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CCTV (In-)action

Screenshot of CCTV Arabic logo on website

As China gears up to cash in its credibility tokens, accumulated as a result of its unexpectedly efficient handling of the global financial crisis, it’s more eager than ever to educate the world about itself on its own terms. Through its vast and disciplined state-controlled media machine China is engaging in a massive public relations exercise, presumably to make existing businesses around the world run more smoothly, and to prepare for world domination. Well, not quite.

Like any rising star, China is looking to expand its network of media outlets and to contextualize these so that audiences outside its cultural and linguistic sphere get their daily dose of Chinese news in their local language. It has reportedly budgeted nearly $7 billion for global media expansion and upgrades.

The most recent addition to the Xinhua-People’s Daily-CCTV family is CCTV Arabic, a channel purported to reach nearly 300 million Arab speakers via satellite in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly it considers this to be a major addition to its current portfolio which, in addition to its monopoly over Chinese media, includes CCTV in English, Spanish and French (plans are in place for Russian and Portuguese channels too).

Surprisingly, plans to launch the channel were only publicized at the end of 2008, with staffing of the channel starting as late as February 2009. To a layman this seems fast, especially since such a venture is undoubtedly risky both financially and reputation-wise. But with the kind of resources available to the Chinese state and media apparatus, and with the sheer scale of its operations in mind (with accessibility to one billion viewers, no less), this is perhaps not so surprising after all. If the Chinese Central Bank can draw up and implement a fiscal stimulus program in a matter of weeks (faster than any Western nation), surely it should be able to set up a TV channel within months. And so it did.

While such bold tactics may not be new to the world of public diplomacy, for China such channels also serve as propaganda vehicles, aimed at shaping the narrative from the Chinese core to the world beyond. And it seems that more and more resources are being put into international ventures. With growing ties to the Arab world (in the form of oil and trade) China is looking to foster better relations with Arab states by engaging their people directly.

Success, as some commentators have noted, will depend on the channel’s ability to provide something new; something that local channels, Al-Jazeera or indeed international heavyweights like CNN or BBC do not or cannot. It is unclear whether CCTV’s heavily centralized message can satisfy local information cravings, or even create significant buzz in the Arab environment. In Southeast Asia, where 65 percent of the world’s Muslims live, but where Arabic is only spoken by religious elites, its efficacy is even more questionable.

I have my doubts about the ability of the Chinese media machine to carve a niche for itself in an increasingly saturated market, in the Arab world or indeed elsewhere. Whether its message will resonate with Muslim masses, sensitive to the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang, is another big question mark. Some skeptics have noted that having this channel may just be a status symbol of astronomical proportions– something to have even if it’s not of much use. A kind of great power Lamborghini, if you will.

Budgets and feasibility aside, the Chinese are just looking to get their message out. Fast.