Ambiguities in Communicating with the World: China’s Pursuit of Media “Going-out” and Its Multilayered Contexts

Hu Zhengrong, Ji Deqiang

Communication University of China, Beijing

After its accession to WTO in 2001, China has experienced an accelerated integration to the global political-economic order, which often comes with a desire to express and to be known more by the outside world. From the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic Games to the promotion film of national image in Times Square, while Chinese government has diversified strategies of global communication, multilayered outcomes and uncertainties are still existing and remaining to be examined. A couple of questions need to be further studied. In reality, what are the benefits and shortcomings for Chinese governmental promotion campaigns with respect to international media representation of China? How can we make the linkage between China’s state advertising and its rapid economic development and increasing political influence on a global scale? In light of an ascending tendency of using Confucianism to represent Chinese spirit and history, does China have the ability to reshape the global meaning system around it relying on indigenous cultural elements? What is the core value of China within a globally networked world? By proposing those concerns, this essay tries to introduce China’s recent media “going-out” plan initiated in 2009, and followed by a social-contextual analysis to reveal ambiguities within.

1. The pursuit of a “full” picture in global communication

For Chinese government officials, there is a “rigid” stereotype deeply rooted in the global media narratives on China, which is categorized as a dichotomy between “positive” and “negative”. Western mainstream media are recognized, for the most part, to depict China with a biased framework that mainly focuses on “negative” issues while to ignore some “positive” information. China is thus far from being “fully” represented by global media coverage, especially in a Western-dominated structure of information flow. In a sense, this is the original incentive for Chinese government to support the media arm, even costly, with a newer plan of media “going-out” in 2009, aiming to involve “China’s voice” to balance those prejudices. The government also uses this categorization to situate China in a tension between East and West, which functionally legitimizes its media expansion project, at least in domestic environment of public opinion.

But as discussed in the next sessions, there is indeed a pre-assumption required to be questioned – what is the exact meaning of “China’s voice”. Recognizing an increasingly fractured society and multiple interest groups emerged, including media sectors, the extent to which “China’s voice” is unified is uncertain and the designs to promote a China’s image only as an export product are also problematic.

2. Media “Going-out”: a state project for rising in global communication

The year of 2009 saw the launch of a new round of media “going-out” plan to showcase China’s stirring development on a global stage that is purposely to involve “China’s voice” in global communication on both China and non-China issues. It is overwhelmingly believed that this initiative will eventually direct to a much more “friendly” atmosphere in global media coverage, through which China’s ongoing modernization and development model will be sustained for a long time. In the discourse of policymaking, it is crystallized into a set of developmental ideas, ranging from “Peaceful Rise”, “Soft Power”, to “Harmonious World”.

The state plan refers to a huge budget offered by the central government, totally estimated $6 billion. Three state-run media conglomerates have been designated to be pioneers and carriers of this undertaking.

Backing by one third of this big money, Xinhua, the only Chinese official news agency, created its world English television network “CNC world News” on December 31 in 2009, as well as has been expanding the amount of its oversea bureaus that will increase roughly from 100 to 186 in the near future. By starting CNC, Xinhua’s long history of waiting and lobbying in pursuit of regulatory loosening on television services ends up a rising status on global television broadcasting. Interestingly, Xinhua is designed to pursue global influence while remains being isolated from domestic broadcasting systems. “As a new international TV network, CNC broadcasts to the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, North America and Africa by satellite, cable, cellphone and the Internet.” (Xinhua, 2010) With its prospective global penetration, it is worthwhile to recall a historic slogan in Xinhua’s long-standing history of global expansion, which is proposed by Mao Zedong in 1955. He said that “Xinhua should be able to manage the global and have China’s voice heard by the whole world” (Xinhua, 2009). Since then, Xinhua has been constructed to be a world-class news agency and to develop independency from the East and West dominant players. Considering the new wave of strive for global influence, from a perspective of commentators, what CNC tries to offer is China’s first-hand reporting and opinions on both domestic and international issues. In contrast to Western media, Xinhua is also required to continuously strengthen their arm of covering allied African countries. With a global configuration of news resources, designs that characterize Xinhua’s new century expansion not only mean the more presence of China, but also a rising conglomerate comprising multiple services that will participate into global media market competition with AP, Reuters and even Al-Jazeera station.

Another case is China Central Television (CCTV). For the past years, CCTV has been expanding its multilingual news broadcasting channels in quantity. For example, on July 20 2009, the first Arabic channel of CCTV started to broadcast, which will air in 22 Arab countries and cover up to 300 million populations through home satellite systems. As of today, CCTV’s multilingual broadcasting services have formed a new international communication system including 6 languages of Mandarin, English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, as well as 8 specific TV channels. On the other hand, China’s first national television website – China Network Television (CNTV) – officially launched on December 28 2009, sponsored by CCTV. A brief quotation from its homepage shows how it will work, that is, “As a national web-based TV broadcaster, China Network Television provides users with a globalized, multilingual and multi-terminal public webcast service platform.” (CNTV, 2010) Using a “duel-platform (web-TV)”, CNTV is thus predesigned to take the responsibility of broadcasting abroad on the internet.

In newspaper industries, first of all, we want to introduce People’s Daily Media Group, which is based on the foremost organ of China’s propaganda system, People’s Daily. One of a series of the group’s media productions, Global Times, issued the English edition on April 20, 2009 for the first time. Global Times therefore becomes the second nationwide English newspaper in China. Almost in the meantime, the first nationwide circulated English-language newspaper, China Daily, launched its US Edition on February 23, 2009. The target audiences are definitely focused on North Americans. As of today, China Daily’s English edition has been issued in many developed countries, and is “a must read for the Western mainstream reader” (China Daily Circulation Department, 2011), says its circulation department. By “a must read”, it is better to see it as a long-term goal rather than a mission completed, but this kind of “confidence” is a clear indicator that what target market they have been working for.

Through huge investment to state-run media organizations, efforts of Chinese government underscore the top leadership’s concerns to present a China’s voice in global communication, and at the same time, recast the national image by China’s own media reporting, through which a “full” picture of China instead of a biased stereotype could be established.

But ambiguities remain about whether China’s voice can be heard and “correctly” decoded by Western audiences on the one hand. On the other hand, if China decided to follow the way Western media group succeeded, the extent to which Chinese media organizations will get the same or even higher status with manipulative power in global communication is obscured.

Moreover, when Chinese government is declaring those big projects, a key question should be answered in the first place, that is what exactly the meaning of “China’s global communication” is. With a deepening social reform on a basis of market-driven and export-oriented, China has become one of the most fractured societies in today’s world. In this sense, it is quite hard to concentrate on a simple term of nation-state without any careful examination about the complicated and ever changing social structure.

3. Internal complexities

While China’s accession to WTO and reentry into global market system has been bringing in significant domestic social restructuring on a market-oriented basis, much more complexities that remain to be examined have also emerged during this historical juncture.

One of the outcomes emerging from China’s reform is a hitherto deepening fractured social structure, within which a variety of interest groups were formed and have been playing distinctive roles in influencing policymaking processes. This 20-year social transition also enlarges the gap in economy between affluent and poor regions and between urban centers and rural peripheries. As a result, one may doubt that if Chinese government plans to present China’s voice and image in an essential and unilateral way — “Our Nation” as Chin-Chuan Lee (2010: 278) pointed out — it should be hard to answer questions about how to interpret domestic social problems like uneven development that is undoubtedly a dispensable and integral part of a full picture of China in modernization. For the most part, it has been widely approved that this so-called “negative side” is the focus Western audiences want to know more than the glorious stories of China’s rising in the East. In short, contradictions are therefore integrally embedded into China’s reform processes and, to a large extent, necessary to be part of national image recasting instead of externally to be concealed in global communication, let alone the fact that China is increasingly integrated into global system which means China’s internal problems often lie in a broader world context.

In the terrain of media communication, a “turf war” between SARFT and MII that is not over yet should be a typical case for understanding those complexities. As the key carriers of China’s ambitious plan of media expansion globally, SARFT and MII, who are in charge of broadcasting and telecommunications separately, have been engaging in an accelerated fierce competition with each other in communication markets in the age of media convergence. The two newly consolidated interest groups involve diverse social forces from government departments to market-driven domestic or transnational companies, which might collaborate or not in presenting China’s image in global communication in accordance with the principles central government established. The extent of flexibility that multiple participants present in a complicated global communication circumstance is the key to explain.

As most of participants, better called “stakeholders”, have become special-interest-oriented in the context of marketization, the extent to which they are able to carry central government’s order to fulfill above-mentioned state project of image recasting is not clear at all. Albeit the defining feature of mouthpiece of the party-state is not allowed to loosen for broadcasting and any other political content related media operation, the party line has been interwined with the bottom line of market mechanism, which in fact characterizes the existing domestic media monopolies who are the de facto beneficiaries during media reform.

4. External contradictions

Although Chinese leadership has announced a series of developmental ideas recently ranging from “peaceful rise” to “harmonious society” to the world, Western media coverage generally remains keeping cautious to report China rather than being in line with their journalist operational principle of “objectivity” to cover all the “truth” that is integrated into China’s historical reform. In other words, it is theoretically critical to map how Western media represent and frame China through careful examination on what they are reporting about China. What they focus on always means what they value more.

For example, let us focus on how a couple of U.S.-based mainstream media depict China’s newly issued media “going-out” plan. In a US Today’s report published on Feb. 18 2009, author Calum Macleod began with a brief summary with potential value judgment: “China, known for its tight control of people and the news, wants to soften its image around the world and is ready to spend big bucks on a media empire to do that” (Calum MacLeod, 2009). Obviously, two of the key words are social “control” and “empire”. In resonating with US today’s motive, The New York Times’ report of China’s media expansion by David Barboza on Oct. 5 2009 used the same term of “empire” in the title “China Yearns to Form Its Own Media Empires” (David Barboza, 2009). At the beginning paragraph, the author also ended with a wishful thinking that China’s plan “will in the process loosen some of its tight control of these industries”.

Another related report we found coincidentally during literature research is from one of the most successful commercial television networks in the world — CNN. This piece of television news by Lara Farrar on Sept. 3 2010, entitled “Can Chinese media rule the airwaves”, presented an emerging gap between state-run and non-state broadcasters which could be attributed to the newly issued plan that prioritized state-run media organizations (Lara Farrar, 2010). The key question CNN’s story proposed is the tight control as well, but the answer to undertake “this big mission” of reversing the misunderstanding of China is quite clear. Instead of attaching great importance to state-run media machines “Americans are suspicious of”, as the author implied by quoting mostly from BON TV, private media entities must play a more significant role to offer “a new perspective” on China. By focusing on BON TV, a definitely “non-state” broadcaster, the report demonstrated that (only?) market-oriented media company can take the responsibility to soften China’s image in the developed North and meanwhile to compete with them under the same rule of global marketization.

In a sense, we argue that the external contradictions for Chinese government to export their media forces mainly lie in a rigid ideological confrontation. As Zhang Xiaoling (2007: 49) observed in a precious article, “with generally low official credibility, China’s state media have a hard time winning over a skeptical audience.”On the other hand, what is at stake beneath this superficial debate is a further political-economic drive – marketization and free trade in cultural products, as much has been written by scholarly works — generated by a variety of capital forms on both global and regional levels. Therefore, challenges facing China’s media expansion project from the outside world, particularly from the West, have incorporated a fundamental questioning on the alternative directions Chinese media must choose before further steps. If Chinese cultural elements like Confucius are considered merely as cultural products, subordinated to a global “trade rule” and thus manipulated by a bloc of dominant transnational media conglomerates, the value and meaning for this new round of media “going-out” must be re-examined. After all, no one admits that China’s value system can be simplified as “exchange value” in market.

5. Value-reorientation as a conclusion

The recent media “going-out” plan, for the most part, is subordinated to a “trade rule”, which overwhelmingly relies on market forces and exchange value. As in most policy documents, the purpose of media expansion in global communication is defined to achieve a revolutionary transformation – building China from a “big” country to a “strong” country in media communication, commensurate with the country’s continuously rising status and global influence. In the context of neoliberal media globalization, to be “strong” is inevitably to focus on how to deploy market mechanism, particularly under an array of international trade agreements China has signed in the past decade. Far from the nationalist optimism, the invisible structure of political economy of global communication sets barriers that work against China’s rise or articulate China’s rise into the existing global communication order. This is what David Harvey said, the “restoration” (David Harvey, 2005) of existing manipulative powers.

As Jane Kelsey observed (2007: 159) insightfully, with the deepening integration of globalized marketing operation, particularly institutionally regulated by WTO related agreements, culture policymaking has been subordinated to general “trade rules”. Spreading the logic of free trade without national borders into almost all services, “The ultimate goal is a seamless, integrated global market across all sectors and modes.” (Jane Kelsey, 2007: 161) As a result of this, culture will be decontextualized to be a trade mark and will eventually have “no value in itself” except exchange value.

If China wants to boost up capabilities in global communication, questioning the market-oriented policymaking logic must be the first but most critical step. Even more important, what characterize China’s success in the past 20-year social reform should be re-examined for a better starting point that China can go its own way rising in global communication. Consequently, China should not be defined as a rising state in terms of making its own media “empire” following the ways dominant players have deployed, which actually serves and restores the existing global political-economic order, but develop China-based models that predict alternatives for media development on a global stage.

We are standing at the very beginning moment of the reconfiguration of global media powers, as China and some other South countries potentially predicted, it is the right time for confidence to be poured into scholarly works that will herald a value-reorientation in global communication.


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