Getting the right message across

November 11, 2013 by Steve Downie

Chinese president Xi Jinping is concerned that the “Chinese Dream” is getting lost in translation. At a recent conference on China’s propaganda strategy, the president told media leaders that “innovation” was required to make China’s voice heard around the world. He was characteristically vague about the form that innovation should take – “meticulously improve propaganda work; employ innovative foreign propaganda methods” – but his criticism is valid. China is not getting its message across abroad.

The real point is this: if China’s state media want to gain a global audience, it will have to adapt to foreign tastes and ways of doing things.

According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, the percentage of Americans with a positive perception of China fell by 14% between 2011 and 2013, while the number of Britons thinking warm, fuzzy thoughts about the PRC fell by 11% over the same period.

With China’s rivals all spreading their own messages, participation in the battle for hearts and minds is not optional – if you’re not fighting it, you’re losing it.

China’s rapidly modernising military and a booming economy, have earned it a seat at the top table of global affairs. Yet there are worries in Beijing that China’s voice is not always heard. A Xinhua report on a media symposium in Nigeria complained that African audiences weren’t hearing enough about the positive effects of China’s investments in the continent:

“While excelling in building roads, bridges and hospitals and fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities through contributing to local communities, many fail to publicize their achievements”, it said.

Coming from a domestic news environment where news is distributed according to political imperatives, China’s PR strategists seem unsure as to how they should engage with commercially-driven foreign outlets. “China in bridge-building act of kindness” is a hard story to sell to a journalist who is able to choose what to write about.

Clearly, telling China’s side of the story requires more than just translating it into a different language. The content itself must change. Fortunately, there are plenty of western journalists who are available and ready to create engaging, locally-appropriate content. As US and UK-based commercial media outlets cut staff in response to dwindling revenues, state channels such as China Central Television’s (CCTV) English service are picking up ambitious foreign journalists and offering them well-paid work in China.

These journalists are a precious resource – employed well, they are able to tell the Chinese side of the story in a way that resonates with non-Chinese audiences. However, one such journalist describes his work at a Chinese outlet as a frustrating experience, explaining that the rigid command structure that characterises China’s domestic media is stifling its foreign-language outlets.

“Chinese state media do not alter their news formula when they go abroad, nor do they attempt to ‘localise’ their lexicon,” he told China Outlook. “Once a term has been uttered by a state leader, official translators ‘resolutely and unswervingly’ stick as close as possible to the original Chinese. Then orders go down to ‘relevant organs’ to always employ the same English term. If I changed that expression, the ‘aboves’ would always change it back. The effect is to stultify the language of reports into an officially sanctioned ‘Chinglish’.”

Worryingly, some pre-eminent Chinese journalists do not even see the problem. This is not a question of Chinese journalists being of inferior quality, or Chinese editors lacking skill. The problem boils down to a disagreement between Chinese and non-Chinese journalists about the nature of news.

Yang Rui, host of CCTV English’s “Dialogue” programme explained in an interview that he sees himself as a “spokesperson” for his country. Anglophone audiences might find this hard to swallow. They like to believe that the journalist’s calling is to speak truth to power. Yang Rui, on the other hand, offers only to speak truth from power.

So how can China’s propaganda chiefs find a way out of this ideological mismatch? They could do worse than take a leaf out of the playbook of Russia Today (RT), the Russian state-financed news channel. Under the slogan “Question more”, RT has attracted an English-speaking audience that wants an alternative perspective on current global affairs.

RT’s iconoclasm has been complemented by a clever online strategy, allowing the station to find viewers who don’t trust satellite news. As a result, RT is the most successful news outlet on YouTube. Critics see RT’s success on the rowdier corners of the internet as the ultimate indictment of RT’s style. But whether you like its style or not, RT is doing its job – undermining western powers’ ability to spin events their way. RT has achieved this by giving viewers what they want: controversy, debate and sticking it to the man.

If Beijing wants to have its voice heard further afield, it needs to work out which audience it wants to talk to, work out what that audience likes, and give their foreign journalists the freedom to deliver it to them. This is so obvious, although that begs the question: why isn’t this being done already?

The most obvious answer is that while China wants to extend its cultural influence abroad, it is unwilling to do so if it means risking a culture change in its own media. China has spent a lot of money building a bridge between itself and the world, but it still seems worried about letting traffic across, in either direction.

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