BEIJING (Reuters) - China wants to remake its stodgy state news agency and television into a globally respected voice that will match its economic clout, media sources said, and may pour up to 32 billion yuan ($4.68 billion) into the project.
Communist officials feel their country is battered by negative coverage in Western media and hope the lavish spending on Xinhua news agency and China Central Television will earn greater recognition and credibility overseas for the stations and the Chinese take on world affairs that they present.
“It has become an urgent strategic task for us to make our communication capability match our international status,” Propaganda Chief Liu Yunshan wrote in a New Year’s essay for the Party’s main ideological journal, “Seeking Truth” (Qiushi).
“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.”
Underlining the uphill battle in the search for credibility in a country where censorship is common, a group of 22 young intellectuals this week published a letter calling for a boycott of CCTV, which they denounced as a propaganda monopoly brainwashing the nation.
But as major foreign media groups struggle in the face of online competition and the credit crisis, normally staid Xinhua is laying surprising plans to become a multi-media giant and take on state television on its own turf.
It has already issued its overseas bureaux with equipment and orders to make television, radio and blog reports as well as the usual text, said Steven Dong, director of the Global Journalism Institute at the prestigious Tsinghua University.
“It’s very likely Xinhua news agency is going to receive a TV license later this year or at least later next year,” said Dong, who also advises the government on its public relations strategy.
“Why does China want to have this competition? I think it is preparation for Xinhua, for CCTV and maybe for others to become powerful in the international arena.”
The cash to pay for the transformation will likely come from the government, which faces a tax revenue headache as economic growth slows but still has to burn through 4 trillion yuan earmarked for economic stimulus.
Beijing has already set aside 15 billion yuan for CCTV, an identical amount for Xinhua and further 2 billion yuan for smaller rival agency China News Agency, a source with knowledge of the plan told Reuters. CCTV already has a spectacular, vertigo-inducing new headquarters in downtown Beijing.
The money will likely be spent on more journalists, more overseas bureaux and higher production values.
However cadres do not plan to relinquish control of the media, recognized as one of the government’s most effective tools for managing its 1.3 billion population even by its opponents.
“It has a very bad influence on Chinese people, particularly because ordinary people who have limited sources of information cannot make comparisons, so their thoughts are guided by CCTV,” said magazine editor Ran Yunfei, one of the intellectuals trying to fuel a boycott of the station.
But Tsinghua’s Dong says the government’s aims, at least at first, are modest.
“If we talk about success I would mean economic success, I would mean success in delivering a more objective image of China to the outside world,” he said.
“Chinese people are not aggressive enough to think about big control of everybody’s public opinion, just a little bit more, and build on the public relations success of the Olympics.”
Additional reporting by Yu Le, Lucy Hornby and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing and George Chen in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie