(This column was published in DNA edition dated November 5, 2010.)
As I write these lines, I’m watching a satellite television news and entertainment channel beamed in Hong Kong that has a pretty interesting selling proposition. The programming is entirely in Putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese, but almost all of the news anchors and chat show hosts – and many of the guests – are foreign expatriates who have acquired admirable felicity in Chinese. The HKS channel, which is part-owned by an official Communist Party newspaper, is evidently an experiment in getting the official Voice of China out to the larger Chinese-speaking world – but through the mouths of foreign “friends of China”. Additionally, to the extent that it depicts waiguoren (or foreigners) disseminating ‘news with Chinese characteristics’ or discussing, as they often do, aspects of Chinese culture in fluent Putonghua, it is a slick and moderately successful demonstration of China’s ability to project its ‘soft power’ influence in the region.
For all its quirkiness, this isn’t the only effort on China’s part to narrate the ‘China story’ to an overseas audience in a distinct way. The country’s official broadcaster CCTV, which already beams overseas, is looking to expand its global footprint and plans to set up 50 offices abroad (including in India) and offer 11 channels in seven languages by 2012. Additionally, China’s official news agency Xinhua is venturing into television and is busy drawing up plans to offer news and entertainment programmes – in Chinese and several foreign languages, including English, Arabic, Russian, French, Japanese and Portuguese. It even plans to acquire television stations overseas and hopes to beam to up to 100 countries by 2014 – and achieve ‘global influence’ by 2020.
It’s easy to see why China wants to flood the airwaves with what many would call its official, propagandist view of the world. Events of the past couple of years have, in particular, demonstrated that while China’s economic rise narrates quite a compelling, even enviable, story around the world, the country often finds itself on the wrong side of the political narrative offered by the predominantly Western media conglomerates.
This has been particularly accentuated by the near-universal negative coverage overseas of China’s intolerance of domestic dissent, its crackdown in Tibet, and perceptions about its recent aggressive muscle-flexing with its maritime and land neighbours, including India. In this ‘information war’, China’s ‘voice’ is much feebler than its economic and political ‘hard power’ influence might warrant; it didn’t help that the official narrative put out by China was artlessly heavy-handed and propagandist, and for that reason didn’t gain much traction.
In their efforts to make China’s voice heard and offer an alternative view of the world, Chinese propaganda officials are looking to emulate the Arabic-origin Al-Jazeera television network’s relative success in offering a narrative of happenings in the Muslim world that repeatedly challenges the Western perspective. But Al-Jazeera’s credibility is hard won, and it will be difficult in the short run for Xinhua and CCTV to overcome their unsophisticated ‘carpet-bombing’ approach to news dissemination. As with networks like Fox News, their challenge will be to convince audiences beyond the “committed” and the “converted” that they aren’t unvarnished propagandists and spinmeisters. Even so, it would be unwise to underestimate China’s ‘propaganda power’ on the world stage in the coming years, particularly if it masters the art of slick packaging of ‘news with Chinese characteristics’.
And what of India: is there a ‘Voice of India’ floating on the airwaves, and what story does it have to tell? For one thing, Official India doesn’t have nearly as forceful a voice, and the patriotic exertions of the External Services divisions of All India Radio and Doordarshan amount to no more than a digital whisper. And given the plural democratic characteristic of Indian society, what outsiders may hear, in the absence of a powerful state-driven narrative, is more likely to be a poly-lingual, cacophonous discourse. To that extent, there are many ‘Voices of India’ precisely because there are, sociologically speaking, ‘many Indias’; it’s a striking contrast to the manufactured, mono-lingual harmony of the Voice of China.
But then, even in the economic realm, the contrast between India and China is striking: it’s not the Indian state that keeps the Indian flag flying overseas, but Corporate India, with its world-class governance, enterprise and managerial prowess. And Indian-origin professionals who head top multinationals – from Pepsi to Citigroup – narrate another kind of Indian story: of the power of ideas. That, again, is a bottom-up story, with individual, whispered strands that could, if sustained over time, make for a compelling high-decibel narrative over the long term.