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China’s heavy investment in English-language media isn’t going too well

Earlier this week, a number of Chinese state-run newspapers mistook satirical website The Onion for a real news outlet and reprinted its spoof story that pint-sized North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was voted the “sexiest man alive for 2012″ as fact. The state run People’s Daily, which has now removed (Chinese) its version of the story, ran a 55-photo slideshow of Kim looking, in its opinion, smoulderingly sexy.

This is worrying, because at the same time as its state-run media are failing to realize The Onion is satire, China is pouring money into an English-language media project designed to win hearts and minds in the West. The Beijing government is investing $8.9 billion on “external publicity work,” according to the New York Times.  This includes an ever growing stable of state-controlled English language newspapers and television channels.

The project  is part of a push to counter what Beijing sees as Western news outlets’ China-bashing tendencies. But to gain a share of voice in America or Europe, the Chinese administration’s media needs to build credibility with a Western audience. Its naive follow up on The Onion’s story this week is proof of how difficult that will be.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s state-run English-language media have content challenges. Chinese newspapers tend to involve a lot of tub thumping propaganda, and the English-language offerings run along the same rails. Take “CNC World,” an English television channel launched in 2010. In this clip (video) on the dispute China and Japan are having over some islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyus in China and the Senkakus by Japan—the presenter reported China was “expelling” Japanese ships that were sailing around the islands.  That suggested there is no argument over who owns the territory, which Japan and Taiwan have claimed for themselves. The New York Times presented the story differently, with the headline: “China Patrols Ships Pressuring Japan Over Islands,” and summarized both nations’ viewpoints.

It is questionable whether a Western audience would watch a CNC report ahead of turning to other sources.

Then there is the Global Times, a hardline title which likes to lecture its audience (whoever they may be, as only a very narrow slice of China’s population speaks English) on why democracy is overrated. This editorial opined that the Letpaduang copper mine project, a joint development  by China and Myanmar, was being hobbled by the people of fast-changing Myanmar’s newfound confidence. The mine has sparked widespread protests (video) by villagers and monks who are worried about social and environmental damage. The Global Times’ take was that: “This kind of democracy can neither bring high growth for the Myanmar economy nor result in tangible benefits for the people.” It added: “Democracy promises to give everyone in the world equal rights, but this is only an illusion.”

And while a PR consultant would probably advise Beijing to use its foreign language media to present a carefully calibrated image of China as a pleasant and progressive place, the Global Times can come across as xenophobic.  This week it ran a feature on  Chinese woman who choose to date expats living in their country. One of its insights was “foreigners pick out the ugliest women.” Another was “foreigners who have to work in China cannot be rich!”

Another state-controlled English language paper, China Daily, also tends to misunderstand its audience. The title is very much aimed at foreigners. It is widely distributed in Hong Kong and in the Chinese branches of international hotel chains. China Daily also ran a pictorial tribute to Kim Jong-un yesterday. Meanwhile, its foreign affairs reporting can be puzzling. The paper ran an opinion piece on last year’s mass riots in the UK which said Britain’s government had brought the unrest upon itself by supporting rebel groups during the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East. The editorial overlooked the differences between Syrians protesting against a regime that operates barbaric torture centers and the British kids who were stealing consumer goods. It was titled “what goes around comes around.”

China’s foreign language media is making inroads in Africa, where Beijing already has many friends. But as for winning influence in the West, the project has a long way to go. Government officials in charge of of English-language titles could engage with foreign journalists to find out more about how Western readers think. Instead, the Beijing government harasses foreign correspondents and throws them out. Beijing has also sent armies of domestically trained journalists to staff foreign bureaus of its English language media, without following Al Jazeera’s lead and also finding some trustworthy Western voices. In short, China has thrown a lot of money at its foreign media project and, in doing so, created jobs for Chinese nationals. This is the model Beijing follows when building roads and skyscrapers. Establishing credible international media brands will take a more cosmopolitan approach.

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