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China’s global media strategy: Xuanchuan ≠ Propaganda
This newsletter is penned by Zhao Wencai, a contributor to the Beijing Channel
For the West, China’s efforts to strengthen publicity overseas have triggered fresh worries. Some argue that China is conducting nationalist propaganda by reshaping the international media landscape, which may constitute a threat to the traditional discourse system and could be used by Chinese authorities to export ideologies and values.
Do these worries and arguments have merit, what is the real purpose of China’s publicity campaign, how should China’s increasing media presence be rightly viewed, and does it constitute a threat? In this issue, your host did some interviews with China’s media professionals and scholars, hoping to offer you some inspirations and new ideas in regard to this topic.
Question 1: Is China indeed reinforcing its foreign-oriented Propaganda in recent years?
-- It is more accurate to say that China has been strengthening its foreign-oriented Xuanchuan (宣传) or publicity for a long period of time, rather than just a few years, and Xuanchuan in China is a quite different concept from so-called Propaganda in the West.
Before answering this question, Zhou Qingan, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communications of China’s Tsinghua University, said it should be pointed out that there is a deep-rooted misunderstanding in the meaning of Propaganda or Xuanchuan between China and the Western world.
While the Chinese expression Xuanchuan is typically translated into Propaganda, the implications of the word Propaganda are quite different from those of Xuanchuan in Chinese.
In the West, Propaganda is taboo. It refers to information, especially inaccurate information, a political organization publishes or broadcasts in order to influence people. But in the Chinese context, Xuanchuan is a rather neutral word, just representing a process of offering information and promotion. This is the reason that in China, from official documents to daily chats, the word Xuanchuan is frequently used, but generated no dissatisfaction or rejection within the Chinese society.
As a result, when China talks about enhancing Xuanchuan, it does not mean Propaganda, but rather an information-sharing process aiming to let more audience know something about certain subjects.
Now let’s go back to our question. Truth be told, from Chairman Mao Zedong to the current Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s leaders have been constantly stressing the importance of Xuanchuan, national publicity more specifically, and persistently strengthening its efforts to build stronger Xuanchuan capacities. China’s media have been boosting their global presence as early as the 1950s. In 1955, Chairman Mao once gave clear instructions to Xinhua News Agency, China’s leading media covering international news, encouraging it to expand its global presence.
(“Xinhua should strive for prosperous development, send our own reporters all over the world as soon as possible to express our own voice, cover news of the whole globe, and make our own voice heard worldwide.” Mao said.)
Therefore, it is more accurate to say that China has been strengthening its foreign-oriented Xuanchuan or publicity for a long time, rather than just a few years, and Xuanchuan in China is a different concept from the so-called Propaganda in the West, Professor Zhou said.
Question 2: What are the goals of China’s efforts to boost its media outlets and news reporting globally?
-- Showing the world a real and comprehensive image about China, and responding to concerns, charges and accusations are the main goals behind Beijing's efforts to boost its media outlets and news reporting globally, which also means that China is still in a situation of passive response in the international discourse space.
Many are anxious that China may use its increasingly powerful media capacity to manipulate public opinions and attitudes toward the socialist country, forcing others to accept its values and ideologies. But according to Professor Zhou, seeking values-driven confrontation with other countries has never been listed as a goal of China’s external publicity.
Compared with mind manipulation in other countries, explaining itself to the world is a more urgent task for socialist China.
As a policy advisor to China’s Information Office of State Council, Zhou has been following and researching China’s publicity policies. “While China has been gradually strengthening its capacities in foreign communications, the country, if judged from a result-oriented perspective, is still at a disadvantage in the global media landscape,” Zhou said.
Indeed, being a socialist country means that China has to do more explanation work for everything it does in the international arena, and only by doing so, can it be possible to dispel doubts and hostilities from other countries.
For decades, China has constantly been “demonized” by media in the Western world, which has further intensified China’s thirst for its own “international media” which could, as President Xi Jinping said in 2018, show a real, three-dimensional, and comprehensive China to the world (向世界展现真实、立体、全面的中国).
Lu Jiafei, a veteran international correspondent from China’s state news agency, told your host that China now has become the world’s second-largest economy, an indispensable participating part of the global system, but it is still powerless to show and convince the world what a real China is. A case in point is the reporting about COVID-19. Without any solid evidence, some world-known media outlets and politicians groundlessly accused China of creating and spreading the virus, bringing tremendous damage to China’s international image.
So, showing the world a real and comprehensive image of China, and responding to concerns, charges and accusations are the main goals behind Beijing's efforts to boost its media outlets and news reporting globally, which also means that China is still in a situation of passive response in the international discourse space.
China’s top-level leaders have a clear understanding of such a reality. President Xi Jinping said in 2016 that “at present, the problem of ‘being scolded’ (by the West) has not been fundamentally solved. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the weak international communication capacity. China's overall national strength and international status are constantly rising, and the international community has paid more attention to China than ever before. However, China's image in the world is still shaped mainly by others rather than by itself. Sometimes, we still find ourselves in a situation where we cannot say what is right and what we say cannot be spread. There is a "deficit" of information flow in and out, a "mismatch" between the real image of China and China in the West’s subjective impression ... we need to make great efforts to strengthen the capacity of international communication and increase the international influence of the Chinese discourse so that the world can clearly hear China's voice.
Question 3: Why is China getting increasingly assertive, even aggressive in its foreign-communication activities?
-- China’s publicity campaign is like a spring -- the greater the pressure from the outside world is, the more assertive China’s actions will be in boosting its foreign-oriented publicity.
For such an argument, there are two reasons. First, China is indeed getting more confident in its growing strength, both politically and economically. As noted above, China’s leadership knows that there is a discrepancy between the real image of China and its media image in the West. In light of China’s growing strength, it is reasonable and understandable for the country to fight for the right to speak out and to be heard, and to build a more positive and objective international image.
Secondly, some of China’s “aggressive” actions are the instinctive responses to the West’s increasing hostilities in recent years. From a historical dimension, it can be found that the more fiercely the West attacks on China’s image, the more assertive China’s actions become to boost its publicity capacity. For example, in the 1990s, Chinese foreign publicity underwent a particularly significant strategic shift and culminated with the establishment of a series of public institutions like the State Council Information Office, which actually were reactions to tough external political and media environment in the 1980s.
When the West and China were on good terms, China’s foreign publicity strategy would be less “aggressive”. So, to criticize China for being aggressive, the West must first understand that China's publicity campaign is like a spring, the higher the external pressure is, the more active China will be in boosting its foreign-oriented publicity.
To some extent, some Western media’s biased reporting on China has as a catalyst for China’s media expansion.
Question 4: Should the West be worried about China’s increasing media presence?
-- Some Western media may not realize it, but if one day, most Chinese people believe that the Western media are neither objective nor credible, the Western media will lose their leverage to win Chinese people’s attention and trust. This challenge for the Western media is more urgent than Chinese media’s overseas expansion.
According to Professor Zhou, compared with China’s media expansion, the decline of credibility and trust among Chinese audiences is a more urgent problem facing the Western media, which are now being questioned more in China than their Chinese counterparts are in the Western world.
“Some Western media may not realize it, but if one day, most Chinese people believe that the Western media are neither objective nor credible, the Western media will lose their leverage to win people’s attention and trust. For example, when you watch BBC’s interview in China, a completely different attitude of the interviewees from before can be felt. More and more Chinese people are no longer have faith in the so-called journalistic professionalism of the Western media.
As Professor Zhou found, the Western media have relatively high acceptance among the post-70s, post-80s, and earlier audiences in China, but gradually, they are losing their attraction to the post-90s and post-00s Chinese audience. These young people are clearer than their parents of how media outlets operate and how they can be used to shape people’s minds. The latest case in point is that BBC is being widely ridiculed online in China for its obviously biased reports on Xinjiang.
“The Western media does not perform better than Chinese media does, even though the Chinese media had been accused by the West counterparts of being illiberal, unobjective, and unneutral,” said Zhou. The crack of credibility poses a more urgent and agonizing challenge to the Western media than Chinese media’s overseas expansion does.