The Daydream of Xinhua News Agency

(Translated by krizcpec, copyedited by Michelle BUCHANAN)

The Chinese government has been feeling quite satisfied with its “great external propaganda plan” lately, for a few reasons: Earlier this year, the BBC had to end its Mandarin broadcast because of insufficient funds; the question of whether the Voice of America Chinese broadcast can continue remains uncertain; and only [Xinhua News Agency], with the full support of the Chinese government, is spending a considerable amount of money attempting to take over the [Chinese] media market, just at the time when Western media is being forced to leave.

This pride in their success is expressed in two articles. The first one, “Toward a New World Media Order (构 建国际舆论新秩序),” presented in both English and Chinese, was published in The Wall Street Journal by Xinhua News Agency president, Li Congjun, on June 2, 2011; the second one was published in Oriental Outlook on June 23, 2011, and entitled, “On Stage and Behind-the-scene of the Passing of BBC Mandarin Broadcast (BBC 中文广播消逝的台前幕后).” The second article, which, by-and-large, conveyed a sense of Schadenfreude, revealing the petty-mindedness of the author, has little value for discussion. The first article, however, is nothing short of issuing to the world a declaration of China’s ambition in its “great external propaganda plan” via The Wall Street Journal. The Chinese government’s nouveau riche desire to lead the current world media empire leaps off the page.

Let’s have a look at what “Li Congjun” has said. (And I use quotation marks to enclose Li’s name because in recent years a new practice to publish political viewpoints under the names of other government officials has emerged. People do this to test the waters. If trouble results, it gives them room to maneuver. Hence, an article by Li Congjun may contain views from people other than Li himself. Knowing this is vital to understanding this article and other similar articles, like those by Zhu Chenghu.) “Li Congjun” wants to build “a new order in international mass communication.” This can be read to mean that he, and others, find serious problems in the existing order. And a major problem, as outlined, is that, “the ‘bridge’ linking modern information flow and the international media is crumbling, in a sense, due to a lack of fair ‘contracting’ and ‘gaming.’”

While listing the deadly flaws of international mass communication, “Li Congjun” seems to have forgotten that in the international community it is China that has, of all countries, the poorest national credibility. The facts to back this up are readily available. For instance, China has, to date, signed twenty-two international conventions relating to human rights and yet complies to almost none of them; because of suspicion of financial fraud, one-hundred odd China-related stocks listed in the US market have recently been suspended or blacklisted. And, the cause of what “Li” mentions in the article, that being that “the ‘bridge’ linking modern information flow and the international media is crumbling, in a sense, due to a lack of fair ‘contracting’ and ‘gaming’,” is the control of the media and restriction of the Internet, not by the West, but by China itself. It is China’s control of the media and restriction of the Internet that is cutting off information flow. (The openness of the Western media is illustrated by the fact that Li Congjun can publish the declaration in the Wall Street Journal.)

“Li Congjun” goes on to say that he wants to “start a constructive reform through rule changes to rebuild the bridge of communication and let the media industry play a more active role in promoting the advancement of human civilization.” In an imitation of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Cardinal Principles, Li brings forth four principles to “guide changes in the value system”,namely “fairness”, “all-win,” inclusion”, and “responsibility.” At first glance, these words sound great. But when taking into consideration the actual differences between the Chinese state media, which serves as the government’s mouthpiece, and the free media of the West, we must realize that there are many problems with these words.
The Western media, including those in the U.S., have two fundamental dispositions. Firstly, they stay away from political power so as to maintain their functions of criticizing and supervising the government. Joseph Pulitzer described the social functions of Western media practitioners in a famous saying that suggested if a country is a sailing boat in the sea, then the journalist is the observer on the bow, he should monitor everything in the endless sea, pay attention to the unpredictable things and shallow reefs, and give warning in a timely manner. Secondly, journalists are encouraged to seek out the truth and alert the public to the truth even when it is ugly. Good journalists tend to pride themselves on being muckrakers.

These two dispositions are exactly what the Chinese state media wholeheartedly rejects. The characteristics of the Chinese state media are the antitheses of that of the Western media. To begin with, all state media in China, right from the day they come into being, serve but one purpose–to be the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. And their relationship with the government is that they are under the supervision of the government; they regard touting the government’s works and policies as their raison d’etre. And the Chinese media do not seek out the truth in their reports, which are highly selective and whitewashing. Throughout the world, it is only China that creatively categorizes news as “positive” and “negative”. Whatever is detrimental to the image of the party and the government is classified as negative news and must not be reported, not even if it is a daily occurrence. Should any journalists cover stories of this type, they get warnings, or worse, get booted out of the industry. They may even be jailed.

An incident that shows how the news media industry in China is dissimilar to that of the rest of the world took place as I was writing this article. Fan Hong, a professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, was invited to give advice on improving the image of the city of Dongguan. Her first suggestion was that it was crucial to guard against journalist’s negative reportage of the city. At this symposium she requested that all reporters leave the venue as she was worried that there would be selective coverage and smearing of her talk. So, was it that her lecture on journalism was instead on mass communication control?

Since economic reform, China’s values and practices have proven difficult to integrate into the outside world. This difficulty in integration is particularly true when it comes to the Chinese media. The government’s strict control forces the news agencies to flatter the powers that be, to tell lies, to make cliched remarks, and to say things of little consequence. This is incompatible with the basic principles of the international news media. China’s “great external propaganda plan” produces nothing more than propaganda materials that are simply more sophisticated than they were before. Yet, however sophisticated they may be, propaganda materials remain propaganda materials. Few buy it. People like “Li Congjun” ignore the fact that the Chinese government is behaving in ways that completely violate universal values with the result that the country’s “great external propaganda plan” is seen as an alien in the global media empire. Instead, they find this order in international mass communication to be unjust, unreasonable, directly affecting their own sustainability, and responsible for some of the world’s conflicts and problems today. With the allowance provided them by a government which disregards its citizen’s livelihood and plunders wealth from them, they think they can change the rules of the global media empire.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let Xinhua News Agency rule the earth.” Such a daydream has since encouraged the Chinese government agency. Nowadays, judging both by the size of Xinhua News Agency and the number of people it employs, the agency has become the largest of its kind in the world. With the advantage of being allowed to spend huge amount of money, the agency’s propaganda campaign is targeting every corner on earth. Yet, propaganda is propaganda, without the backing of power, the agency cannot force the world to buy into its lies. It’s predictable that China’s “great external propaganda plan”, with Xinhua News Agency as its main body, can neither change the rules of the world’s media nor obtain the credibility that media should have. The contribution it has to the world will only be in providing new jobs for unemployed foreign journalists and giving opportunities to those domestic media practitioners who want to emigrate.