Thursday, February 19, 2009

China plans media empire to boost image

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

BEIJING — China, known for its tight control of people and the news, wants to soften its image around the world and is ready to spend big bucks on a media empire to do that.

Plans include creating what amounts to a Chinese CNN, a 24-hour English-language news network possibly based in Singapore or elsewhere outside China, within 12 months, say media advisers to the government.

People's Daily, the voice of China's ruling Communist Party, is preparing to launch an English-language newspaper in the next few months, says Zhang Nanyi, an editor at the new paper. The state broadcaster is hiring staff for channels in Arabic and Russian, the TV network's party chief, Zhang Haige, told People's Daily.

China's government "feels it has major problems communicating with the West," says Yu Guoming, the journalism school dean at Renmin University in Beijing, who has advised Chinese officials on the media push and says plans are moving ahead. "They need new channels of communication, with more balance and diverse views than in existing Chinese media. They are aware that the old methods of propaganda won't work."

The cost of this media drive awaits final approval but is estimated at $4.7 billion to $6.6 billion, according to reports by the South China Morning Post and Reuters. Several government agencies contacted by USA TODAY declined to comment.

China's leaders "are still deciding when to start the new channel, but they will definitely do it soon," says Steven Dong, director of the Global Journalism Institute at Beijing's Tsinghua University. The channel will build on the growing number of bureaus of the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which has been lobbying for five years to expand into broadcasting, says Dong, who advises the government on media strategy.

The government "has thought about this for a long time, and became more confident after the Olympics" in August, he says. The successful staging of the Games "persuaded the government to provide more money" to support these expansion plans.

Questions remain about whether China can ease its rigid control to allow the free flow of information about Asian news around the world. For example, last week's major fire at an unfinished 44-story luxury hotel adjoining China Central Television's new headquarters got scant mention in China's newspapers — or on CCTV, even though the broadcaster's fireworks display sparked the inferno.

"Who made this stupid decision not to show coverage?" asks journalism professor Li Xiguang of Beijing's Tsinghua University. "In the time of the Internet, this really damages CCTV. The backfire is bigger than the fire."

Li welcomes the move toward better news coverage but notes that China has two major hurdles — a "great shortage of good journalists" and the urge to control.

China also plans an aggressive marketing campaign of its TV programs next month in Cannes, France, says Rowan Simons, director of a media consultant group in Beijing. Among the programs is The Story of Bruce Lee, China's top-rated drama in 2008.

Simons doubts that the new TV channel or newspaper "will be different from current media," because they are "the mouthpiece of the party."

For Shanghai lawyer Wu Dong, CCTV equals "brainwashing." Wu was among 22 Chinese academics and lawyers who signed an open letter last month calling on viewers to boycott the network, which had cut away from live coverage of President Obama's inaugural speech after he mentioned communism.

Wu says he is angry at CCTV's lack of coverage of last year's tainted milk scandal. "If the government wants to influence the international audience through these new media, we cannot use the old methods," Wu says.

"The government must list truth as the No. 1 principle of news," he says. "We must follow the international, universal rules, like CNN or the BBC."

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OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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