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Supermarkets spread news as China advances on English language broadcasts
The Times[Tuesday, June 30, 2009 14:07]
Jane Macartney in Beijing

China’s plans to spread its “soft power” will take a great leap forward tomorrow with the start of English language news broadcasts on European supermarket screens (Jane Macartney writes).

Customers surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China, Tuesday, June 30, 2009. A California company that says its software was illegally used in Beijing's new Internet filter threatened possible legal action as PC makers faced a Wednesday deadline to supply the system with computers. U.S. trade officials and industry and free-speech groups have also appealed to Beijing to revoke its order, which requires suppliers to pre-install the Green Dam filtering software or include it on a disk with each PC sold from July 1. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)
Customers surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China, Tuesday, June 30, 2009. A California company that says its software was illegally used in Beijing's new Internet filter threatened possible legal action as PC makers faced a Wednesday deadline to supply the system with computers. U.S. trade officials and industry and free-speech groups have also appealed to Beijing to revoke its order, which requires suppliers to pre-install the Green Dam filtering software or include it on a disk with each PC sold from July 1. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)
The secrecy of the project and the unwillingness of officials to give details of which supermarkets — or countries — will offer the broadcasts hint at the style that the state-run programmes will offer.

The official Xinhua News Agency has been chosen to begin the broadcasts and will be making its first foray into TV. It was selected by Beijing’s propaganda mandarins because of its large number of international news bureaux. It also has a lock on the distribution of news to mainstream domestic media.

Chen Yue, a spokesman for Xinhua’s English news department, said: “China has recognised the importance of soft power, and through the medium of television and the internet the Chinese Government aims to strengthen its influence internationally.”

Early this year reports emerged that the Government had launched a 45 billion yuan (£4 billion) scheme to fund a major international expansion of state broadcaster CCTV, the People’s Daily newspaper — the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party — and Xinhua, which is the designated supplier of government news.

The broadcasts by Xinhua to Europe will consist mainly of news briefs of about 10 to 15 minutes as well as a 30-minute segment of feature and lifestyle programmes. All are recorded in the news agency’s Beijing studio. The agency has broader ambitions to burnish China’s ambitions.

Mr Chen said: “It’s still unclear exactly how many countries and outlets will carry our English news but we hope to expand these channels greatly with more broadcast partners by the end of the year.” It is also unclear how Xinhua will alter its programming to create broadcasts that will grab the attention of international audiences and compete with BBC and CNN as well as the state-funded — and increasingly popular — Russia Today and Qatar’s al-Jazeera.

Chinese journalists and media may be ill-equipped for the challenges of creating news programmes palatable to international audiences because of their primary role to convey Government propaganda. Even domestic analysts say that the state-run media face a challenge to retain the interest of domestic viewers increasingly able to access news through the internet and bored with a lifetime’s diet of Government-approved information.

Indeed, State-run Chinese Central Television has said that it plans to revamp its main 30-minute evening news broadcast to vary a decades-old unchanged menu comprising activities of top leaders followed by the successes of industrial development and concluding with four minutes of international news.

One popular joke about the news goes: “In the first 10 minutes the leaders are very busy, if not abroad then in the countryside. In the middle 10 minutes, the whole nation is very happy, if not getting rich then harvesting crops. In the last 10 minutes, other countries are all very sad, if not exploding then rioting. Conclusion: life in China is very happy.”

In terms of covering events in China and gaining interviews with policymakers, the channel will command unparalleled access in a country where foreign reporters are routinely excluded from official events and usually barred from reaching the scenes of disasters or social unrest.

Despite new rules since the Olympics last year that allow foreign reporters to travel freely in China, in practice Tibet and most ethnically Tibetan areas remain out of bounds and local police in other regions turn them away from scenes of unrest citing concerns such as safety.

China’s dedication to the soft power drive, at whatever cost, has been outlined by its top official in charge of ideology. Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun said this year: “Communications capacity determines influence. Whichever nation’s communications capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values spread far and wide and — that has the most power to influence the world.”
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