Since the beginning of 2015, a new weekly program Closer to China with Robert Lawrence Kuhn has been shown on CCTV English Channel. The program covers various issues that China faces: politics, economics, society, diplomacy, science, etc. Also, it makes a bold attempt to let a foreigner to be the host. In 30 minutes, the host interviews Chinese government officials, scholars, and other related professionals and “asks the hard, specific questions that the world wants to know about.”
The goal of the program, according to Dr. Kuhn, is to present the real situation in China through discussions with China’s thought leaders in all areas, leaders whom foreigners would rarely meet. For example, in the episode of Rule of Law and Judicial Reforms, the host invited Yunteng Hu, the president of Second Circuit Court of the Supreme People’s Court, to talk about how the rule of law works in China today. Another example is in China’s Organ Transplant Reform, Jiefu Huang, the former vice minister of Ministry of Health, talked about where the organs in medical transplants in China come from.
Although all of the English programs on CCTV are available online, visitors usually need to go to the bottom of the website to find these programs. But Closer to China is listed at a prominent position of CCTV’s English website, right under the logo of CCTV on the top of the website, together with Tibet and One Belt, One Road. Also, Closer to China has its own web page, which provides comprehensive information about the program, including “Videos,” “Anchor,” “About us,” and “Contact us.” The audience can easily find not only all the episodes but also some background information about the issue discussed. Obviously, CCTV wants more people to know and watch this program.
So has CCTV’s dream of reaching Western audience come true? In order to find out whether this program works, I invited five friends of mine, who are from the U.S., Russia and Taiwan, to watch one of the episodes, The CPC’s (Communist Party of China) Recent Battle Against Corruption (7/26/2015). Although it is impossible to draw any conclusions based on the opinions of such a small group of people, this may shed some light on how a wider audience might view the program. The majority of my small focus group (3 of 5) think the program is informative and that it has more or less increased their understanding of the issue. Meanwhile, the group stated that they would like to watch other episodes to know more about the recent policy of the CPC.
The results of the interviews may seem to be discouraging, especially considering how much time and resources CCTV has put into making this program. But all of the participants said they thought the program itself was of high-quality. The problem was the perception that CCTV is the mouthpiece of the CPC, making people distrustful of the source of the information in the first place. However, the participants pointed out a problem with the program: on one hand, they think the host asks key and sharp questions about Chinese reform. On the other hand, they feel the interviewees did not really answer the questions directly. What the interviewees do is show support for President Xi Jinping by quoting his speech; they try not only to align themselves with the government, but also with the President himself. One of the participants even told me this program reminded him of the articles published by Western media, which describe how President Xi has developed a personality cult recently and how it is damaging the Party’s “collective” leadership style. He said he had not believed these news reports until watching this video. Also, my focus group thought the program tells just one side of the story: the efforts made by the ruling party. My informants also expected to hear more opinions from outside of the power circle, such as citizens and professionals. For this reason, they expressed a need more information from different sources before deciding whether this program could improve their overall opinion of China’s anti-corruption campaign.
There is no doubt that there is a new trend in China’s government-led publicity in recent years, the transformation from “defense” to “offense.” In the past, the government’s efforts were aimed at debunking the myths related to China appearing in foreign news reports. But in recent years, China has realized the importance of soft power. Instead of simply reacting to foreign media interpretations of China’s policies, China now tries to take the initiative in telling its own story. Official programs, such as Closer to China, are examples of this trend with policy interpretation playing a large role in the program. Episodes such as the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone or China’s Health Care Reform: Doctor-Patient Tension put a positive spin on the latest policies of China, demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve and capacity in dealing with these issues.
In February, President Xi made a tour of CCTV. On the wall of the studio, there is a banner saying “The CCTV’s family name is the Party and it shows absolute loyalty to the Party.” To foreigners, this may be an example of the government’s interference with the independence of media, which is the vital source of credibility of western media such as BBC and CNN. Unfortunately, Chinese leaders still fail to realize the real soft power is best generated from civil society, not from the government or the ruling party. With this in mind, the real question people may want to ask is how long it will take before we really get closer to China.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.