Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power

I was inspired to write this post by a recent episode of Sea Control (the Center For International and Maritime Security’s podcast) that focused on the future of Chinese journalism and the role Xinhua News Agency plays in promoting Chinese soft power. Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Asia policy at the Heritage Foundation, was the central guest of the show. Mr. Cheng is a fairly astute observer of Asian affairs; his thoughts here are worth listening to.  There are a few points I would like to add to his discussion.

Unlike many aspects of Chinese politics, there is a substantial body of reliable research on the way  Chinese information media works. This is particularly true for newspapers and news television programs, both of which have far larger number of consumers (proportionally speaking) than in America. We probably have a better understanding of how newspapers like People’s Daily and Global Times work than we do any other national institution created or sponsored by the Chinese state. We can thank the good work of social scientists like Daniela Stockmann and Maria Repnikova for this. A lot of what follows is the distillation or application of ideas and conclusions they expressed in earlier presentations, articles, and books.

A screen shot of the Global Time‘s Chinese web page

1. The most important thing to understand about the Chinese press is that the majority of Chinese newspapers are commercialized entities. Commercialization is not privatization. “Official” Party papers are of course owned by the Party, but even nonofficial papers are not allowed to let more than 49% of their ownership pass into private hands. Likewise, every paper, official or otherwise, cannot publish without an official sponsor. The position of sponsor determines the possible distribution of the paper.  For example, the People’s Daily and the Global Times, which are sold across China, are sponsored by the Central Propaganda Department under the CPC Central Committee. Local papers with more limited distribution–say, the Hainan Daily or the Yangtze Evening Post–would be sponsored by the Propaganda Department under supervision of the CPC committee at the provincial or municipal level. 

When I describe the Chinese press as “commercialized,” therefore, I do not mean that it is completely privatized, or that it is free from government regulation and interference.  Rather, I mean that Chinese newspapers must respond to market incentives to stay solvent. The majority of Chinese newspapers were stripped of state economic support two decades ago. Most of these make their money today through selling advertisement space. If they fail to turn a profit they will be closed down. Official papers (sometimes described as “Party mouthpieces”) like the People’s Daily are a bit sheltered from these pressures–while they are still expected to be profitable, everyone in the business knows that the Party unit responsible for them would not allow them to pass out of circulation unless it was facing bankruptcy itself. Because the non-official (sometimes described by China-hands as ‘tabloid’) newspaper business is quite lucrative, many media outlets that produce party papers will also publish non-official, purely-for-profit papers on the side. This is the story behind The Global Times,  which is published by the People’s Daily Newspaper Group as a non-official money making machine.

This has had a predictable effect on media content. Chinese newspapers are now in strict competition with each other to grab most readers. This means writing the kinds of articles that grab the attention of the masses: the more lurid, titillating, sensational, or nationalistic, the better. Even the distinguished Xinhua News Service is not immune from this sort of thing. I couldn’t help but chuckle when the podcast host Scott Peters worried whether or not the American press corps’ obsession with non-stories like Kim Kardashian and Bruce/Catelynn Jenner would give it a strategic advantage in the contest to control global media narratives. My guess is Mr. Peters doesn’t read Xinhua too often. If I had few dollars every time Xinhua placed a photo collage like “Beautiful Female Soldiers From All Over the World,” “Singer Valen Hsu Poses For Fashion Shots,” “Sleeping Babies With Their Cutest Pets,” on their front page, I would be able to buy my own copy of Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States instead of searching fruitlessly for a library that can lend it to me.

2. The Chinese state and the Chinese press should be understood as two parts of single system.  Most Westerners are familiar with the way authoritarian states use media outlets to spread propaganda or telegraph its position on controversial issues to citizens and interest groups. Just as important, however, is the way the media is used by citizens and interest groups to communicate to state leaders. This is particularly important for avoiding the bane of all authoritarian systems–a danger Ronald Wintrobe called the “Dictator’s Dilemma.” The dilemma works as follows: Dictators want to know the effectiveness of their policies and the popularity of their decisions. If they cannot get this information, they will be unprepared for the consequences of discontent: unrest, rebellion, coups, and the like. The problem is that those who might inform the dictator (or his agents) of the truth face powerful incentives to hide it. The more control a dictator has over the country, the more vulnerable he is to disinformation. Surmounting this challenge can be very difficult. The horrors of the Great Leap Forward (and Mao’s subsequent fall from grace) are a testament to what happens when a dictator fails to do so.

China’s press corp provides one path out of the dilemma. They do this in two ways. The first is investigative reporting, something the Chinese state encourages as long as it is kept within certain bounds. In this China’s media system is quite different from that of Russia and many other authoritarian states. The Russian state tries to isolate and bully those reporters which oppose it, doing all in its power to convince dissidents that their cause is hopeless. The Chinese, in contrast, strive to co-opt those critical of the state. The CPC gives reporters a large space in which they are free to report, and allows them to work in that space with little interference as long as they do not question the legitimacy of the CPC itself. In some cases–say, local corruption–reporters are encouraged to uncover and denounce with abandon. This allows Chinese reporters to feel like they are playing a positive role in improving Chinese society and China’s government. They feel this way because they are playing a positive role–their reporting opens a window Party leaders can look through to glimpse the concerns and troubles of the Chinese people and craft policies that respond to what they see.

Normal, non-investigative reporting also helps the government keep a finger on the pulse of popular opinion. Remember that Chinese newspapers must make money to survive. This means they face immense pressure to pander to their audience and present the news of the day in the fashion their readers will find most palatable. On issues of international controversy, this means a more strident, nationalistic line than appears in government outlets. This is one of the more consistent findings of Daniela Stockmann’s research over  the last decade: official papers, like the People’s Daily,  present disputes with Japan, the United States, etc. in softer terms than more commercialized papers like the Global Times. This holds true both at the national level (People’s Daily vs. Global Times), but also with smaller local papers like the Chongqing News and the Chongqing Evening News.

This should inform our approach to the Global Times and its fiery reporting. Chinese censors rarely tell reporters or columnists what to write. Instead, they tell them what they can’t write. This usually means a blanket ban on a particularly sensitive topic, or instructions not to write too sharply about a given issue. Non-official papers play a game of fine distinctions, trying to write as sensationally as possible without stepping over the boundaries the state has set to keep things under control. So when the Global Times erupts into another one of its characteristic anti-Tokyo tirades, their stance should be understood as the upper limit of indignation the Party can prudently allow national outlets to print.

Xinhua plays a unique role in this system. Because Xinhua is supported by state funds it can afford to be a bit more measured than commercial papers like the Global Times. But Xinhua  is more conservative than most state outlets. This is because so many of its wires are used by other Chinese papers for their foreign reporting. Indeed, whenever a sensitive international issue arises that Chinese leaders fear might spark domestic instability, newspapers across China are ordered to stop independent reporting on the issue and reprint Xinhua dispatches verbatim. A good measure of how sensitive the Party considers a given international issue at a given time is the percentage of articles published by non-official outlets that were really just Xinhua reprints!

Thus while Cheng is right to note in his discussion on the podcast that Xinhua has three potential audiences (the people of China, countries with which China competes, and third parties who are not on either side), at the moment Xinhua’s most important audience is certainly the domestic one.

3. But will this always be so?

Let me share a story. During the first week of 2014 Cambodia was rocked by a series of protests against the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and its strong-man, Hun Sen. I speak Khmer and have several close friends in Phnom Penh so I followed the story quite closely. The easiest and most reliable source of information were the Twitter and Facebook feeds of those participating. Both those were often in Khmer, which (especially when politics is being discussed) requires great effort on my part to translate. There was no reliable and steady stream of updates in English… except from Xinhua.* That whole week Xinhua’s English website was the first page I visited everyday. I used it to help prioritize the flood of materials coming in Khmer and decide which ones were worth translating. I doubt the Chinese reporters on the ground knew it, but they were shaping my perception of events far more than any Western outlet had been able to do.

Cheng describes a fairly similar process happening in Africa. He notes that Xinhua now has more reporters and bureaus on the African continent than AP, Reuters, and AFP combined. For many countries Xinhua will not just have the first shoes on the ground: they will have the only shoes on the ground. But does this really help Chinese soft power?

I am skeptical. The best case scenario is that Xinhua gains the respect held by the big three, and newspapers outside of China begin reprinting its wires as they do dispatches from Reuters or AFP. This sounds entirely plausible to me. Xinhua’s reporting is usually top notch. As long as the topic isn’t about China, I often prefer it to the wire reports of more famous services. But it is not difficult to see the limitations of using a news agency as an instrument of international soft power. Like Cambodia’s 2014 protests, most of the issues these reporters will cover will have nothing to do with China and its rivalry with the United States, Japan, or smaller regional powers in Southeast Asia. The places and events where “shaping the narrative” matter most will be the places and events that draw droves of reporters from other countries. Expanding Xinhua’s global presence will have little effect on how China’s rivals or important third party observers will think about China’s actions on the world stage.

Xinhua’s global expansion will help China in a different way. Turn to America to understand why. Every few months some professor or think tank fellow writes up another article despairing the shrinking number of Americans with expertise in foreign cultures, or the small number of Americans studying obscure languages. They rightly point out that the small number of Americans with this sort of knowledge puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage. (Right now I am sure the United States wishes it had more people available who speak Kurdish or could navigate the details of Syrian tribal politics). What these articles never discuss are the economic incentives that keep Americans away from studying foreign languages and cultures. In economic terms it simply isn’t worth it: companies that need bilingual individuals or specialists with knowledge in local cultures can always find a local who speaks the language in question as their native tongue. This person is  quite likely to speak English as well as any American; they will also work for much less than most Americans. Government work is little better. Demand for regional specialists varies too sharply from one crisis to another to commit one’s career to expertise in an obscure region or culture. 

Mandarin is not the global lingua franca, so the economics of area expertise are not quite as severe for the Chinese. But Beijing faces a similar problem. Like the United States, China will be at a disadvantage if it does not have a pool of citizens familiar with the languages and cultures of the countries they deal with. By subsiding a vast assembly of reporters stationed all over the world in an era when other news agencies are shrinking, the CPC is making an investment in its human capital. Whether this investment will help China better achieve its national interests is yet to be seen. 


Daniela Stockmann, Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Communication, Society and Politics) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

       ———, “Race to the Bottom: Media Marketization and Increasing Negativity Toward the United States in China,” Political Communication 28, iss 3 (August 2011), 268-290.

      ———, “Who Believes Propaganda? Media Effects during the Anti-Japanese Protests in Beijing,” The China Quarterly 202 (June 2010), 269-289. 

See also: Ms. Stockmann’s excellent interview for the Sinica podcast.

Maria Repnikova, “Media Oversight in Non-Democratic Regimes: The Perspectives of Officials and Journalists in China,” Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication Paper 3 (April 2015).

       ———, “Limited Political Liberalisation in Authoritarian Regimes: Critical Journalists and the State in China.” PhD Dissertation, University of Oxford (2013).

      ———, “Chinese Journalists Are No Revolutionaries,” Wall Street Journal (15 January 2013).

Jonathan Hassid, “Four Models of the Fourth Estate: A Typology of Contemporary Chinese Journalists,The China Quarterly 208 (2011), 813–32.

*This isn’t quite true–the Cambodia Daily is a fine English newspaper based out of Phnom Penh that published even more material than Xinhua did. However, Cambodia Daily has a limit on the number of articles you can read without paying, and given the week’s events I hit that limit quickly.

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Thank you for the very informative and concise post. Incidentally, have you still not been able to find a copy of Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States to read?