The next time President Obama chides Hu Jintao over human rights, or a Chinese dissident wins an international peace prize, where will you look for coverage? BBC World News? CNN International? The Chinese government's news network in English?
Unless you're curious about its censorship, probably not the latter. But if you are interested and, as Beijing hopes, eager for an alternative to Western coverage of world events, you can now find China's perspective on international news 24-hours a day in English in parts of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Beijing's official media arm, Xinhua, expanded its CNC news network in those regions on January 1st. Part of a reported $8.7 billion investment in "external publicity work", it launched in North America in November and will soon broadcast from a slick new studio in Times Square.
But can it compete? One expert believes that it will in the developing world. Xinhua's focus, however, won't be on scooping Western press; Its priority will be to improve China's image.
"The Chinese were shocked in 2008 that repression in Tibet resulted in protests when they had the Olympic torch tour," said Clayton Dube, associate director of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. "Part of this is a government response to that."
"Their feeling is that people around the world just don't know enough about them," he added, "that they have to do a better job conveying news about China."
Start spreading the news
Americans have never shown a great appetite for world news. So it's hard to imagine Chinese media influencing opinion in the US. Africa and Latin America, on the other hand, are two regions where the emerging global power could build on developing world solidarity. Another advantage Xinhua enjoys over CNN and the BBC is its policy against reporting on human rights or political repression. While this sort of journalistic negligence will cost them credibility, it will also win them in access, Mr Dube said. "A Chinese source that might not focus on issues that are uncomfortable for local governments is more palatable than a Western source."
But is that any way to confront negative stereotypes about China? Xinhua risks looking less like the BBC and more like the Onion.
Coincidentally, shortly before Xinhua opened new bureaus in cities like San Francisco, Houston and Chicago, the Onion newspaper published its own "China Issue," satirically reporting the paper's sale to a Chinese fish company.
Shamelessly shilling corporate interests as front page news, the new Onion reported that "American Consumer Masses Agree: It Fish Time!" Their top story was a love letter to Chinese "magnificence" headlined "China Strong." An ominously vague news brief reported "Three Dozen Confirmed BLANK In Power Plant BLANK."
In an interview at the Onion newsroom in lower Manhattan, I asked Senior Editor John Krewson how he and his fellow pranksters came up with such a devastating satire. In a response that seems to vindicate Beijing's campaign, he said that they confronted and then exploited American ignorance about the Red Giant. "I couldn't even begin to tell you how little Americans, including myself, understand China -- and not for lack of trying," he said. "Our China isn't based much on China. It's based on the American perception of China more than anything else."
If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em
Changing that perception will require some help. And Xinhua began hiring trained Western journalists in 2009, hoping perhaps to combat doubts about its integrity. Their coverage (and reporting by new local Middle Eastern and Latin American correspondents) is still filtered through Beijing, however. No one seems to have noticed the trend, in fact, as much as US intelligence.
Leery of China's employment of local reinforcements, a research division of the CIA called the Open Source Center closely monitored the "growing ranks of Xinhua's 'foreign' correspondents" online (if not in person). In an unclassified 2009 "Media Aid," it listed each reporters' name, bio, location, and published headlines. "OSC has observed that the number of non-Chinese correspondents employed by the news agency has grown to more than 80," it reported.
But that was nothing. Though cagey about exact numbers, Zeng Hu, Editor in chief of North American news, confirmed that Xinhua opened six new bureaus in his region since 2009 and increased the number of Western journalists on its staff.
Those reporters have their work cut out for them. The American (and European) news market is already over-crowded. It's also a place where its own venerable media institutions struggle to sell world news. On the other hand, as Mr. Dube said, Xinhua may benefit from the lack of competition in countries where the establishment filters Western coverage. And China does have a lot of money to spend.