China’s efforts to build its “soft power” have been in the news over the last few months. So far none of the coverage of the media strategy for soft power has discussed what may be the fatal flaw in the government’s strategy-the media efforts are almost entirely focused on declining media like television, radio and print.
Not only has there been limited emphasis by the Chinese government on using the Internet to further soft power, but there are also major structural and cultural issues that make it extremely difficult for China to push its soft power agenda over the Internet. China has planned the soft power effort as a multi-decade effort, but the lack of effective products for the medium of future generations may doom the government’s efforts.
Can you really win hearts and minds when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, Youtube and Twitter, among the most popular Internet services globally?
First, some background. This Sinica Podcast-Dimensions of China’s Soft Power-and this story in the Washington Post by John Pomfret-From China’s mouth to Texans’ ears: Outreach includes small station in Galveston-are both excellent primers on the media aspects of China’s soft power push. And today Professor David Shambaugh, one of the top American scholars on China, has an Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune-China Flexes Its Soft Power. He lays out many of the measures China has launched to further its soft power:
[The] State Council Information Office is coordinating China’s media and exchange organizations to “go out” (zou chuqu) and establish a foothold in the international media environment and think-tank world.
The Chinese government is investing a reported $8.7 billion in 2009-2010 in its “external publicity work” — primarily on the “Big Four”: China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), Xinhua News Agency and the China Daily newspaper — while media executives and opinion shapers from various countries are being brought to China for “familiarization” tours.
All four of these external media outlets have had major makeovers in recent months, all intended to give a less propagandistic face to the world. Foreigners now anchor news broadcasts; op-ed pages are becoming more serious; radio programs are more diversified; Web sites are more informative; and newspapers are publishing more investigative stories.
Some specific efforts include Xinhua TV now operating a 24 hour news channel that is trying to imitate Al Jazeera; CCTV News is trying to compete with CNN and BBC; CRI is buying more air time in a number of AM and FM radio markets in the United States and Europe, while broadcasting directly into Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. CCTV now broadcasts six international channels in five languages and claims a total global audience of about 125 million.
Some provincial television stations (Chongqing, Shanghai and Hunan) also seek a niche in the foreign broadcast market. China has also funded a series of English and Chinese language television stations abroad, such as Blue Ocean Network (BON TV) and Great Wall TV in the United States.
Xinhua News Agency is penetrating deeply into the developing world, becoming the principal source of news for people in Africa. Xinhua also sees a particular target of opportunity with the main Western news wires (AP, UPI, Thomson Reuters). Xinhua’s strategy is to file mainly descriptive news reports, unfiltered with Chinese political perspective, and to develop a clientele by marketing a cheaper news report than the big Western wire services.
Currently, Xinhua has 80,000 paying institutional subscribers, which produces a strong revenue stream, but also provides a source of news and information to publics in the developing world where there are precious few domestic sources. Xinhua has 400 correspondents posted in 117 bureaus around the world, with plans to add 10 more by 2012 and to grow to 180 by 2020.
These are very impressive and expensive plans. China is leveraging the media channels and distribution mechanisms it understands, and hiring, no doubt at great expense, western old media hands as consultants. But as Google and Facebook and its 500m users have shown, the future influencers globally are increasingly online.
Google’s withdrawal from China will have a lasting impact on China’s soft power efforts. As I told the New York Times soon after Google’s withdrawal:
“The Chinese are very serious about pushing their soft-power agenda,” Bill Bishop…said Tuesday. “Google just put a big hole in that sales pitch, and I think they know that.”
There are no domestic Chinese Internet firms that have a shot at developing the global impact of a Facebook, Google or even Twitter. First, the language barrier is a real issue; maybe the Confucius Institutes will eventually teach decent Chinese to millions, but that will take decades and even then there will still be vastly more people outside of China more capable of reading English than Chinese.
Second, none of the top Chinese Internet firms-Baidu, Tencent, Sina, Sohu, Shanda, Netease-have either the DNA or the credibility to succeed materially in major overseas markets. In most markets they will face the same kinds of difficulties that Western Internet firms face in China. They may gain share, especially in gaming, in parts of the developing world, but not in any significant way that would have a meaningful impact on the overall soft power goals.
China’s soft power push is likely a boon to western media consultants, cable channel and radio station owners, and advertising sales people, but is the currently strategy flawed to the extent that worries about China’s media soft power efforts are overblown?
Professor Shambaugh, who also makes no mention of the Internet in China’s soft power plans, concludes his Op-Ed with the following:
No matter how well resourced the (state) messenger is and how much the message is massaged, it is still reality that will play the main role in shaping China’s image around the world.
And when it comes to the Internet, the reality is that China has a poor image and a weak product offering for most global netizens.
Note: If you are interested in more in-depth reading about China’s soft efforts, please see the following:
China Media Project-Li Changchun on the media and China’s “global influence”
People’s Daily-How to improve China’s soft power?
Harvard Kennedy School-Joseph Nye on Smart Power
Please tell me what you think in the comments.
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