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Under the Influence: Overseas Chinese-Language Media

October 29, 2010

A media analyst sheds light on the concessions made by Western media companies in exchange for entry into the Chinese market.

Translated by Dušanka Miščević

Just as the world has favored the China market because of the country’s rapid economic growth, the foreign news media have also attached great importance to China’s media market on account of its large population and enormous potential. Yet for the past 30 years the opening and growth of the Chinese economy has not enabled economic development to bring about political democratization. As the Tsinghua University scholar Qin Hui (秦晖) puts it, China’s economic opening and market reform are a process of two-way influence: China is not just being influenced by the West, but also exerting influence upon Western institutions. Namely, the so-called China factor—China’s low human rights advantage—forms a challenge to the social welfare and rights of workers in Western countries; and China’s economic development affects global capitalism. In the same way, China’s news and public opinion marketplace, which is controlled and monopolized by the state, is also influencing Western media companies attempting to enter the China market. Many Western media outlets are paying the price of sacrificing some of their principles in order to gain entry.

The Internet companies Yahoo! and Google both made compromises with the Chinese government in terms of Internet censorship in order to enter China’s market. The international media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who attempted to break into the China market, recently ceded the controlling stake in Star Greater China1—a tactical adjustment after his great effort to enter China was thwarted. Murdoch’s News Corporation had acquired a majority stake in the Hong Kong-based Star TV satellite network in 1993, and had removed BBC World Service Television (now BBC World News) from the network in 1994, pandering to the Chinese government. This move had led to extensive criticism, but such accommodation of the Chinese authorities’ muzzling of the press apparently did not yield the business opportunities for which he had hoped.

Pan-Nationalism

China’s control of the news and state monopoly of the media market render ineffective the business development tactics of the chiefly market-oriented Western media companies that cater to the demands of their target audiences. But the control and monopoly apparently did not stop Western media, such as the BBC, from attempting to penetrate China’s market through commercial channels. For example, various overseas Chinese-language media, such as BBC Chinese and Deutsche Welle’s Chinese service, cannot help falling under the influence of yet another factor in their reporting on China, namely, the ever-growing Chinese pan-nationalism or pan-patriotism.

This transnational pan-nationalism chiefly expresses itself in the increased identification with and even loyalty to the Chinese state on the part of overseas Chinese, in the broad context of China’s ever-increasing economic power, particularly since the Western financial crisis, which has strengthened their confidence in China’s inexorable growth and power. The upsurge of nationalism on the Internet triggered by the support for—as well as the opposition to—the Tibetan protests before and after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games demonstrated that Chinese nationalism directed against the West often goes hand-in-hand with conspiracy theories that the West is anti-China and that the Western media demonize China.

This kind of pan-nationalism can interfere with the judgment of news professionals in their reporting on China and even prevent news organizations from performing their proper functions, which are to promote freedom of information, report the truth, and scrupulously abide by the journalistic principles of independence, fairness, and honesty. The 2008 controversy surrounding opinions expressed by Zhang Danhong (张丹红) of Deutsche Welle’s Chinese-Language Radio Department is a prominent example.

On the eve of the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, Zhang, the deputy director of the Chinese- Language Radio Department at Deutsche Welle, said in an interview with a German TV station that China has lifted 400 million people out of poverty and that this shows that “the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made a bigger contribution to the implementation of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights than any other political force in the world.” Regarding the question of Chinese authorities’ blocking of the websites of Free Tibet and Falun Gong, she said, “You cannot open child pornography or extreme right-wing political party websites in Germany either.”2

Zhang Danhong’s opinions provoked intense criticism among Chinese dissidents and in German political circles. Under the pressure of public opinion, Deutsche Welle suspended Zhang Danhong’s duties in its Chinese-Language Radio Department. An intense debate ensued among the reporters of the Deutsche Welle Chinese-Language Radio Department itself as to whether Deutsche Welle’s Chinese-language reporting on China had displayed Chinese nationalist tendencies and lost its objectivity and neutrality.

Business Logic

In addition to the political leanings factor, the Western Chinese-language media’s reporting on China also suffers from the pressure of commercialization. For a long time, Western news organizations have been under pressure to become commercial, which has put a constant squeeze on genuine news reporting. After the financial crisis developed, this trend has become even more pronounced. Not even the BBC World Service could escape it.

In 2011, the funding for the BBC World Service will be decreased by one-fourth. The broadcast had already cut service in ten languages in 2005, saving £12 million [$18.6 million]. This year, it had to cut an additional £7.7 million [$12 million] in spending due to a funding shortage and a substantial depreciation of the pound.3

Financial pressures and business performance of news organizations are causing news reporting to be treated as a product aimed at the Chinese market. When the number of clicks and audience ratings become the primary standard for measuring a director’s performance, and even if the department in which that broadcaster works can survive layoffs, the fight to have the Chinese authorities lift Internet blocking and stop jamming shortwave broadcasts has direct bearing on the survival and the chance of promotion of any broadcaster who targets Chinese audiences. The BBC World Service management has set a hard target for the BBC’s Chinese-language website and those in other foreign languages to double the number of Internet users within a year and quadruple that of mobile phone customers.

The Self-Censorship Trend

Faced with the internal pressure of click-counting and the external pressure of China’s site-blocking, combined with insufficient human resources, the BBC Chinese- language website department transferred valuable resources to an apolitical webpage that the Chinese authorities could tolerate in order to increase the volume of clicks. With it, BBC went looking for cooperative partners in China, providing Chinese websites with culture and entertainment trivia, thus increasing the number of clicks on the BBC’s Chinese-language website. According to a staff member, in order to avoid angering Chinese authorities, BBC resorted to deleting sensitive contents from its interviews. Wang Weiluo (王维洛), a water conservation expert who lives in Germany, expressed resentment when the part of his 2006 interview in which he criticized Chinese authorities was abridged.

In addition, the BBC’s Chinese-language website has eliminated “The China Forum” (中国丛谈)—the program of in-depth analysis of China’s current affairs that had long been well-received by listeners and readers but viewed with hostility by Chinese authorities. This kind of self-censorship weakens the reporting on and analysis of sensitive political topics, and, to a certain degree, avoids sensitive subjects, such as political dissent and the Falun Gong.

In order to break into the Chinese market and have Chinese authorities lift Internet blocking, the BBC’s senior managers and editors have become product salespersons, repeatedly heading to China on public relations and sales-promotion junkets. At the same time, China’s propaganda and media officials, including embassy diplomats overseas, are treated as legitimate representatives of Chinese consumers and have become the guests of honor at news organizations, exerting influence on the overseas media reporting on China. At a time when Chinese authorities are suppressing freedom of the press and blocking the Internet, BBC executives repeatedly take part in various foreign propaganda activities organized by the Chinese government, such as the 2009 World Media Summit (世界媒体峰会) in Beijing among other media publicity events. In so doing, they become ornaments in China’s external propaganda and public relations efforts.

Officials in charge of the relevant departments of the Chinese government and diplomats at China’s missions abroad have used cooperation and even the granting of press visas as bait in an attempt to exert influence on the direction of the BBC’s Chinese-language website reporting. The most prominent example is the complaint of Tibetan exiles that the BBC’s Chinese-language website altered the interview with the Tibetan spiritual leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, without authorization, so as to accommodate China’s news censorship.

BBC “Mends Its Ways”

Last year, the BBC interviewed the Dalai Lama and quoted him as saying that the Tibetan issue is a Chinese domestic problem, and used this as the headline of its web article.4 At the time, even China’s Global Times (环球时报), which is consistently fond of producing reporting that stirs nationalism, discovered from the BBC report that the Dalai Lama had not taken such a position and raised questions. The nationalist website Anti-CNN.com, which claims to fight against Western anti-China propaganda, went as far as posting an article praising BBC for “mending its ways.” The editor of the BBC’s Chinese-language website himself explained that his website is cautious in its reporting, and that it had sent the sensitive program containing the interview with the Dalai Lama to the Chinese embassy for officials to look over and to seek their opinions, winning praise from the embassy.

Wielding the increasing strength of the national economy, Chinese government authorities not only monopolize domestic public opinion and restrict freedom of the press, but also use economic enticements to influence overseas news media in an attempt to challenge the universal values of democracy and freedom. In attempting to enter the China market, the overseas media, and, in particular, the Chinese-language overseas media—which internally are under economic pressure to produce performance results and externally have to deal with Internet blocking and news control by the Chinese government—are quite likely to yield on the news reporting principles by which they have always abided, in exchange for the Chinese authorities’ lifting Internet blocking.

Endnotes

1. In August 2010, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation sold a controlling stake in Star Greater China (星空卫视) to China Media Capital, a private equity fund backed by the Chinese government. See Nick Clark, “Murdoch Cedes Control of Chinese TV Channels,” The Independent, August 10, 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/murdoch-cedes-control-of-chinese-tvchannels-2048034.html. ^

2. Wen Jing [文婧], “Zhong Weiguang: Zhang Danhong bei tingbo hehu yanlunziyou” [仲維光:張丹紅被停播合乎言論自由], Epoch Times [大紀元], September 14, 2008,http://www.epochtimes.com/b5/8/9/14/n2262723.htm. ^

3. While BBC faces cuts, its average employees are facing large-scale layoffs, their pension funds are in the red by large margins, and their retirement and welfare benefits have been substantially reduced. Yet the BBC executives are continuing to devise every possible way to raise their own salaries and are using public money to set up huge additional pensions for themselves. The salary of the BBC’s director-general was ten times that of an average employee 20 years ago, and has now grown to 30-40 times that. The deputy director-general’s pension is famously the highest in the UK public sector. See Jenni Russell, “This is the BBC—ruled by greed at the top,” The Sunday Times, August 1, 2010. That such scandals should be taking place at BBC, which regularly reports on the corruption of Chinese officials, has not only destroyed the confidence of its staff in the BBC leadership but also further weakened public support for this publicly-funded news organization. ^

4. Shirong Chen, “Tibet ‘Chinese Issue’ Says Dalai,” British Broadcasting Corporation, August 10, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asiapacific/8194138.stm. The article quotes the Dalai Lama as saying, “The Chinese government considers our problem a domestic one. And we also.” ^

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