Cruise southeast out of Houston, past the NASA exits and toward the Gulf of Mexico, and you pick up something a little incongruous on the radio, amid country crooners, Rush Limbaugh, hip-hop and all the freewheeling clamour of the American airwaves.
“China Radio International,” a voice intones. “This is Beyond Beijing.”
Way, way beyond Beijing.
Sandwiched between a Spanish Christian network and a local sports station, broadcasting at 1540 on your AM dial, is KGBC of Galveston, wholly American-owned and -operated, but with content provided exclusively by a mammoth, state-owned broadcaster from the People’s Republic of China.
The little Texas station may be modest, but it is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Chinese government to expand its influence worldwide. As China rises as a global force, its leaders think that their country is routinely mischaracterised and misunderstood and that China needs to spread its point of view on everything from economics to art to counter the influence of the West.
Beijing’s new response is typically massive and ambitious: a $6.6 billion global strategy to create media giants that will challenge agenda-setting Western behemoths such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the BBC and CNN.
As Western media are contracting, China is pushing its government-run news services to expand from America to Zimbabwe. It is creating TV networks, pouring millions into English-language newspapers, leasing radio stations on all continents and broadcasting TV news to a worldwide audience in six languages.
The stations don’t broadcast outright propaganda but rather programming with a Chinese focus and flavour, tailoured for local audiences. In Galveston, the format mixes China-centric international news, talk shows about the status of China’s women and a healthy dose of gangsta rap, all in English.
In New York, China’s official Xinhua News Agency is moving its North American headquarters from a small building in Queens to a sprawling office complex in Times Square. It will soon have more than twice as many bureaus in the United States as any Western news agency has in China.
Xinhua plans to increase its worldwide footprint from about 130 bureaus to close to 200 and is equipping each one with a videographer. And last year it started its own television news channel — in both English and Chinese.
China Central Television, the main state broadcaster, operates its biggest overseas bureau in Washington. In a sign of its increasing ambition, CCTV will begin live financial news coverage (in English) on Monday from the New York Stock Exchange.
Behind the push is a Communist Party hierarchy that has seized upon the idea of “soft power” as China’s new Holy Grail in its search for superpower status. President Hu Jintao has publicly stressed the strategy.
And in 2008, Li Changchun, the party leader responsible for propaganda, summed up China’s rationale: “In the modern age, whichever nation’s communication methods are most advanced, whichever nation’s communication capacity is strongest ... has the most power to influence the world.”
But if there’s a whiff of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in China’s efforts to mold minds, there’s also a dollop of Rube Goldberg in its missteps.
Much of the $6.6 billion budget hasn’t been allocated because Chinese media companies have come up with unworkable ideas, Chinese government sources said. For example, a scheme to place TV screens showing pro-China content in European supermarkets hasn’t materialised because China is having difficulty finding a firm to downlink the satellite feeds.
Beijing bureaucrats ended a program that allowed reporters on the recently relaunched US edition of the China Daily, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, to do original reporting and not simply reprint stories provided by headquarters.
Bad advice and corrupt consultants bedeviled the Chinese as they sought to increase their global heft, several consultants said. “They don’t know the market so they are relying on the kindness of strangers,” Shorey said.
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content, visit www.washingtonpost.com)