Recent revelations that China is planning on investing over US$7 billion in an effort to create a credible global radio and television news service using Al-Jazeera English as a model have provoked comments that range from the dismissive to the skeptical to the paranoid.
I am not convinced China is going to create a credible global voice in the near term, but I think it is only a matter of time before it happens. Rather than concern America and the world, however, we should see this effort as a positive development because even the sketchy details we have of the program suggest a new maturity in China's approach to strategic communications, public diplomacy, and indeed world opinion.
1. China Needs to Care About What the World Thinks - The fact that China is ready to undertake this effort means that China's senior leadership acknowledges that global opinion matters to China. This may be obvious to those of us steeped in communications, international relations, soft power, and/or public diplomacy, but it is a light-bulb moment for China's leaders. Since declaring the People's Republic sixty years ago, China has maintained an almost cussed independence of action, speaking and acting as if it cared nothing for what the world thought. This is apparently no longer the case, and that opens a new series of doors to influence Chinese policy.
2. If You Build It, They May Not Care - Whatever else China Radio International, CCTV-4, and CCTV-9 have accomplished, their growing availability worldwide has not had much apparent effect on how China is perceived abroad. China's leaders have learned an important lesson: they do not get a hearing purely by virtue of China's size or growing importance.
3. Propaganda Fails - The acknowledgment that the service's credibility depends on a level of editorial objectivity unknown elsewhere in Chinese media (including the current global radio and television services) is an implicit recognition that propaganda is dead as a tool of public diplomacy. This is not only a rejection of previous practice but of orthodox Communist communications doctrine.
4. The Audience is King - The initiative recognizes that China must communicate with the world in a way that audiences can appreciate, rather than using the intonation and buzzwords of Chinese political orthodoxy. If you've ever heard a government official speak in public - or watched a Chinese newscast - you know what I mean.
5. Being Heard Means Looking Good - The initiative recognizes that China must compete in a global marketplace of information, and China's take on world affairs will not be heard unless it is packaged and delivered in a format and context that is comfortable to non-Chinese viewers. If there is a single lesson from Al-Jazeera, this is it.
If you are not certain that China coming to these conclusions is necessarily a good thing for the rest of the world, consider this. If I have learned one lesson in my career as a communicator, it is that the more a government or company alters its approaches to appeal to an audience, the more responsive that entity becomes to its audiences in its thinking, policies, and behavior.
The unspoken secret of the "perception management" process - the part we don't always share with our clients - is that the process changes both sides, not just the audience. This will be especially true as we move out of the Age of Broadcast and into the Age of Conversation.
I am in no way suggesting that China will suddenly change its domestic policies, drop single-party rule, or gang-stomp the Somali regime because the PRC desires greater global influence. But if China is committed to its stated global communications objectives, small but significant changes in the nation and its international relations are an inevitable result. As the Bush administration learned, global influence is unsustainable when foreign policy and strategic communications are formulated and conducted in willful ignorance of global opinion.
On the other hand, I have had some people suggest to me that, providing China sticks to its commitment to offer evenhanded reporting on its global channels, this may signal to Chinese leaders that they can use the same approach at home. At best, this is wishful thinking. Media aimed at overseas audiences will serve the purpose of building Chinese credibility abroad. Media aimed at home will remain focused on maintaining social stability and supporting the evolution of a "harmonious society." We can expect a wide "Chinese wall" between the two.
For now, anyway.