Chinese propaganda comes to US TV

March 24, 2015 15:03
Producer Sen Zhang (right) collects a UN award for the film Rebuilding Sichuan, shown on the Discovery Channel. Photo: UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

China’s propaganda office announced a new three-year deal last week in which an hour of Beijing-approved, China-themed and government-funded programming will air each week on US television.


That’s like letting the fox guard the henhouse or the wolf watch the sheep.

It’s the same as giving the US State Department, US Information Agency and Voice of America a weekly time slot on CCTV.

It’s improbably crazy, only this deal is inked.

An article from Agence France-Presse explains: Beijing has long sought to boost its "soft power" abroad, spending billions of yuan on expanding the international presence of its state-run media -- including broadcaster CCTV and official news agency Xinhua -- and through its ubiquitous government-sponsored language centres known as Confucius Institutes.

Now, the State Council Information Office (SCIO), the propaganda arm of China’s Politburo, has script approval on “documentaries” that will air on the Discovery Channel, a US cable and satellite television network available to 409 million households worldwide.

A three-part series called How China Works kicks off the broadcasting barrage on March 28.

The series, according to Discovery’s website, will uncover "China’s most ambitious projects and technological innovations” and asks if these local innovations could one day become "global traditions".

"To tell a good Chinese story, it won't be enough to rely just on our media,” AFP quoted Cui Yuying, deputy director of the SCIO, as saying at the launch ceremony for the series.

"We look forward to seeing such strong and influential global media as the Discovery Channel tell an amazing Chinese story."

Discovery executives declined to detail the financial terms of the multiyear deal for Hour China.

Asked whether the series amounted to an "advertorial" funded by the Chinese government, Enrique Martinez, acting president of Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, told AFP: "I'd say watch the shows. They're incredible, insightful, and just extremely deep analyses of what is transpiring."

Admittedly, past collaborations between China and Discovery have been pretty spectacular.

Long March Into Space endeared Chinese astronauts to audiences in a very down-to-earth way. And for space geeks like me, getting a look inside the highly guarded Jiuquan Spaceport was well worth groaning through all the unnecessary superlatives about China’s space program.

The documentary Rebuilding Sichuan, about the government-led recovery effort following the devastating 2008 quake in southwest China, took top prize just last week in the first United Nations international awards for the best TV documentaries on disaster risk reduction.

With Hour China, however, as China seeks to improve its image abroad, viewers might be forewarned to take content with at least a light dose of skepticism.

In recent years, the US State Department’s international security advisory board declared that China was in the midst of a "comprehensive strategic deception campaign", which was said to include "psychological warfare (propaganda, deception and coercion) and media warfare (manipulation of public opinion domestically and internationally)".

I’m not sure where Hour China falls, but just know that SCIO's primary directive is to use propaganda to assuage concerns about China's economic rise, military build-up and increasing political and diplomatic influence.

That’s a tall order, and for Beijing that means turning up the charm in the hopes of reducing fears that China is a threat and gaining a whole lot of trust.

That won’t be easy to achieve and will take a good amount of time.

Meanwhile, I plan on watching Hour China every week like everyone else.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


A strategist and marketing consultant on China business