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How China’s English-language news has changed

Written by Dr Vivien Marsh |

In news organisations as in life, much can change in a decade. When I began my research into China’s English-language state television news in 2013, non-Western media scholars were hoping that CCTV-News (as it then was) might add to a burgeoning global news ‘contraflow’ – providing viewers with alternative perspectives to those of established Western news organisations. It was inevitable that the anglophone news channel of the Chinese state broadcaster would represent Beijing’s views and interests. However, it might also engage Western viewers and enable them to hold the assumptions of their own media up to the light.

Initial signs were intriguing. Content analysis confirmed that CCTV-News was enthusiastically pursuing Beijing’s aim of making China’s voice heard more loudly in the world. In my comparison of the news output of CCTV-News (later CGTN) and BBC World News TV, there was four times as much East Asian news in my Chinese sample as in my selected BBC programmes. The Chinese state broadcaster delivered ten times as much news as the BBC about China itself. This was at a time when large numbers of students and young professionals from the West were resettling in China, learning the language and taking advantage of China’s opening-up to the world. CCTV-News tapped into the surge in interest in China, and ‘soft power’ became the authorities’ buzz-phrase.

Early in its expansion, CCTV-News strove to improve its production and journalistic standards. As Western broadcasters contracted after the 2008 financial crisis, Chinese media grew. CCTV-News secured the services of five former BBC Latin America correspondents and stringers among numerous journalists from Western outlets who supplied off-the-peg credibility. The Chinese channel also engaged young non-Western freelance reporters and Chinese media graduates with rapidly improving English. CCTV’s newsgathering budget for Africa, in particular, appeared larger than that of its Western rivals. When I interviewed CCTV Africa’s main presenter in Nairobi, she challenged me to name an African country from which her programmes had not reported in the past year. I failed.

It was in Africa, too, that hopes were highest of an alternative news narrative to the traditionally negative, conflict-centred Western journalistic approach. Scholars in China advanced the notion that ‘constructive journalism’ – predicated on finding solutions to social problems – would provide a new way for CCTV-News to report on Africa’s developing nations. An illustration of how the Chinese channel might put this technique into practice came in the conflict in South Sudan. While the BBC filmed its correspondent crouching behind a wall as warring factions exchanged gunfire, CCTV-News covered the same story from African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, where representatives of the two sides wore formal clothes and spoke about mediation.

Overall on CCTV-News, however, the voice of China – that astonishing, diverse country – was throttled into a monotone. China news, shackled to the Communist Party line, was conveyed through overweeningly positive, uncritical reporting in which every economic achievement was unswervingly enumerated. This output was nowhere near the Anglo-American journalistic ideal in which power is held to account.

Yet occasionally, media workers at CCTV-News were able to subvert the system – committing what I call ‘small acts of journalism’.  An item on multiple stabbing fatalities in Kunming was pulled from the bulletin, presumably at management’s behest, but the scrolling ‘ticker’ at the bottom of the screen continued to provide the story. When a cruise ship capsized in the Yangtze river, in the hours before the Chinese state issued directives to control reporting, a news item from Shanghai showed inconsolable relatives of missing passengers besieging the offices of the shipping company. In anonymous interviews, Chinese journalists voiced frustration at the dead hand of information control, and spoke of being resigned to self-censorship.

The relaunch of CCTV-News as CGTN (China Global Television Network) on the last day of 2016 brought about a deliberate change of tone. If CCTV-News was the product of Hu Jintao’s ‘soft power’ China, CGTN reflected the more assertive, uncompromising era of Xi Jinping in which the media’s role was to ‘have the Party as its family name’. CGTN did not abandon soft power but added sharp power to its mix, including the deliberate sowing of doubt in Western news reports and a muscular use of the West’s open social media platforms to proclaim Beijing’s views. Instead of ignoring Western accounts of the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as was normal for Chinese media, CGTN tackled them head-on. It used news features, documentaries and YouTube videos to praise Beijing’s uncompromising anti-terrorism measures and its ‘re-education’ of disadvantaged minorities. The channel highlighted Western narratives in order to deride them.

In the meantime, real newsgathering suffered. The dream of constructive yet critical journalism in African news faded; the Chinese channel’s Africa programme staff described their work as ‘positive reporting’ instead. CCTV editors agreed with their BBC counterparts that it was difficult to provide upbeat angles on the misery of daily breaking news, and that constructive journalism was best suited to feature material. Content analysis of CGTN Africa suggested that the channel still viewed the continent at times as a proxy battleground in which the aim was to point up the superpower rivalry of China and the United States.

In the push-pull between CGTN’s news staff and a new shoal of managers, ‘small acts of journalism’ in the channel’s China news appear to have been snuffed out. Nowadays the stars of the network are, increasingly, those who proclaim the Party line. This is a tragedy for talented Chinese journalists, and for many foreigners who joined the channel to do a professional job on an alternative agenda. There is still evidence of robust and credible reporting by CGTN on matters that do not directly involve Beijing, but news about China itself is the channel’s Achilles heel.

A generation ago, it became clear that the Berlin Wall and East Germany itself were doomed when a Soviet Politburo member observed, ‘it’s not our Wall’. Ominously for CGTN, its linear TV news channel is not the brainchild of Xi Jinping. This is not to say that Wolf Warrior-style sniping on Twitter is more in keeping with the Chinese leader’s aims; some but not all of this has recently been toned down. However, the digital realm now offers more subtle ways for Beijing to gain global influence. Overseas media capture, control of telecommunications infrastructure and bite-sized video polemic all provide opportunities for Beijing to suppress or ridicule unfriendly material. The Chinese state does not need to be loved, it now appears – just to be heard and seen.

The global dominance of Western news organisations and agencies has undeniably privileged Western agendas, institutions and value systems for too long. Different emphases in global journalism would be welcome but they have to bear scrutiny. Much has indeed changed in a decade: BBC World News and CCTV-News have ceased to exist in name if not in form. China’s real battle for global influence through its media has only just begun.

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Dr Vivien Marsh is a researcher and former long-serving BBC international news journalist. Her book, Seeking Truth in International TV News: China, CGTN and the BBC, was published by Routledge in March 2023.