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Envisioning China in the 21st century: Image management abroad and at home

18th February 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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Image management consists of striking a fine balance between portraying oneself favourably and maintaining legitimacy. The People’s Republic of China, so often the subject of international news coverage, has chosen to pursue a proactive campaign. Abroad, this strategy has taken the form of advertisements, bilateral agreements, and physical media presence that highlights China’s role as a trading, diplomatic, and/or development partner. It also plays a role in China’s growing ability to wield “soft power,” whether in developing or developed countries. However, the true audience for such a campaign may be Chinese nationals themselves, who seek an increasing and often hegemonic role for China as in the global community.

The face of friendship


The Chinese image management campaign - or as some put it, propaganda - was a key piece of Chinese strategy in preparing for President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States (US). In New York City’s Times Square, giant movie screens showed two thirty-second films on loop, both of which highlighted Chinese accomplishments and contributions to the global economy and to international, cosmopolitan culture. Ambient new-age music featuring traditional Chinese instruments accompanied the piece, which concluded with a flood of individual Chinese faces and the words “China” and “friendship.”(2)

Comments on the internet linked to postings of the video range from the curious to the incredulous, from the optimistic to the sceptical and even the outraged. There is a sense from some that the Chinese Government delivered the message heavy-handedly, alienating the American viewers. The classical propaganda style fails to inspire the American public, and instead incites negative reactions and repudiation. Other commentators point instead to the importance of recognising that China has grown beyond its adolescent role as the world’s factory. In fact, they might argue, China is producing and exporting its own culture.


As well as the political and ideological aims that such advertising may further, the Chinese news media have also pushed image management to encourage economic relations. Over the summer of 2010, adverts that sought to boost China’s image as a trading partner ran in Europe and Asia, featuring the catch-phrase “Made with China.”(3) The industry groups who commissioned the advert, with the assistance of the Ministry of Commerce targeted sports fans, unveiled the campaign at the 2010 Grand Prix. They also aired it on Eurosport and Eurosport 2 in time to coincide with coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.(4) In all, Chinese news reports estimate an exposure of nearly 600 million people worldwide.

Media aid in Africa

The extension of soft power through the media has had a less visible, but equally important role in China’s development assistance and business interests in Africa.(5) One of the few countries to do so, China contributes a relatively large proportion of its foreign development assistance to telecommunications and technical assistance for media. The Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) laid out a sub-point addressing media cooperation for “objective and balanced media coverage” as one of the objectives of its 2006 plan.(6) In 2010, as part of the Sharm el Sheik Action Plan, FOCAC included “Information and Communications” in its own category, vowing to “step up training for African personnel” and to encourage Chinese enterprises to “[get] involved in the building of communications infrastructure in Africa.”(7)

In 2009, Mozambican officials travelled to China despite the reported “Sino-pessimism” of Western media outlets in that country. As a result of the strengthening ties, the Government of Mozambique signed an agreement that all news broadcasts about China would come from Chinese news sources.(8) In Zambia, on the heels of Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu’s visit, Chinese Minister of Press and Publication Liu Binjie and his counterpart, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Ronnie Shikapwasha, signed a memorandum of understanding on capacity-building and press protection in January 2011.(9)

More generally, China’s focus of development is in developing technical capacities and infrastructure. Recipients of technical assistance have included Equatorial Guinea, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe,(10) while official infrastructure assistance included the “refurbishing of Government broadcasting systems in Liberia and Zambia.”(11) However, not all assistance has been without drawbacks, and criticism of the Chinese incursions on local media freedoms has been harsh. Minister Liu’s comments in Lusaka included a scathing reference to local media “fabrication” of news stories about violence between African and Chinese workers at the Sinazongwe mine. According to Reporters without Borders, China’s involvement in Africa is “‘toxic for democracy’ because it emboldens African regimes to risk international condemnation of their anti-democratic political practices.”(12)

Xinhua: broadcasting the “new China”

The Xinhua news service is one of the largest and most well-known Chinese players in the international media. The Chinese Communist Party established Xinhua, originally called the Red China News Agency, in 1931. The news service followed the Red Army on its Long March to Yan’an, where it adopted the name “Xinhua” or “New China.” In 1983, after the start of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the Party encouraged Xinhua to expand its global content and enter the international media market. In 1995, Jiang Zemin reaffirmed this mission, mandating that Xinhua become the largest and most modern international news service “with Chinese socialist characteristics,” in order to ensure that China’s international status and aspirations conform.(13)

Xinhua has thrived in the global recession, despite Government cuts to its budget, largely because of its ability to offer low bids to developing country buyers.(14) The news agency is opening new posts around the globe for a total of nearly 200 offices and 6000 employees; the Xinhua US headquarters will soon move into the top floor of a Times Square skyscraper. This expansion will make it the largest and most extensive news agency in the world.(15)

Coverage increases as Xinhua expands into new media markets. Xinhuanet, the internet arm of the news service, opened in 1997 and now operates under four domain names and in six languages.(16) China has also signed content-sharing agreements with national news networks across Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, where high financial and political costs of Western media make the Chinese offering a smart economic move.(17) Xinhua’s English-language television news network, China Xinhua News Network Corporation (CNC), launched its CNC World network in July 2010, expanding English, Russian, and Arabic programming.(18) In an announcement in December 2010, Xinhua applauded an agreement between CNC and South Africa’s MIH Group that will provide access to Xinhua’s news to an estimated 4 million African families.(19) A corresponding agreement with Eutelsat will extend coverage to the Middle East and North Africa through its satellite networks, starting on 1 January 2011.(20)

In the rapidly growing Chinese media market, there does seem to be room for new or different perspectives. For example, the initial public offering of and People’s Daily Online in early 2011 signal the transition of state-run media to private ownership, as part of the media reforms promoted in the 2011-2015 Five-Year Plan.(21) The recently established Blue Ocean Network counts on its status as an independent organisation to distinguish it from other media outlets and to help win over viewers. It claims to offer a Chinese perspective without the implication of unpopular oversight of the Chinese Government, and commits itself to improving content, showing “the negative side” of China, as well as the positive. Founder Justin Ku states, “Anything that is fundamentally important to what China is now, we will report it."(22)

However, some China scholars caution that while these firms may gain financial independence from the Government, improving brand credibility and the ability of the company to innovate, they will likely continue to benefit from favourable Government policies and investment opportunities.


The global market for news acts just like any other market - those agencies that are able to offer more news at a lower price will likely succeed. For some news services, politics will not enter into the discussion; this holds especially true, perhaps, for those agencies in developing countries. By helping to fill this gap in content and capability, Chinese media assistance legitimises the country’s soft power approach to international politics, and offers new markets a viable alternative to Western-style media coverage - and Western-style development. Development assistance need no longer be conditional on values of democracy or freedom of the press. The question for Xinhua is whether providing broad, international news coverage without also meeting demands for democratic values is sustainable. As this news outlet and others continue to penetrate markets in Africa, an answer will be inevitable.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Government must be concerned not only with their image abroad, crafted through development assistance and media management. They must also consider the demands of their own citizens for stability, job creation, and continued economic growth. Foreign relations, especially in the emerging markets of sub-Saharan Africa, will determine the likelihood of a continued growth trajectory. That growth, in turn, will ensure a fairly contented, xiaokang society. Furthermore, as ordinary Chinese begin to imagine their country as more than just the world’s factory, the image of China as a counterweight to the liberal, democratic aid donors of the global North gains in appeal. This image includes recognition of Chinese cultural, scientific, and artistic contributions. The Chinese Communist Party may seem to control the airwaves, but they are no longer broadcasting communism; instead, they sell a nascent Chinese nationalism. And while this aggressive image management may fall on deaf ears in New York or Nigeria, it may be Beijing’s goal for it to reach the ears - and hearts and minds - of the Chinese people.


(1) Contact Sarah M. Brooks through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit (
(2) Video available via BON TV at
(3) Jin Zhu, “’Made with China’ ad boosts products’ image.”, China Daily, 2 July 2010.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Banda, Fackson, “China in the African mediascape: a critical injection.” Journal of African Media Studies. Vol. 1, No. 3. 2009.
(6) Ministry of Foreign Affairs PRC, ‘China’s African Policy’, Published by FOCAC, 20 September 2006,
(7) Ministry of Foreign Affairs PRC, ‘Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Sharm el Sheikh Action Plan (2010-2012)’. Published by FOCAC, 12 November 2009,
(8) Centre for Chinese Studies. “Evaluating China’s FOCAC commitments to Africa and mapping the way ahead.” University of Stellenbosch, 2010.
(9) ‘Zambia and China sign media MOU’, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, 25 January 2011.
(10) Banda, Fackson, “China in the African mediascape: a critical injection.” Journal of African Media Studies. Vol. 1, No. 3. 2009.
(11) Farah, Douglas and Andy Mosher, “Winds from the East: How the People’s Republic of China Seeks to Influence the Media in Africa, Latin American, and Southeast Asia”, The Center for International Media Assistance, 8 September 2010.
(12) Banda, Fackson, “China in the African mediascape: a critical injection.” Journal of African Media Studies. Vol. 1, No. 3. 2009. p. 350.
(13) 新华通讯社. “历史沿革.” Website of the Xinhua News Agency,
(14) Fish, Isaac Stone and Tony Dokoupil, “All the Propaganda That’s Fit to Print”, Newsweek, 3 September 2010,
(15) Ibid.
(16) Xinhuanet, ‘Brief Introduction’, 31 August 2007.
(17) Fish, Isaac Stone and Tony Dokoupil, “All the Propaganda That’s Fit to Print”, Newsweek, 3 September 2010,
(18) Beech, Hannah, “Fierce and Friendly: China’s Two Diplomatic Faces.” Time Magazine, 18 January 2011,
(19) Lu Hui, ed, “Xinhua’s CNC English-language TV channel to reach African cable audiences”, Xinhuanet, 10 December 2010.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Cho Young-Sam, ed, “People’s Daily may Lead China’s State-Run Media to Market”, Bloomberg News, 5 January 2011.
(22) Farrar, Lara, “Can Chinese media rule the airwaves?” CNN, 3 September 2010.

Written by Sarah M. Brooks (1)


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