Media
7:06 pm
Thu April 25, 2013

China Seeks Soft Power Influence in U.S. Through CCTV

Originally published on Thu April 25, 2013 8:16 pm

At a time when so many major American news organizations are cutting back, foreign news agencies are beefing up their presence abroad and in the U.S. One of the biggest new players arrives from China and, more likely than not, can be found on a television set near you.

CCTV, or China Central Television, is owned by the Chinese government. With more than 40 channels in China and an offshoot in the U.S., the broadcaster has been highly profitable for the country's ruling Communist Party, which is liking profits a lot these days.

Navigating Two Media Traditions

CCTV America Business News Anchor Phillip T.K. Yin was born and raised in the U.S. by parents who emigrated from mainland China. Yin used to work in investment and for CNBC and Bloomberg. He says he is mindful of the tension between the American tradition of an independent press and Chinese expectations that the media serve the state. And yet, he says, CCTV America has broadcast interviews involving allegations of major computer hacking incidents originating in China — hardly a flattering story.

"It's changing very quickly," Yin says. "I can tell you even from the time that we came onboard here to where we are today, we've changed a lot. We're covering stories from sometimes very controversial angles."

CCTV America has its home in a new building just two blocks from the White House, in the heart of Washington, and it's carried by cable providers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, among other big cities.

At one point, CCTV America had a larger reach in the U.S. than Al-Jazeera America did, at least until the Qatari channel acquired Current TV earlier this year.

Joining A Larger Media 'Dynamic'

So what are the Chinese doing in the U.S.? Jim Laurie, a former foreign correspondent for ABC News and NBC News, is now a lead consultant for CCTV America. (Executives in China declined to speak to NPR for this story.)

"We see what the British have done; what CNN has done for years. We need to be part of that," Laurie says Chinese executives told him. "China is a big power; the state broadcaster is a big company. We want to be part of that dynamic."

Laurie also knows about another dynamic — one familiar to reporters who have worked in China over the years. In 1989, he witnessed China's bloody crackdown on the student protest movement.

"I've been arrested in China. I've covered demonstrations in which film was confiscated," he says. "On June 4, [1989,] I was there for the Tiananmen massacre. So yeah, it was a pretty heavy time."

Laurie acknowledges CCTV America is unlikely to air an interview with the Dalai Lama's criticisms of the Chinese regime. And yet more than two decades after Tiananmen, he says a new generation of government and media officials is out to increase international commerce as well as the free flow of information back and forth, especially about business.

Still On The Party's 'Short Leash'

Orville Schell, a veteran journalist and founder of the website ChinaFile, sees a somewhat different dynamic at work: the Chinese state seeking to exercise soft power, a way to project influence through ideas and culture rather than the display of military might.

"This fixation on soft power arises from their deep and abiding insecurity and sense of not being respected and of being hectored and bullied by the world over the last century and a half," he says.

According to Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at City University of New York's College of Staten Island, the network has sought to incorporate Western journalism standards by sheer force of numbers, hiring dozens of staffers from ABC, Bloomberg, CNN, the BBC and similar outlets. But, she says, there's one catch.

"What's missing conspicuously from these programmings are actually any real political news about China itself. CCTV America unfortunately can't really reveal anything that's beyond [the] scripted version of what happened in China. CCTV America is very much on the party's short leash."

But at CCTV, journalists like Yin argue the channel is helping redefine what acceptable coverage is in China, at least on the English-language channel.

"I invite any of the viewers to watch us and listen to the interviews and listen to some of the perspectives that we have, because it's certainly not one-sided. It's very two-sided. Sometimes, it's even three-sided," he says.

It's hard to gauge the size of CCTV's audience in the U.S., but the size of its ambitions is unmistakably global.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. At a time when so many American news organizations are cutting back, foreign news agencies are doing the opposite. They're bulking up their presence abroad and in the U.S. As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, one of the biggest new players arrives from China and can already be found on a TV near you.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The network looks and sounds familiar enough...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 2012 U.S. election coverage, coverage with a difference. The American presidency...

FOLKENFLIK: Much like what we've come to expect on our cable TV news.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With live reports from Beijing, Nairobi and seven more international locations.

FOLKENFLIK: Okay, that's different. CCTV stands for Chinese Central Television. It's owned by the Chinese government but the ruling Communist party likes profits these days, a lot. And this broadcaster is highly profitable, with more than 40 channels in China and this offshoot operating in the U.S. as well.

PHILLIP T.K. YIN: This is more of the world news desk here.

FOLKENFLIK: CCTV America Business Anchor Phillip Yin gives me a tour of his booming newsroom.

YIN: As a major news organization, you have what you call the traffic center, the semicircle in the corner of the room is essentially where all the assignments get doled out at the beginning of each day.

FOLKENFLIK: Yin was born and raised in the U.S. of parents who emigrated from mainland China. Yin used to work in investment and for CNBC and Bloomberg. He says he is mindful of the tension between the American traditions of an independent press and Chinese expectations for the media serve the state. And yet, he says, the channel has broadcast interviews involving allegations of major computer hacking incidents originating in China, hardly a flattering story.

YIN: It's changing very quickly. I can tell you, even from the time that we came onboard here to where we are today, we've changed a lot. We're covering stories from sometimes very controversial angles.

FOLKENFLIK: CCTV America has its home in a new building just blocks from the White House, at the heart of federal Washington, D.C. The channel is carried by cable system providers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, among other big cities. CCTV had a larger reach in the U.S. than Al-Jazeera America did, at least until the Qatari channel acquired Current TV earlier this year.

But just what are the Chinese doing here in such force? Executives in China declined to speak for this story. Jim Laurie is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News and NBC News. He is now a lead consultant for CCTV America.

JIM LAURIE: We see what the British have done, what CNN has done for years. We need to be part of that. China is a big power; the state broadcaster is a big company. We want to be part of that dynamic.

FOLKENFLIK: Laurie learned about another dynamic familiar to reporters working in China over the years.

LAURIE: I've been arrested in China. I've covered demonstrations in which film was confiscated.

FOLKENFLIK: Laurie was a witness in 1989 to the bloody crackdown on the student protest movement.

LAURIE: On June the 4th, I was there for the Tiananmen massacre. So, yeah, it was a pretty heavy time.

FOLKENFLIK: He acknowledges that CCTV America is unlikely to air an interview with the Dalai Lama's criticism of the Chinese regime. And yet, more than two decades after Tiananmen, Laurie says a new generation of government and media officials seek to increase international commerce and, therefore, desire a freer flow of information back and forth, especially about business.

Orville Schell is a veteran journalist and founder of the website ChinaFile. He sees a somewhat different dynamic at work.

ORVILLE SCHELL: They thought they want wealth and power, but what they really want is respect.

FOLKENFLIK: Schell says the Chinese state is seeking to exercise soft power, a way to project influence through ideas and culture rather than the display of military might.

SCHELL: This fixation on soft power arises from their deep and abiding insecurity and sense of not being respected and of being hectored and bullied by the world over the last century and a half.

FOLKENFLIK: Ying Zhu is a professor at the City University of New York and author of the book "Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television." Zhu says the network has sought to incorporate Western journalism standards by sheer numbers, hiring dozens of staffers from ABC, Bloomberg, CNN, the BBC and similar outlets. But, Zhu says, there's one catch.

YING ZHU: What's missing conspicuously from these programmings are actually any real political news about China itself. CCTV America, unfortunately, can't really reveal anything that's beyond scripted version of what happened in China. CCTV America is very much on the party's short leash.

FOLKENFLIK: But at CCTV, journalists such as Phillip Yin argue the channel is helping to redefine what acceptable coverage is in China, at least on the English-language channel.

YIN: I invite any of the viewers to watch us and listen to the interviews and listen to some of the perspectives that we have, because it's certainly not one-sided. It's very two-sided; sometimes it's even three-sided.

FOLKENFLIK: This size of CCTV's audience in the U.S., hard to gauge. The size of its ambitions, global. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.