Understanding Chinese whispers

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Ten months ago, the Indian and Chinese navies were muscling up to each other in the South China Sea. But last week a Chinese training ship docked at Kochi as part of a round-the-world voyage. It had an Indian cadet on board. Later this month, four Indian ships will call at Shanghai.

India and China are clearly doing better at reaching an understanding on the ocean waves than on the air waves. The sailors are getting to know each other but with honourable exceptions media organizations on both sides continue to report on each other’s country with the astonishment of a panda bumping into an elephant on a dark night.

In the past two months, there has been talk of establishing an Indo-China Media Forum and Zee TV has been given rights to broadcast into China, just as CCTV was given approval by New Delhi in 2008, but for two countries constituting the world’s largest media markets, the process is glacial and this has consequences for international relations.

In India, a sentiment prevails that every media outlet in China has its strings pulled from Beijing. For the Chinese, the Indian press seems out of control yet deliberately trumpeting a hostile, official line. Such simplistic approaches impact daily diplomacy. For example, three years ago, following reports of incursions on the disputed border with China, the then National Security Advisor appeared on television with a warning that “if this thing goes on like this someone somewhere might lose his cool and something might go wrong.”

The Chinese barely understand the stunning diversity of the Indian press and its anti-establishment impulses. Similarly though the Chinese media must survive scrutiny from the Communist Party and government, they are more diverse than we give them credit for. Like India, China also has more than a 100 million newspapers circulating every day and the country’s media outlets, as in India, now depend on advertising, not government grants, to pay their bills; even though government agencies appoint editors and publishers.

Few know that China’s publishing and distribution industry has more than 44 listed companies. Last month, the online portal of the Communist Party’s mouthpiece since 1948, the People’s Daily, was listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in an initial public offering that raised nearly three times the original fundraising target.

Chinese cities and institutions run newspapers and television stations with varying degrees of autonomy and many of them have unusual degrees of openness. This allows coverage to be calibrated and it is difficult to get a handle on who really represents the official view, as seasoned China-watchers point out. For example, in the recent fracas with the United States over blind dissident Chen Guangcheng theBeijing Daily, not one of the national outlets, took the lead in berating US authorities. Similarly, the party-owned English tabloid, the Global Times, often takes hawkish views on India but its populism seems to be driven at least as much as by market forces as more conventional top-down ideas.
Also, what gets broadcast internationally from China on its new global CCTV network may not be disseminated in China itself. For example, the editorial line on what the Chinese broadcast on the CCTV’s Africa feed can be different from what they broadcast into the US.

Indian policy makers are only now beginning to comprehend the immense investment in global media that China is undertaking. Where private Indian media organizations keep only a handful of foreign bureaus, Chinese state-owned media have gone worldwide with foreign correspondents from the news agency Xinhua and other organizations based in more than 100 countries In terms of what Joseph Nye called soft power, India has not begun to harness the power of its growing television industry, in spite of the fact that private Indian channels have developed strong global audiences among South Asian diasporas.

It is obviously not the job of a free press to foster better relations with other countries. The media’s job is to report about issues but it is undeniable that the growth of different kinds of the media industries in both countries does have a powerful impact in terms of perceptions and not something that can be ignored.


By Nalin Mehta in Mumbai Mirror - May 21, 2012



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