As China marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC and the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening policies, there are countless examples of how the country has changed over the decades. In the sphere of foreign media coverage, perhaps the most obvious came last week, when 300 news executives arrived in Beijing for the country's first World Media Summit, held Oct. 8 through Oct. 10. President Hu Jintao addressed the gathering, saying China would "safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of foreign news organizations and reporters and facilitate foreign media coverage of China in accordance with China's laws and regulations." He noted the growth in the foreign media's coverage of the country and called on the foreign press to "deepen the world's understanding of China."
The three-day event offered an opportunity for some of the world's top media executives to make appeals to Beijing. Reuters editor in chief David Schlesinger called on China to improve the disclosure of economic data by not leaking it to insiders before official announcements and to improve access for foreign journalists. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch asked Beijing to "open its digital door" and improve foreign media and entertainment companies' access to mainland markets. "The embrace of the digital is as vital to China today as its decision 30 years ago to take its place in the global economy," Murdoch said in a speech at the summit.
While Murdoch and others called for greater access in China, Beijing is pushing its media voice abroad. Earlier this year the government reportedly set aside more than $4 billion to expand the global reach of the state-run broadcaster CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency. Last year CCTV created French and Spanish channels, and this year it added Russian and Arabic. The official China Daily newspaper began publishing a U.S. edition, and the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid run by the People's Daily, launched an English-language version. In January, Liu Yunshan, the head of the Communist Party's Propaganda Department, laid out the global media strategy in Qiu Shi, a CCP magazine. "It has become an urgent strategic task for us to make our communication capability match our international status," he wrote. "Nowadays, nations which have more advanced skills and better capability in communications will be more influential in the world and can spread their values further."
But just what are those values? In China, the press is still overseen by propaganda officials. Online discussion is managed by censors, and the country is one of the world's leading jailers of journalists and bloggers, according to the press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders. It is not those limitations on the media that China's propaganda ministers are trying to modernize. Rather, it's the ability of the political party to have its message heard. An August Qiu Shi article complained about the dominance of the global media by a small number of conglomerates like Murdoch's News Corp. and Time Warner. But in China, oversight of CCTV and Xinhua is consolidated in the hands of the party. When Li Congjun, head of the Xinhua News Agency and chief organizer of last week's event, noted during the summit that "there is some misunderstanding" that Xinhua was a "traditional media organization," Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin said he thought Li was preparing to be unusually candid about the party's role in news coverage. Instead, Li went on to describe Xinhua's extensive multimedia offerings.
But while the party's role in Chinese state media wasn't trumpeted, it also wasn't missed by human-rights activists and press critics who attended the conference. While the summit was billed as a nongovernmental event, David Bandurski of Hong Kong University's China Media Project noted on the project's website that Li was formerly the deputy chief of the CCP's propaganda department. The summit, Bandurski wrote, is "a naked ploy by the CCP to enhance China's global influence over media agendas," and the foreign media representatives "an audience at court."
Plays for access are an inevitable part of the media game. But with China's growing clout and economic status, foreign players take on greater risk to their professional integrity. Murdoch himself has been accused of dropping BBC News from Star TV satellite packages and axing a critical book by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. At a time when media are still reeling from the economic downturn and the Internet-led destruction of traditional advertising and subscription models, China has money to spend and offers new markets for foreign media. The risks are high. Not only could Western media players miss out on a big deal in China, they could sell their soul to win one.