Western media.1 Under the government’s “Great External Propaganda Plan,” which aims at promoting and vying for China’s right to have its say [in the international community], China has spared no expense to continuously nurture various external propaganda media. Since the American economic crisis began in 2008, The Christian Science Monitor and several other mainstream Western media outlets have shut down newspapers and magazines one after the other in order to cut costs. The Chinese government feels that this is the perfect opportunity to expand the presence of Chinese media around the world. If the Southern Media Group’s huge bid to purchase Newsweek had not made Americans feel the threat, then the plan by the state-run Xinhua News Agency to set up its North American headquarters in Times Square, next door to such world famous news organizations as Reuters, The New York Times, News Corp., and others, surely succeeded in making the American media feel that “the Chinese are coming.”2 “While our media empires are melting away like the Himalayan glaciers, China’s are expanding,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York and a former dean of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley. “They want to get every hallmark of the world of credible journalism they can, and being in New York City, in an iconic location, is part of that.”3
Foreign observers obviously have not yet realized that the strategy for the Great External Propaganda Plan being promoted by China has already turned into a plan to localize the external propaganda media. Its goal is to hire foreign reporters and editors in target countries to package China’s external propaganda products to look like normal media products in order to make their infiltration increasingly difficult for the audience to perceive.
Beginning in 2007, Xinhua began to adjust its overseas strategy. Xinhua has 1,450 overseas clients4 and 120 overseas bureaus, which it plans to increase to 200.5 These overseas bureaus will carry out the localization strategy, mainly to recruit local journalists for newsgathering. The U.S. government is already paying close attention to Xinhua’s hiring of American employees. In November 2009, U.S. government’s Open Source Center issued a press advisory which said that, since July of that year, it had observed the bylines of five Western journalists filing Xinhua English language items.6 In addition to setting up websites in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian, and other languages, Xinhua is speeding up its preparations to offer mobile news services.7
Matthew Rusling was the first American journalist to be hired by Xinhua, and he began working for the news agency in its Washington bureau in May 2009. Prior to working for Xinhua, he had worked in Japan and South Korea for four years, and had written articles for The New York Times, USA Today, and other mainstream American publications. He was also once the assistant editor of a small defense newspaper in the United States.8 The scope of Rusling’s reporting is relatively broad, and he often reports on hot topics such as U.S. foreign policy and the economic recovery.
Xinhua originally had three bureaus in the United States: at the United Nations, in Washington, and in Los Angeles. Recently, it has added three more, in Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston, with plans to set up a North American headquarters. The six bureaus all use local journalists. Xinhua’s Canada bureau has also begun to hire local journalists. Ge Xiangwen, Xinhua’s Washington bureau chief, said that the agency will hire even more local journalists in the future. In accordance with the step-by-step promotion of the localization strategy, Xinhua’s motto has become “Disseminate China, report the world.”9
On July 1, 2009, Xinhua launched an English-language TV news channel. Prior to this, China had started several English-language newspapers targeting foreign readers. In August 2008, China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊), published by the China News Service, introduced its English-language edition titled “News China.” At the end of February 2009, China Daily introduced its North American edition and at the same time established a Washington bureau, with plans to distribute German, French, and other foreign language editions around the world. In addition to its English channels, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) has also launched Arabic and Russian channels. The way it builds its editorial teams is similar to that of Xinhua’s: recruit from the international community. According to Zhang Haige, Party secretary for CCTV, the station’s English-language channels long ago brought in foreign experts, and in the future it will continue to improve its overseas bureaus through a localization strategy, hiring local talent in the countries and regions where it has bureaus.10 According to CCTV’s thinking, by 2012 it will have established an international position with 11 channels broadcasting in seven different foreign languages.11
At a time when the Western media are being pounded thin by the Internet and the financial crisis, China’s demand for journalists around the world speaking different languages is providing some of those unemployed in the media with job opportunities. On April 20, 2009, the English edition of the Global Times (环球时报), was launched, becoming the second Chinese state-run English-language newspaper, after China Daily. According to sources, as early as December 2008, Global Times began to search for an editor-in-chief, editors, and reporters among the foreign journalists working in Beijing, hiring 60 Englishspeaking journalists and editors, 10 foreign experts, and five managers. Many English-speaking foreign journalists in Beijing received invitations offering very competitive salaries as a bargaining chip. One foreign journalist who applied was told, “All reporters and editors will receive more than 100,000 yuan [$14,865] a year; senior reporters and editors can get 300,000 yuan [$44,590] plus housing.”12 Even more important, the Global Times had no pressure to be economically efficient when it was launched, with the losses for the first year projected at 20 million yuan [$2.97 million].13
Western journalists and those researching the Chineselanguage media within China were all doubtful that these state-run English newspapers with huge funding could succeed. These doubts on the one hand are due to the fact that the Chinese media are controlled by the government and so lack credibility, and on the other hand because of the content of the reporting. In March 2010, the “Ask Alessandro” column in the Global Times’ Beijing Metro edition was seen to have reached a record low in terms of poor taste. A Wall Street Journal article said, “It read like a printed version of the movie ‘Borat,’ but without its comedy. The column was filled with hateful stereotypes of foreigners and sexism, and full of nonsense and vulgarities, as if it were doing its best to offend every person within the space of 400 words.”14
Before the phrase “Great External Propaganda” entered the Chinese vocabulary, China’s external propaganda work already had a history of more than 50 years. Prior to the mid-1990s, the external propaganda media had seen a period of decline. From 2003 onward, they again became a focus of the Chinese government. Since 2008, China’s external propaganda media began their great overseas expansion.
The organization considered the flagship of external propaganda work is the elite China Foreign Languages Publishing and Distribution Administration, also known as China International Publishing Group (CIPG) or China Foreign Languages Administration. It was established on the same day that the Communist Party of China (CPC) began its regime, on October 1, 1949. At the time it was called the International News Bureau of the Central People’s Government’s General Office of News (中央人民政府新闻总署国际新闻局) but changed to its current name in 1952. It continues to be the state-run agency with the most resources for external propaganda, publishing more than 2,000 books in 20 foreign languages a year, 21 print periodicals, and 25 online publications. The above-mentioned publications are distributed by the China International Publishing Trade Corporation to more than 180 countries and regions.15
The intended audiences of China’s external propaganda are primarily readers in the target countries. In order to make foreign readers accept China’s external propaganda publications as a window and bridge to understanding China, external propaganda workers racked their brains and devoted much effort in research. In 2003, the “Three Get-Close-To Principles of External Propaganda” were established: get close to the thinking habits of foreign audiences; get close to the information needs of foreign audiences; get close to the reality of China’s development.16 The implementation of the Three Get-Close-To Principles at the time pulled the external propaganda work back from the brink of death.
According to the memoirs of Huang Youyi, deputy director and editor-in-chief of the CIPG, after the June Fourth Incident of 1989, the general public in Western countries developed a strong resistance to China, making this period the first harsh winter since the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 for publishing and distributing Chinese books overseas. During this difficult period, James Peck, a leftist working in American publishing, appeared. His work not only alleviated the problems faced by China’s external propaganda work, but also provided a model for China’s reliance on “insiders” in Western society.17
James Peck was originally a senior editor at Random House and the director of the department responsible for cooperation with China. Many years earlier he had studied with John King Fairbank at Harvard University, and later became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He joined Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star over China, in participating in the American intellectual movement to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Afterwards, he and other prominent Americans in the publishing industry established Meizhong Tushu Shejishe [U.S.-China Book Design Society] to establish a communications bridge between CIPG and American publishing circles. One of the important results of this cooperation was the joint editing and publication with Yale University Press of a series titled Zhongguo wenhua yu wenming [Culture and Civilization of China]. (This set of books is still presented as an official gift by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.18) Through this series, Peck created a cooperative publishing model for the CIPG, namely, using mainstream channels in the United States to publish and distribute books about China that were jointly authored by prestigious experts and scholars in China and overseas. This model, through continuous improvements, eventually became a new strategy: the localization of external propaganda periodicals, which later evolved into the localization of external propaganda media, a strategy now jointly pursued by Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and other external propaganda media.
When the 2008 Chinese Olympic Torch Relay ran into many protests around the world, the wide-ranging sympathy from the international community for the Tibet protests was an expression of the international community’s criticism and censure of China’s human rights situation. However, the lesson learned by the Chinese government from this experience was not to improve the human rights situation in China, but rather that the influence of China’s voice and culture was not commensurate with its international status. This erroneous assessment resulted in a preposterous strategic decision that as long as money is spent on building international public relations, raising external propaganda work to a systematic and strategic level, and attractively packaging the political value system of Chinese anti-humanitarianism and promoting it internationally, China will succeed in having its say and improving its image.19
According to the thinking of the Chinese government, the first step in the expansion of the Great External Propaganda Strategy is to give priority to expanding the overseas operations of the state media, including the establishment of new media, increasing new offices, and taking in foreign language talents. This expansion primarily relies on China’s existing external propaganda system, which includes Xinhua News Agency, China News Service, China Radio International, CCTV satellite TV, the China Daily, CIPG-affiliated publications, People’s Daily, and others. The plans for the overseas market expansion of the Shanghai Media & Entertainment Group and the Southern Media Group all began after 2008.20
The respective functions of these media are as follows: daily newspapers focus on reporting the news; radio stations emphasize commentaries; TV stations present shows; and magazines (books) provide information. Regarding magazines and books, the role of CIPG cannot be overlooked.
The so-called localization strategy of the external propaganda media includes three aspects:
Let’s first discuss the purpose of hiring foreign experts. Liu Dong, an official of the International Cooperation Department of CIPG, said that in order to make up for the cultural gap between the external propaganda publications and the targeted countries and readers, they, when choosing topics, will regard the foreign experts as representatives of the targeted country and as its first readers, and consider them to have grown up in the same cultural atmosphere as the anticipated readers, possessing the same characteristics as the readers they represent, knowing which topics the people of the country will find interesting, and able to adopt the right style of language enjoyed by that people. In the eyes of the members of the CPC External Propaganda Department, foreign experts, compared to China’s external propaganda reporters, are better able to communicate with the readers in their own country. As a result, CIPG has hired more than 100 external propaganda experts from countries all over the world.25
In addition to having relatively stronger native language writing skills, those chosen must also meet “three conditions: one, they must be fundamentally friendly towards China; two, they must be willing to report about China accurately; and three, they must have journalistic writing experience.” Those external propaganda “experts” who have been rigorously selected by the Chinese government enjoy relatively high pay. Their specialty is to use their own cultural advantage to carry out external propaganda work for the Chinese government. They are working in areas that include books, periodicals, and the Internet to disseminate information abroad, primarily making suggestions regarding topic selection, reporting, editing, design, etc., of the external propaganda periodicals.26
China has issued various supervisory regulations on foreign experts governing the salaries and work of these external propaganda “experts.” Relevant CIPG rules stipulate that, in general, a foreign expert may not be re-hired after five full years of employment.27 However, after five years, if an expert acquires greater understanding of China than when he or she was first hired, and if the Chinese editor and the foreign expert know each other well and have experience in cooperating, the five-year restriction on employment can be relaxed and some experts may receive extended employment.
In Western society, credibility is the media’s life blood. But this is exactly what the Chinese external propaganda media lack. The goal of China’s Great External Propaganda is to create a good image for China. However, a country’s international image is determined by its domestic political and social situations, just as the international image of the United States does not rely on the U.S. Information Agency or the White House spokesperson. Even though China’s Great External Propaganda wields the power of money, the logic of commerce can never replace the logic of culture. Because of the establishment of the Internet, the international community is no stranger to the great degree of corruption within the Chinese government, the extreme disparity between the rich and the poor, the severe environmental pollution and ecological disasters, as well as the government’s violent suppression of social protests. The international community also knows that the Chinese media and the Internet are both under the tight control of the Chinese government and lack credibility. As a result, as long as the Chinese government continues to control the media, the Chinese media’s reporting will continue to be seen as “propaganda,” and will find it very difficult to penetrate mainstream Western society. In a China shrouded in darkness, even if this type of credibility-lacking external propaganda media proliferate, they cannot be relied upon to improve China’s international image.
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