Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Chinese journalism and American soft power

On Monday November 7 Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency, celebrated its 80th birthday. Its efforts to create what China's propaganda chief, Li Changchun, described as a 'top-ranking international media organization' have been well documented, with a lot of attention devoted to Xinhua's ambition to follow the example of Al-Jazeera. I am very sceptical of this as regular readers of my blog and my other work on China's international outreach will know, so I will not rehearse those arguments again here.

What is worrying is a proposal by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and two other Republican congressmen to require parity in the numbers of Chinese journalists in the US and American journalists in China. But here I must make an important qualification; the bill, if passed, will only refer to journalists from state or government-owned news organisations. Apparently the US in 2010 issued visas to 650 Chinese journalists working for state-owned media, while two US journalists from government-owned media were issued vias in China.

There are two problems with this:
First, parity is impossible. The US does not have a tradition of state-owned media; the only journalists this bill would affect are those working for the Voice of America and other US international broadcasting outlets such as Radio Free Asia (whose journalists cannot work in China anyway).

Second, by seeking to restrict the number of Chinese journalists in the US, the bill will damage American soft power. 'An eye for an eye' is a dangerous strategy to win hearts and minds, and by limiting the number of visas for Chinese journalists, the US is sending a strong signal to China which undermines its own soft power credentials. Not only is freedom of the press a core value, but also the proposal risks the opportunity to showcase those same core American values to Chinese journalists and their audiences. My advice: Don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.      

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