China's grand strategy for media

BY ANNE NELSON| IN Media Practice | 28/10/2013
In an era when Voice of America and BBC World Service budgets are battered by funding cutbacks and partisan politics, China is playing the long game.
But its reporting on the Communist Party echoes the party line, says ANNE NELSON. A CIMA report. PIX: China Central TV headquarters

CCTV’s International Expansion: China’s Grand Strategy for Media?


By Anne Nelson
October 22, 2013
The Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy commissioned this study of China’s international broadcasting operations. The report traces the rise and spread of CCTV and analyzes China’s strategy of advancing its foreign policy objectives through media.
Executive Summary
In recent years, China has achieved a dominant position in many reaches of the global economy. Now it has set its sights on the global information system.
Some date this initiative to 2001, when Chinese broadcasting official Xu Guangchun announced a new “going out” policy to expand state broadcasting into Western languages. Over the past decade, this idea has grown into an ambitious plan to expand China’s global broadcasting footprint. This effort has been designed to enhance China’s image and convey its perspective to the world, taking advantage of the disruptions affecting Western state broadcasters and Western media markets in general.
China Central Television has come a long way since its founding as a domestic party propaganda outlet in 1958. The domestic service has been supplemented by an international service, boasting three major global offices in Beijing, Washington, and Nairobi, and more than 70 additional international bureaus.[i]The quality of CCTV’s journalism depends on both the region in which it’s produced, and the subject matter’s sensitivity in Beijing. On one hand, CCTV produces sophisticated long-form reports on complex international issues such as climate change; at the same time, its reporting on the Chinese Communist Party echoes the party line.
CCTV’s biggest impact may be in regions where China is directing its international investments. The Nairobi operations complement extensive investments in African infrastructure, many of them in communications; China is also pursuing critical investment in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
CCTV’s Washington bureau illustrates its ability to hire world-class international journalists and to allow them to do their jobs, as long as their reporting does not cross party lines. CCTV effectively reports to the Chinese Communist Party (via the state broadcasting agency), and the party will determine both its initiatives and its no-go areas for the foreseeable future.
In an era when Voice of America and BBC World Service budgets are battered by funding cutbacks and partisan politics, China is playing the long game. CCTV’s content is defined by the same ideological directives and limitations that govern the country’s university debates, feature films, and microblogs. The limitations have been exercised for decades; what’s new is their implication for global media markets.

In April 2013 the Beijing International Film Festival made headlines when prize-winning director Feng Xiaogang used his acceptance speech to denounce government censorship. But the bigger story was the growth in China’s burgeoning media industry and its impact on global markets. Movie box office receipts in China grew 30 percent in 2012, elevating its ranking to one of the highest in the world.
Chinese companies are currently exploring partnerships with Hollywood powerhouses such as Paramount and DreamWorks, hoping to marry the economic might of the Chinese marketplace with the appeal of American culture.
The Chinese initiative is unlikely to dislodge American popular culture from its global dominance. U.S. music, film, and television benefit from a melting-pot culture that melds international influences and connects to the rest of the world. In contrast, the representations of Chinese culture that are transmitted through government channels are still too insular and provincial to translate on a mass global basis. Over the twentieth century, the United States also established primacy in the realms of media technology and infrastructure and in marketing and distribution.
But that dominance may be challenged in regions of Chinese influence. As China rolls out its grand strategy to advance its global political and economic position, there are signs that it is making media a critical part of the package. In this integrated approach, media infrastructure is married to investment in the developing world, and news and entertainment content is distributed through channels designed to further public diplomacy.
International news may be a linchpin in this effort, and it is one in which China’s Western competitors work at a disadvantage. The twenty-first century free market has been tough on international news production. Foreign reporting–especially television–requires money, and China is among few countries that are expanding their investment in the field.
The small group of countries that maintain a strong investment in international broadcasting include Qatar, whose al-Jazeera network has become a familiar player on the international broadcasting scene and is currently rolling out a massive new U.S. operation with former ABC newswoman Kate O’Brian at the helm. Another example is Russia, whose RT (the network formerly known as Russia Today) was founded in 2005 to improve the country’s image abroad. It is financed by the Russian government and currently broadcasts in Arabic, English, Russian, and Spanish. Iran’s Press TV, launched in 2007, presents a highly politicized English-language 24-hour news service. (Sample headline: “Zionists seek clash of civilizations.”[ii]) TeleSur, based in Caracas, is available in Spanish and Portuguese. It is owned by a consortium of Latin American governments, the largest shareholder of which is Venezuela. It has served as a mouthpiece for the policies of Hugo Chavez, and its future will depend on the direction of post-Chavez Venezuela.
Many Americans are familiar with U.S. international broadcasting, which are managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the best-known of which are the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). Some European nations have their own international information services, notably France 24 and Deutsche Welle. The BBC’s World Service, long considered the gold standard of international broadcasting, has undergone massive cutbacks in recent years. (The BBC encompasses both the national broadcaster, which has an independent board of governors and a budget based on license fees for radio and television sets, and the BBC World Service, which is underwritten and directed by the British Foreign Office.)
Within this crowded field, CCTV is unique in its extensive resources and its ties to the Chinese government: the most dynamic economic power in the world today, and one with an ever-growing appetite for global influence.
CCTV in the Americas
The new China Central Television headquarters for the Americas occupies several floors of a leek new office building on New York Avenue in the heart of Washington, DC. The CCTV offices are elegant expanses of glass and chrome that hum with an energy only found in thriving enterprises-increasingly rare in U.S. newsrooms.
Sharp, young reporters and producers peer into their screens in the vast, light-filled newsroom. In one area of the facility they generate stories in English; in another, in Chinese. The English-language staff has gravitated to CCTV from world-class news organizations–including ABC, CBS, CNN International, and the BBC–working alongside interns from leading U.S. universities. For those seeking a career in television news, CCTV is an enchanted isle of hiring in an ocean of lay-offs.
CCTV’s English-language broadcasting operations have gone by a number of different names, including CCTV International and CCTV-9, and the confusion isn’t surprising. The path to international expansion has not been entirely smooth, with various stages of growth, retrenchment, and rebranding along the way. Some of CCTV’s promotional material refers to its international channels–currently broadcasting in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and French–collectively as “CCTV International.” In April 2010 the English channel was rebranded as “CCTV News (English).”CCTV functions with resources of time and money that haven’t been seen in U.S. broadcast news for decades. U.S. broadcasters have been cutting staff, closing international bureaus, shrinking sound bites, and virtually abandoning the documentary form. This has been true of domestic networks and international broadcasters alike. Over the past two years, CNN cut dozens of staff positions and closed its documentary unit, moving towards an “acquisition model,” purchasing an increasing amount of content produced outside the organization. [iii]In the realm of U.S. state broadcasting, a combination of restructuring and budget sequestration sharply reduced broadcasts by the Voice of America in Asia, Latin America, and other regions.[iv]In Britain, the BBC World Service announced in 2011 that budget cutbacks would result in the loss of 650 positions, anticipating that this would cost the service 30 million listeners worldwide.[v]
But for China Central Television, the sky’s the limit, and nowhere is that more evident than in its new Washington office. One eyewitness is Jim Laurie, an independent consultant who was recruited to help shape the new Washington bureau. Laurie was previously an award-winning ABC News correspondent and a professor at University of Hong Kong’s prestigious Journalism and Media Studies Centre. In a recent interview, Laurie described CCTV’s weekend current affairs budgets: “American television tends to produce two-to-three minute segments. We produce 20-minute pieces. We don’t have budget problems, we’ve got the cash. We just sent people to Greenland for a story on global warming, and did 12 minutes on gang violence in Central America.”[vi]
In December 2012 CCTV–America aired Greenland Melting, a 40-minute documentary on the impact of climate change. The investigators featured in the program created a companion website that features scholarly articles, graphs, and NASA data sets. [vii]CCTV’s field reports on Latin American gang violence ran up to 12 minutes, ranging from an investigative piece on prison conditions in El Salvador to a human-interest story about a Brazilian girl killed in crossfire. Laurie acknowledges that CCTV has a ways to go to build a credible English-language news service, but he believes it is moving in the right direction.[viii]
CCTV’s Washington bureau has a staff of 30 covering its Chinese-language service, and more than 100 in its English-language operation, 70 of them non-Chinese. It currently has 12 Latin American bureaus–doubled over the past year–at a time when no U.S. television network has any.[ix]
The network’s home base is a sprawling Rem Koolhas skyscraper in Beijing, a shiny Erector Set of a building whose odd shape won it the local nickname of dà kùcha, or “the big boxer shorts.” These headquarters oversee the regional centers for the Americas in Washington, and for Africa in Nairobi. CCTV now boasts some 70 international bureaus of varying sizes, a number that has been increasing by the month. [x]
CCTV’s budget is the product of domestic advertising, fueled by the booming Chinese economy. This makes CCTV answerable only to the Chinese Communist Party, which determines the allocation of its profits. With no need to satisfy owners, investors, or shareholders, the party decided years ago that these profits would be harnessed to an international broadcasting enterprise.

CCTV and the Chinese Communist Party: Parallel Paths

The history of CCTV has closely tracked policy trends in the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing Television made its first propaganda broadcast in 1958 at the outset of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. It was renamed China Central Television in 1978, a year of sweeping economic reform. Over time, CCTV evolved to include more and more news. Public expectations of a more independent approach to news also rose, but progress was slow. A 1993 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that “Censorship is embedded in the entire process of producing a news story.”
CCTV personnel have publicly chafed at state control and joined calls for reform on various occasions; CPJ noted that in 1989, CCTV staff appeared among the protesters at Tiananmen Square. CCTV journalists were chagrined by the government’s response to the 2003 SARS outbreak, when it eroded their credibility by blocking attempts to report on the epidemic. As a recent CCTV article pointedly observed, “As dangerous and new as SARS was, it was the government and people who made the disease more serious. The government, in particular, was criticized for failing to alert the public in a timely fashion.”[xii]
Media scholar Ying Zhu, author of “Two Billion Eyes: the Story of China Central Television,” links the expansion and improvement of state broadcasting to the SARS epidemic.[xiii]But Laurie believes that earlier events were equally important, including the entry of Phoenix Television from Hong Kong into the mainland market and CCTV’s difficulties in covering the September 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
CCTV operates under the supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), which in turn answers to the xuānchuán department of the Chinese Communist Party. The department title was formerly translated as the “propaganda department,” but that has changed in recent years. “Chinese people don’t like the word ‘propaganda,’ because they associate it with Nazi Germany,” commented one Chinese journalist. “So the English translation is now usually ‘Department of Publicity.’ But that’s not what it really means. ‘Xuānchuán’ has the sense of ‘leaders sending linear messages to the masses.’”[xiv]
One of the architects of CCTV’s global expansion was Li Changchun, an electrical engineer who served as propaganda chief of the Chinese Communist Party from 2002 until January 2013. John Jirik, a professor of journalism at Lehigh University and a former editor at CCTV, writes that Li envisioned the global CCTV not as a rival to the Voice of America and the BBC World Service, but rather as a challenge to CNN. “Li was not arguing that CCTV-9 should be developed as a global news channel with editorial subjection to commercial oversight but independence from direct political oversight. On the contrary, from what is known about how the PRC leadership views media like CNN, apparently it views them as little different from PRC media, i.e. as incidents of direct political power.”[xv]Jirik describes the PRC’s goal as providing “an oppositional discourse to the dominant hegemony” of, presumably, both Western nations and Western news organizations.
Ying Zhu writes, “Shows need to be both ideologically inoffensive and commercially successful.” She reports that the SARFT provides the central government’s daily administrative oversight, including censorship of sensitive content, while the propaganda department issues guidelines and “thought directives.”[xvi]
On a domestic level, this guidance can be calibrated to create events, cover them as stories, and then make them go away. This is particularly the case when the government seeks to generate “popular protests” in response to international events. According to one prominent Chinese journalist, “The party asks news outlets, mostly state-owned to ‘look at the big picture’–Japan and the island controversy, for example–and give hints when it’s time to quiet down a story; say if you’ve got too many protesters on the street and workers aren’t showing up for their jobs in the factory.”[xvii]
Although the Communist Party regularly takes advantage of its ability to manipulate the CCTV news agenda, there are also signs of growing emphasis on journalistic professionalism. In late 2011, Hu Zhanfan, the editor of the Guangming Daily, was appointed to head the network.[xviii]The official he replaced, Jiao Li, was a party functionary without a professional background in journalism, who was abruptly ousted amid accusations of corruption and complaints about his penchant for heavy-handed propaganda.[xix]For some, this was exemplified by the “Go Grassroots Campaign,” which sent journalists to cover ways in which rural villagers’ “lives were transformed due to certain policies.”[xx]Some CCTV journalists hoped Hu’s appointment would open the way to improving the quality and independence of their reporting.
However, the supervisory bodies in charge of CCTV are still deeply entrenched in traditional party culture. Liu Qibao was appointed as head of the Party Propaganda/Publicity Department in November 2012. Qibao, almost a decade younger than Li Changchun, is an economist by training.
CCTV’s financing differs from the Voice of America and BBC World Service radio, which are funded by taxpayers. CCTV was initially an entirely government-funded domestic service. It began to experiment with advertising in 1979, amid the government’s program of marketization. Now CCTV (including its international service) is almost entirely supported by domestic Chinese advertising. Clients include both domestic businesses such as Bank of China and e-commerce giant Alibaba, and international advertisers such as Proctor & Gamble and Volkswagen.[xxi]Domestic Chinese ad revenues peak during the “golden hour” of the 7 p.m. Xinwen Lianbo news broadcast.[xxii]
CCTV advertising revenues hit a record high of $2.5 billion in 2012. Reuters reported that ad spending has been rising about one-and-a-half times the rate of growth in gross domestic product in recent years. [xxiii]In fact, CCTV’s extraordinary domestic revenues are cited by insiders as one motivation for the international expansion: “The domestic market is almost saturated, so we’re seeking growth points in the global market.”[xxiv]
By comparison, U.S. television network CBS reported $2.7 billion in ad commitments for 2012.[xxv]But whereas U.S. commercial networks channel advertising dollars towards shareholders, CCTV’s growing profits are placed at the disposal of the party hierarchy, which deploys them to fuel its global strategies on the economic and political fronts.
However, China’s media strategists may be staring at some handwriting on the wall. State broadcasting has evolved from a narrow propaganda outlet to an advertising bonanza, but digital media are offering audiences a broad new range of options, which are bound to erode CCTV’s domestic revenues over time. This was reflected in the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s 2013 annual report on the development of China’s audio-visual new media. There has been a demographic shift, concentrating broadcast viewership in the population over 40; younger audiences are more likely to watch online. The impact on advertising has been striking. The report found that online advertising grew 120 percent for three straight years over the past five years, “significantly surpassing the increase in the television market.”[xxvi]
The Chinese have an obvious interest in building overseas markets in many sectors, and their entry into movie production and distribution shows they have added culture to the list. Global broadcasting is surely in the mix, but its capacity to generate revenue is not yet apparent.

CCTV’s Evolution in the International Sphere

CCTV made its initial foray abroad in 1990, when it opened a new channel directed at East Asia. Its early efforts were directed at Taiwan and overseas Chinese.
This coincided with improvements in programming. The 1990s have been called the “golden age” of CCTV under the leadership of president Yang Weiguang, who was “tasked with overseeing the first decade of CCTV’s transformation from state-funded proselytizer to commercial broadcaster.”[xxviii]Innovations abounded, especially in the realm of documentaries and current affairs programming, and both the party and the public responded with enthusiasm.
In 1992, Yang decided to establish CCTV-4, an international Chinese-language channel that enjoyed critical support and satellite services from the Propaganda Ministry. According to Laurie, “Initially English channel 9 was distributed in the U.S. as part of a Chinese package of channels including CCTV-4” through cable operators, with the assistance of Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation. “That meant that if Americans wanted to see the English channel they would have to pay for a higher tier on many cable or satellite systems. Beginning in 2010, CCTV began to negotiate deals to make the rebranded CCTV News a stand-alone channel on the basic service.”
John Jirik dates the current blueprint for CCTV’s global expansion to 2001, when SARFT director Xu Guangchun announced the new “going out” initiative, designed to convey China’s perspective to the rest of the world. As the plan took shape, Chinese television was expected to expand overseas as “China’s CNN, only cleverer.”[xxix]
Chinese multi-language global and regional broadcasting services grew over the next decade. Spanish and French channels were added in 2004; Arabic and Russian in 2009.[xxx]
A 2011 government blog listed the government’s ambitious expectations for state broadcasters, who were asked to:
●●enter into cooperative agreements with overseas broadcasters;
●●develop strong overseas marketing and distribution teams and agencies;
●●improve their understanding of media laws, regulations and policies in target regions and countries;
●●and study the culture and audience tastes, the politics, history, economy, etc. of target countries and regions to “help with the government’s policy-making.”[xxxi]
One test of such policies came in 2008 with the Sichuan earthquake. Whereas CCTV coverage of the 2003 SARS epidemic had been discredited by the limitations of government censorship, the 2008 earthquake established CCTV-International as a global player. CCTV had preferential, and often exclusive, access to the affected zones, and its footage was rebroadcast by many other networks, among them BBC and CNN.
According to Ying Zhu, “CCTV now broadcasts around the world through ten transponders on eight satellites, and in collaboration with a number of overseas TV organizations, CCTV-4 has ‘infiltrated’ local cable networks in many countries and regions in Asia, Africa, North America, Europe and Oceania.”[xxxii]
CCTV’s English-language service is now available in the U.S. and other markets on a number of cable and satellite systems and has a live-streaming feed on the Internet.[xxxiii]
The complete report is available at: China's grand strategy for media
A Report to the Center for International Media Assistance
The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), at the National Endowment for Democracy, works to strengthen the support, raise the visibility, and improve the effectiveness of independent media development throughout the world. The Center provides information, builds networks, conducts research, and highlights the indispensable role independent media play in the creation and development of sustainable democracies. An important aspect of CIMA’s work is to research ways to attract additional U.S. private sector interest in and support for international media development.
CIMA convenes working groups, discussions, and panels on a variety of topics in the field of media development and assistance. The center also issues reports and recommendations based on working group discussions and other investigations. These reports aim to provide policymakers, as well as donors and practitioners, with ideas for bolstering the effectiveness of media assistance.
Anne Nelson
Anne Nelson is an international media consultant and educator who has worked with a number of major foundations, media organizations, and start-ups in recent years. She created and teaches a course in new media and development communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. A prize-winning journalist, she served as the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she helped to found the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). She received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her research on her 2009 book, Red Orchestra, which describes practices of mass media propaganda and resistance samizdat in Nazi Germany. She is a graduate of Yale University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has lectured in many international settings, including Beijing, Shantou, and Hong Kong. Her publications are posted at She tweets as @anelsona and is a frequent contributor to PBS Mediashift, TechPresident, and other publications. She is the author of many previous CIMA research reports.
The author would like to thank W.Y., C.L., and David Wertime for their assistance in translation and research.

[i]Interview with author, CCTV Washington bureau, March 2013.
[ii]“Zionists seek clash of civilizations,” Press TV,, accessed May 8, 2013.
[iii]“Layoffs at CNN as Network Transitions to Acquisition Model for Documentary Programming,” MediaBistro, March 22, 2012,­tion-model-for-documentary-programming_b117576.
[iv] “VOA Reducing Radio Frequencies,” InsideVOA, March 26, 2013,
[v] “BBC World Service cuts will cost it 30 m listeners worldwide,” The Guardian, January 26, 2011,
[vi] Interview with author, March 29, 2013.
 [vii] See website
[viii] “Can China Gain Journalistic Credibility?,” New York Times Room for Debate, July 12, 2010, http://www.ny­
[ix] Interview with author, CCTV Washington offices, March 2013.
[x]Interview, CCTV Americas, March 29, 2013.
[xi] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Don’t Force Us to Lie,” 1993, p. 22; 56.
[xii] “Ten years after SARS, what has China learned?,” CCTV-English, March 4, 2013,
[xiii]Ying Zhu, Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television, The New Press, 2012, p. 1.
[xiv] Interview with author, March 2013.
[xv]John Jirik, “The PRC’s ‘going out’ project: CCTV International and the imagination of a Chinese nation,” 2008, p. 10.
[xvi]Zhu, p. 4.
[xvii]Interview, March 2013
[xviii]The Guangming Daily is a prestigious party-owned newspaper based in Beijing with a national distribution. It is known for its coverage of science, technology and education.
[xix]“Top mainland press official Jiao Li dismissed amid corruption claims,” South China Morning Post, October 29, 2012, See also “New leader for China’s largest TV network,” New York Times, November 25, 2011,
[xx] “Reporting from the grassroots in vogue,” China Daily Asia Pacific, October 20, 2011, http://www.chinadaily­
[xxi]“CCTV’s Ad Sales Auction Draws Record Bids,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2011,
[xxii]“CCTV auction raises record 15b yuan,” Global Times, November 18, 2012,­tent/745088.shtml. Until recently, another major source of revenue producer was the Spring Festival Gala – billed as “the most watched television show on earth” with seven times the viewership of the Superbowl. But protests over the commercialization of the event led CCTV to make the program “ad-free,” and seek revenues through sponsorships and product placement.
[xxiii]“China’s CCTV advertising sales hit 19-year high at $2.5 bln,” Reuters, November 19, 2012,
[xxiv]Interview, CCTV Washington, March 29, 2013.
[xxv]“CBS Earnings Preview: Cable Networks and Ad Revenues in Focus,”, February 14, 2013,­nues-in-focus/.
[xxvi] “Blue Book of China Audio-Visual New Media: The New Media Are Taking Control,” Chinascope (citing Xinhua, June 13, 2013),
[xxvii]Zhu, p. 170.
[xxviii]Ibid., p. 11.
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