BEIJING — Inside China Global Television Network’s 2,000-square-meter main studio, technicians scrambled to rig a wall of Ed Sullivan Theater-sized lighting for a considerably less star-studded ceremony honoring scientists.
The contrast points up a conundrum in the ambitious plans CGTN has for its place in the world. The Chinese state-funded broadcast network’s motto reads “See the Difference.” Tour guides in the 57-story, bi-legged China Central Television Building explain its skylights “so the world can see China, and we can see the world.”
When Suhan Chen worked for the network in 2002, it had just two reporters in the United States. Now Chen directs the Confucius Institute at the University of Montana and CGTN’s Washington, D.C., bureau alone has more than 200 staff.
“They want to provide a Chinese voice,” Chen said. “Everyone has their own perspective about what’s happening in the world. And this is a different kind of soft power. It’s pretty common for every country to do it.”
The TV world already includes institutions like CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today.
“We’re not covering just China,” CGTN deputy controller Yang Fuqing explained in Beijing. “We are trying to cover this whole globe. We really want to be a serious news channel.”
To do that, CGTN has also opened production facilities in London and Nairobi, Kenya. The Nairobi bureau has a staff of 130, producing at least three hours of English-language news programming a day, specifically on Africa. Overall, CGTN intends to put out 17 hours daily of news in English.
Then there are the versions in Spanish, Russian, French and Arabic. And the expansion into talk shows and political commentary programs with brand-name hosts. And the maintenance of 42.9 million Facebook followers.
“There’s a lot of interest in news from places that aren’t just Israel and Paris, but parts of Africa people haven’t heard from,” said University of Montana School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson. “I’m glad to see people stepping into that gap. But if the idea is simply that the government will fund this stuff so you can turn out an endless number of stories, you still have to engage listeners and viewers. It’s incumbent to demonstrate they’re doing more than just spewing information out into the ether.”
Abramson added other government-supported news organizations, including the United States’ National Public Radio and Great Britain’s British Broadcasting Corporation, have taken steps to display independence from the governments they cover.
“I don’t want to assume CGTN has a Chinese-government outlook, but since it’s funded by the Chinese government, they have to demonstrate they’re not beholden to government interests,” Abramson said. “When I watched their programming, what I saw was there are plenty of conflicts of interest and lack of skepticism when it comes to questioning Chinese government sources. A government can speak to its people on its own. As journalists, we don’t just pick up that message and pass it along. I think if international journalism in a Chinese style can embody those ethics, I’m happy to have another competitor on the scene.”
That cross-pollination of Chinese and Western journalistic methods is already underway. Beijing’s Tsinghua University School of Journalism and Communication offers a global journalism program. Its students come from places like Venezuela, Canada, Russia, Macedonia, Botswana, Japan and even the United States. Several other Chinese universities have reached out to UM for student exchange programs.
Last April, Mansfield Library Dean Shali Zhang visited China’s Southwest University of Political Science and Law (SWUPL), a 23,000-student campus in Chongqing. She returned with a request from administrators there to set up visiting student programs of one semester or one year at UM.
“Since UM’s School of Journalism has been ranked high consistently, these universities in China are also eager to send their students to UM’s School of Journalism,” Zhang said in an email. “Having the students from SWUPL and other colleges and universities from China to study at UM will be very beneficial for all. It is one way to quickly increase UM’s visibility on a global scale, in addition to having tuition incomes.”
Chongqing is the largest city in China, bigger than Beijing or Shanghai. It sits astride the Yangtze River, known to many as the site of the Three Gorges Dam project. Its university community trains many of China’s legal experts.
Zhang and College of Education and Human Sciences Dean Roberta Evans are also drafting memoranda of understanding with Beijing Normal University on cooperative programs in early childhood development, special education, educational leadership and librarian training.
In 2014, UM Journalism professor Dennis Swibold taught a graduate seminar on the American presidential election of 2008 and 2012 at Shanghai International Studies University. Eight Chinese students returned to Montana with him to continue their experience at UM. Swibold said while the demand for trained journalists appears strong in China, the challenges of working on such a cross-cultural platform can be daunting.
“Journalism is just hard to do in another culture,” Swibold said. “It’s both what you say and what you don’t say. If you don’t understand the culture and the language, you’re going to have a hard time.”
CGTN editors see an open field for their perspective on world events. The initiative gained momentum in 2002 after China won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and joined the World Trade Organization. CGTN officials said they felt international news coverage up to then tended to “demonize” China, and they wanted to show the world what the nation really looks like.
They also wanted to insert China’s opinions into the world debate. For example, on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, CGTN focused on the effect President Trump’s Muslim travel ban might have on immigration and how European terror targets have evolved.
“There are 10 million people starving in Africa right after Trump took office,” Yung said. “The international media was focusing on other things. We covered it right after the United Nations general secretary published his request for aid, and continued with 10 days of coverage. Others covered the story, but not as intensively as CGTN.”