Chinese State Television Launches on Washington, DC Cable
This October 1st, on the 62nd anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of China, China Central Television launched a new cable channel in Washington, DC metro area on MHz Networks 3. CCTV is state-run media ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. For at least a decade CCTV has had the ambition to have its programming shown in the United States.
We asked China expert Ethan Gutmann, Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and author of Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal about the possible ramifications of CCTV’s presence in the United States and the possible motives for the launch.
Nationalism & Propaganda
“It’s half a prestige issue and half a propaganda issue. One is to influence the Chinese American population, the Chinese Diaspora, within America. The second is to try to influence Americans so they see China as equal and non-threatening.
I’ve never been able to understand exactly why they are so obsessed with competing with America. If you go to China, people spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about how competitive China is with America—if China is weaker than America, if Americans look down on China, etc. These are huge issues in China.
It’s part of China’s nationalism. Marxism philosophy has been replaced by nationalism since the last days of Deng Xiaoping. And the strongest aspect of Chinese nationalism is to be number one. And this requires being as strong as America, if not stronger.”
A way for the Chinese Regime to Boost Nationalism
“The other aspect is to make inroads among Chinese Americans. The racial ties of Chinese are emphasized in Chinese nationalism. They believe that even if somebody moves to another country, even if they have grown up not speaking Chinese—if they have Chinese blood, they are in some sense Chinese citizens and they should be loyal to the Chinese state.”
Threats to Freedom of Expression? How will this CCTV channel influence Chinese Americans?
“I don’t find freedom of expression threatening. Let the market decide. What I’m more concerned about is that—I assume—they are part of some cable bundle. And if, let’s say, NTD Television tried to get on that same cable bundle, they would be turned down because it would be seen as a conflict with CCTV.
The big problem with the Chinese government—the Chinese Communist Party—is that they want to be in the Western system but they don’t respect it. They don’t respect the fact that we have a system of free expression. They never accept that. They are still not willing to play by those rules—at a level playing field. If they want their ideas to be out there, if they want to use soft power, then they have to play by the soft power rules, where the best and the most entertaining ideas win—very true for TV. It’s not just politics. It has to be generally entertaining. CCTV doesn’t tend to be terribly entertaining because it’s a propaganda station. And, in the final analysis, it’s not allowed to touch many topics, and if it does, it has to touch on them very carefully to the point where it interferes with artistic expression, or any kind of expression.
We know that within China this happens again and again. If Disney wants to do a film and it’s about Tibet, then suddenly Disney has a big problem. And we don’t know how they are going to do in the American market. So far the track record is very bad.
And there are going to be critical shows—shows that are critical of the Chinese state—that are going to examine [Chinese] history. There’s going to be things that they [CCTV] are not comfortable with and I suspect that they are going to start throwing their weight around. They are going to start putting pressure on these cable channels—creating a fuss. And that’s going to be a problem. That’s my guess—that it’s not going to end well.”
Doesn’t it also involve the cable companies?
“I don’t think the cable companies are used to this. Al Jazeera, for example, as far as I know, doesn’t insist that you can’t show pro-Israel things on the same cable bundle—because Al Jazeera may have a point of view, but it is not controlled by a government and they are not under the Communist Party. And CCTV is. I don’t think cable networks are very good about making the distinction between something which is foreign and has a different point of view, on the one hand, and something that is controlled by a single party state, on the other. They are two different things, like apples and oranges—well, more like apples and rocks. And I wonder if they are in for a surprise. The Chinese have spent so much time and effort trying to shut down NTD Television. They have a track record on this. There is a precedent for concern.
But I strongly feel from another point of view that saying ‘CCTV has a biased point of view’—that is true, but it is not a reason to keep them off the air. We don’t feel it threatens our way of life, nor do I feel that the Chinese community is threatened by CCTV directly. But it’s the question of balance.
Let’s say NTD Television is getting very popular but can’t get on the same cable bundle. It’s going to be very hard to prove a negative here—to prove that CCTV played the role in preventing that deal from coming through. I wonder if anybody has considered this—that CCTV is not going to sit there quietly, comfortable with a lot of the other things that are shown on the same cable bundle.
I think they see this as a beachhead—not the conquest of the United States, but conquering a small part of the consciousness of the United States with soft power. There’s a foolish idea in the West that Marxists and the Communist Party do not understand persuasive techniques. That’s exactly what they understand. It’s not just about the gun. It’s about persuasion, and fear and mind control. These are the techniques that they use. Self-correcting mechanisms and self-censorship is a critical part of it. And part of this beachhead is based on the concept of self-censorship.
I don’t believe that it’s a travesty that CCTV will be on in America. My worry is that it will have a dampening effect on freedom of expression about China in this corner, maybe it’s a particular corner but it’s a start—that’s a legitimate fear.
The problem is that they are not looking at this in a democratic way and they don’t have experience with freedom of expression. And CCTV does not play well with others.”