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February 14, 2012

China's State-Run CCTV Seeks to Grow English Speaking Audience

by William Ide

The visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to Washington this week has been leading television news programs in the United States. And not all of them are produced by U.S. broadcasters. China’s state-run China Central Television, or CCTV, has joined America’s increasingly crowded market of cable news programs.

In less than five months, CCTV America has hired more than 65 people to get its Washington, DC operations off the ground. Before the U.S. elections in November, it plans to grow its staff to nearly 100 and more than double its current hour-long nightly broadcast.

CCTV America has lured seasoned journalists, anchors, producers and editors from the likes of Al Jazeera, Fox News and the BBC with salaries that sources tell VOA are, in some cases, 20 percent higher than its competitors.

Phillip Yin, a former reporter and anchor for Bloomberg Television and CNBC in Hong Kong and Singapore, said he joined CCTV to be a part of history.

"This is a very special operation, if you will, a project, that will define the relationship between the U.S. and China for decades to come," Yin said.

The broadcaster’s U.S. debut this month, and the opening of CCTV Africa in Nairobi, Kenya last month, are the latest step in Beijing’s multi-billion-dollar campaign to expand China’s global media footprint. CCTV says it reaches 100 million viewers in 120 countries and territories, and that’s just one of several state-run media outlets making tracks around the world.

Soft power

The move comes at a time when China’s political and economic actions at home and abroad are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Beijing’s image is complicated at best in Africa, where it is building major infrastructure projects and boosting local economies, but is also accused of overlooking human rights abuses in its quest for natural resources.

China’s foreign investments are a dynamic source of support to America’s economy, but the massive U.S.-China trade deficit is a point of tension.

China’s attacks on rights advocates, journalists and other activists are also a sensitive issue.

In China, state media is tightly controlled and expected to put the Communist Party’s interests first. That style of journalism could be a harder sell in foreign markets.

Sarah Cook, an East Asia analyst at the U.S. rights group Freedom House, says it is hard to imagine that the journalists at the new operation won’t quickly run into problems. “I am pretty skeptical about how much leeway they are really going to have because of the breadth of censorship topics [in China],” she said.

Editorial staff at CCTV America say they won't shy away from touchy topics and note that the operation is locally controlled in Washington, not Beijing.

"They didn't hire us saying, ‘We want you to do this.’ They hired us saying, ‘We really want your experience and expertise. We want to raise our level, our profile. We want to follow your lead,’” said Barbara Dury, formerly with CBS’s 60 Minutes program. She is now the senior producer of the news magazine show Americas Now. “Now, when that changes, that could be a different story."

Delicate balance

When asked how CCTV America would cover sensitive subjects such as protests against the Chinese vice president’s visit this week, Jim Laurie, a veteran foreign correspondent and executive consultant for CCTV, said such developments would be handled on a “case by case basis.”

However, Laurie said that portraying CCTV as just a mouthpiece for the Chinese government ignores the complexity of what the broadcaster does.

"I put this channel in the same context I would put Al Jazeera. Is it the mouthpiece of the Qataris? Or CNN. Is it the mouthpiece of commercial broadcasting in Atlanta? Is the BBC the mouthpiece of the British government? Is French 24 the mouthpiece of the French?  Is Russian Today, or Russian RT as it's called, the mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin? I leave it to you to judge those kinds of things."

There's no reason, Laurie added, that China should not be able to do quality, objective, and respectable television.

Despite the assurances, media rights advocates say China’s approach to global news remains a work in progress, much like its U.S. headquarters. A recent visit to the broadcaster’s Washington news center revealed that sleek modern studios are up and running, but the office spaces and conference rooms are still under construction.

VOA Mandarin service correspondent Wu Shaorong also contributed to this report.