Chinese Government Attempts to Create Global Radio Cooperative

This week, Chinese Propaganda apparatchiks will gather in Beijing along with the heads of their international radio broadcaster, China Radio International (CRI) and a handful of representatives from radio stations around the globe, to announce the formation of a media cooperation network.

Essentially, the Chinese Government is attempting to persuade metropolitan radio networks around the world to pool their resources under the leadership of CRI.

You’d think that a process which involves courting international media networks would generate a lot of attention, but interestingly, this has flown almost entirely under the radar.

Although CRI doesn’t create headlines like the tub-thumping Global Times or have the kind of behind-the-scenes influence that is wielded by Xinhua, it’s among China’s most well-resourced media networks. They operate more than 70 overseas broadcast branches, they have around half that number of overseas bureaux, and they have partnerships with hundreds of radio stations worldwide, giving them impressive global reach. Unlike the Global Times and China Daily, CRI doesn’t need to generate revenue, so they’re not obligated to advertise. Because CRI operates in so many countries it has to find talent (of the appropriate language), technology and broadcast rights for each of these countries.

All of which adds up to a very expensive endeavour, which is the most likely reason behind their push to create this international radio forum, the creation of which falls on CRI’s 70th anniversary.

There are a number of reasons why CRI has less influence than other, much smaller media outlets. Because they don’t need to seek a profit they don’t need to garner as much attention. They don’t break much hard news, most of their original content is focused on travel or culture, with the rest being recycled from other media.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why CRI’s campaign to unite world radio networks under a resource sharing arrangement seems to be gaining little traction. There are few traces of the event online and none of the participants seem to be big players. Although there will undoubtedly be a lot of pomp and ceremony at the launch on the 3rd of December, the event is unlikely to make any major ripples worldwide.

Another likely reason is the fundamentally different attitude that the Chinese Government has towards media, when compared to stations overseas. CRI’s charter has always stressed reporting “from the Chinese perspective” (I find the ‘the’ rather telling, as it implies there is only one Chinese perspective).

Essentially, CRI wants radio stations around the world to help them de-fray their costs, and in return, they will share their content with them. CRI does indeed produce a significant amount of content every day, but given the fact that they’re unlikely to be producing any news that could be considered controversial to China, it is more likely to be attractive to lifestyle or culture radio networks, who will be able to access a large amount of  content. Whether or not this will have any significant impact on CRI’s bottom line remains to be seen, but at this point it seems unlikely.

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Wen Jiabao’s Getting Fed Up and He’s Not Afraid to Show it

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been the face of the Liberal wing of the CCP for quite some time, but his power and influence have always been topics of contention.

With less than a year left in his term, he’s been getting restless. Reform has stagnated and he’s not pleased. There have been a number of recent incidents which make a compelling case that he’s either trying to portray himself as being on the ‘right’ side of history, or he’s genuinely upset but incapable of making meaningful change.

Here’s the first example – at a recent speech to school students in Tianjin, Wen told the students about the horrible times his family had endured under Mao’s rule. Criticizing the Chairman, even indirectly, is something Chinese leaders simply do not do.  When noted economist Mao Yushi penned a scathing critique of Mao, he received threats and a group of Maoists campaigned to have him put on trial. For Wen to openly admit that Mao’s rule was a hellish period for Chinese citizens was a very, very bold move.

This is not an isolated example of Wen admitting that things are going awry in China.

At a recent speech at an economic summit in Dalian, Wen prefaced his comments on structural reform by saying “I feel a strong sense of responsibility to present my views on various issues in an accurate and candid manner.”

He then went on to say: “we must govern the country by law. The most important mission of a ruling party is to abide by and act in strict accordance with the Constitution and the laws. The Party should not replace the government in governance, and problems of absolute power and over-concentration of power should be redressed.”

He also spoke about how crucial an independent judiciary is, as well as the importance of citizens being able to vote and oversee government affairs. Some commentators have noted however, that state media ignored a lot of his commentary.

The speech echoed comments he made in London in June, which many dismissed as being rhetoric without action. It would seem at this point, that he isn’t pleased with this state of affairs, but there isn’t much he can do beyond ratcheting up the rhetoric.


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Obama’s Australia speech digs the boot into China… twice?

There’s been plenty of news and commentary about Obama’s trip to Australia and the increase in US troops that will be stationed in Darwin.

There have also been media reports about Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament, where he talked about how the US is trying to engage China, whilst also urging them to respect human rights.

I found the tail end of his speech more interesting, partly because he didn’t actually specify which country he was talking about.

“It’s why men of peace in saffron robes face beatings and bullets and why every day, in some of the world’s largest cities to dusty rural towns, in small acts of courage the world may never see, a student posts a blog, a citizen signs a charter, an activist remains unbowed, imprisoned in his home, just to have the same rights that we cherish here today. Men and women like these know what the world must never forget. The currents of history may ebb and flow but over time they move decidedly, decisively in a single direction. History is on the side of the free.”

I suppose it could be a reference to the middle east and the Arab Spring, but given that the speech had focused entirely on Asia that seems highly unlikely.

It comes after former US ambassador to China and Republican presidential nominee Jon Huntsman blasted his Republican rivals for using harsh anti-China rhetoric to score points – but he was mainly focusing on the economic side of the equation.

It will be interesting to see whether the US’s anti-China election rhetoric moves beyond economics, expanding further into human rights. If so, it would appear Obama will be in the thick of it, just like everyone else.

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Global Times echoes Foreign Minister on Australia’s role as US-China mediator.

In relation to the recent boost in American troops being stationed in Australia, one would expect to hear very different views espoused by Australia’s foreign minister who ardently supports the US, and the nationalistic arms of the Chinese Government.

Actually, once you cut through the rhetoric, you’d be surprised by how much they have in common.

President Obama touches down in Australia today, the visit coming as Australia has agreed to allow more US troops to utilize military facilities near the northern Australian city of Darwin, giving the US easier access to the South China Sea. Note however, that this does not mean the construction of US bases, rather, it means that US forces will be able to use Australian facilities. This is more due to domestic political concerns in Australia than concerns over Chinese displeasure.

The move is widely regarded as being designed to counter expanding Chinese influence in Asia, while taking the strain off US bases in Japan.

Naturally, the first place I looked for a response was the Global Times – which contrary to popular belief, doesn’t represent the mainstream view of the Chinese government, rather, the more nationalistic views of some factions of the government.

An important distinction which makes the response in the Global Times actually rather encouraging. Global Times editorials tend to include a hint of menace, which came in this line here:

“Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security. There is real worry in the Chinese society concerning Australia’s acceptance of an increased US military presence. Such psychology will influence the long-term development of the Australia-China relationship.”

Which is par for the course in a Global Times editorial. What’s encouraging is the follow up to this piece, which actually outlines the realities of the situation quite nicely –

Some Australians have been arguing that China does need Australian resources to fuel its own economy, and thus the two countries rely on each other. It is true that China does not have many cards to play to respond to Australia. The US military presence in Australia will not change matters in the short-term.

So firstly, this has no short term significance and there isn’t actually anything China can do. The fact that they admit this is encouraging. They also say that it’s understood that Australia has a tough time balancing its relationships between China and the US.  Some interesting lines came in the conclusion of the piece:

“Australia should make endeavors to defuse, rather than increase, misgivings between the US and China. This will bring greater interests to both Australia’s interests and to regional peace. In this regard, Australia can be a huge force for good.” 

What’s interesting is how similar this is to lines spoken by Australia’s mandarin-speaking foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, when he was the Prime Minister. When he first spoke in China in his capacity as Prime Minister, he talked about Australia’s potential role as mediator between the US and China. Unfortunately for the Chinese, he also spoke about human rights in Tibet, which made them disinclined to support that proposition.

But here, it would seem, is evidence that they’re receptive to the idea, but only on their terms. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon given that the US and Australia have much more similar ideas on how China should be developing than China does, but it’s something of a vindication for Rudd nonetheless.

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Propagandist Behind ‘Founding of a Party’ Admits Audiences are Sick of these Movies

It’s not easy being a propagandist. When you succeed, the credit goes to whomever you’re ‘propagandizing’ and when you fail, everybody blames you.

The recent awarding of a prestigious (well, comparatively prestigious) film prize to a propaganda film has highlighted the public’s growing resistance to blatant propaganda. Perhaps more interestingly, the incident offered an insight into the minds of those who produce propaganda for the government – they know all too well that audiences are getting sick of these movies.

Recently, the August First Film Studio received an award for their piece “Shen Zhou 11”. The film, as you might have guessed from the title, highlighted China’s recent forays into space exploration. The August First Film Studio is known as a ‘military studio’. If that sounds unusual, it might be better to describe it as a propaganda studio that focuses on military topics. As a part of the China Film Group, they were one of the studios behind the recent flop ‘The Founding of a Republic’ which despite having a star-studded cast, proved to be an embarrassment for the government. The reviews were poor and audiences had to be cajoled into watching it.

When the Shen Zhou 11 received the golden rooster award, (a Chinese film award) up and coming young film director Sean Ching blasted the judge’s decision, saying it was a poor choice and it was too ‘state controlled’.

In response to the public dissatisfaction with the award, the head of the studio Ming Zhenjiang, acceded to an interview to explain himself. Some of his responses were rather interesting.  He described three difficulties facing the studio, one of which was interference from the State.

He also candidly admitted to supporting other more creative projects indirectly, because their studio faces these kinds of limitations. When talking about ‘The Founding of a Party’ and its predecessor, ‘The Founding of a Republic’ he said that he didn’t believe audiences would be willing to go and see the same kinds of recycled movies for a third time.

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Leadership in Government – A Comparison between Australia, the US and China

This is a piece I wrote for Online Opinion. I’m reproducing it here. It details some differences in governing styles between China, the US and Australia.

Leadership in Government – A Comparison between Australia, the US and China.

Whether their economies are thriving or in recession, the people of Western countries are understandably disillusioned with their governments at present. But how do they stack up when compared with the Government of a country many predict will eclipse the US?

Quality of leadership is hard to measure. In times of crisis it can be easy to recognize good or bad leadership, but most of the time it’s just something that hovers in the background.

Despite this, I’ll attempt to try to pin down some differences in modern leadership styles by looking at leadership in three different nations – Australia and the world’s two most prominent superpowers, the US and China.

Quantifiable criteria fail miserably to measure leadership. Take Australia for example. The Australian economy is the envy of the developed world and yet the polls indicate Australians are more displeased by their leaders than at any time in recent memory.

When Bill Clinton used the catch phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” to unseat President Bush in the early 1990s, it would appear he was correct for that place and that time. Australians today, however, would seem to disagree. An effective catchphrase has yet to be developed that encapsulates contemporary Australian politics, but you can be sure more than a few political analysts are trying to make one.

One might argue that leadership has taken a backseat to bureaucracy in recent years. The US government is deadlocked in bitter partisan political wrangling, as is the knife-edge Australian parliament, while the Chinese have perfected technocratic consensus decision-making to an art form.

It’s easy to lavish praise upon the Beijing model, but there are many reasons to believe that the recent growth enjoyed by Chinese citizens has come at a heavy cost to Chinese society as well as the environment and the economy.

It’s also worth considering the fact that a number of economists have very good reasons to argue that the US isn’t falling behind China as such, rather, the rest of the world is simply catching up with the US. Many of the problems that China is facing can be directly traced to the country’s style of leadership – and the recent growth has masked very serious structural problems.

Behind China’s GDP story lie a number of unsustainable trends in terms of leadership. China now spends more money and employs more people on stability preservation than it does on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This essentially, has become a catchphrase for the suppression of riots and dissenting voices. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it was a centralized effort, but the bulk of this power has been placed in the hands of local governments, who can use it to jail their critics with impunity.

The recent furore surrounding the imprisonment of blind activist Chen Guangcheng is often attributed to the untrammelled power of the Chinese government. But in reality, it may be more accurate to see it as the central government’s impotence when faced with wayward, rent seeking local governments. It’s a situation that hurts the central government, but it’s in the local government’s interest to keep it going. As one commentator notes:

From this perspective, these thugs are the ones who do not want to see Chen get free. In numerous stability maintenance events, I describe these vested interest groups of stability professionals as “black hole interests.” They have the strongest desire to keep the stability machine running, and are the front line running dogs in this “battle.” The prospect of this stability interest group being destroyed is slim.

It’s a stark contrast to the sweeping power of the Chinese State typically portrayed in Western media and is an apt illustration of the limits of Chinese leadership. In creating a self-sustaining stability-preservation monster, the Chinese government has accelerated dissatisfaction rather than slowed it down.

We all know that democracies have a hard time dealing with entrenched special interest groups. It’s no different in China; it’s just less transparent. The Chinese technocracy tends to govern via a consensus of the top officials. Once a decision is made, new laws are passed, but due to a lack of enforcement these laws are rarely effective. In creating more and more laws and regulations, the government actually increases corruption, as they bestow power on authorities without transparency, while creating legal grey areas.

The gargantuan reforms required to tame this ‘stability’ beast, as well as the fact that the government will soon have no choice but to move to an economic model based on domestic consumption would indicate that China’s rapid ascent is inevitably due for a few speed bumps. Issues surrounding rapid environmental degradation and water problems, as well as the accumulation of local government debt and wobbles in the real-estate sector will also take their toll. Perhaps most significantly, history dictates that when an economy reaches a level of prosperity equal to $10,000 — $12,000 USD per annum per citizen, they can develop no further without significant political reform and independent institutions.

But are the American and Australian systems much better?

Before we can consider how different they are, we need to pin down what defines the US political system. First, we need an explanation for why American politics and indeed, the psyche of the American people, is far more hostile to government intervention than it is for citizens of other democracies.

This is pretty easy to explain. The founding fathers who drafted the US constitution had just emerged from a war with an imperial power. They wanted to wrestle power from institutions and place it in the hands of the people. Today, these idealistic sentiments have manifested themselves in the form of a strengthened legislature and a dramatically weakened executive (with the exception of security agencies, which have increased in scope and resisted efforts at reform).

Whilst the media, the legislature and the judiciary all wield significant power, in contrast to other western nations, Americans choose to grant little power to regulatory agencies, as this is seen as taking power from democratically elected representatives and placing it in the hands of faceless bureaucrats. This means that independent tribunals are a rarity and expert advice always takes a back seat to political posturing. This is true to an extent in democracies worldwide – an inevitability of a system where an adversarial legislative body wields the most power, but it rings particularly true in the US.

Contrast this with the Chinese system. The Chinese legislature makes laws, but enforcement agencies uphold them on an ad-hoc, often politically or personally driven basis. In the US, you have a system where laws are argued over and picked apart, the result being watered down. In China, you have sweeping, often poorly considered or politically driven laws, which are only applied as certain individuals see fit.

So how does Australia compare?

Although Australia doesn’t have quite the same distrust of the executive that exists in America, it is often difficult for governments to implement policies formulated by the executive. Instead of following through on recommendations for reform, recent Australian governments have instead found that the creation of review panels or tribunals has been an effective way of avoiding tough decisions.

The rejection of all but the most politically palatable aspects of last year’s Henry Tax review provides a good example of the legislature failing to keep pace with the executive. The fact that the most contentious recommendation, the mining super-profits tax was buried along with former PM Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, demonstrates the perils of attempting reform (although the tax is still being debated, in a watered-down form). This was despite the fact that the tax only taxed profits and that the mining companies had been making record profits despite recessions in the US and Europe. The recent commentary regarding a ‘two speed’ economy would seem to indicate that the tax was indeed a necessary reform, but fell prey to vested interests.

So it would seem that where Australia and the US find it difficult to agree and launch reforms, China can do so with ease, however on the implementation side of the equation, developed nations have a far greater advantage. For most western nations, the difficulties lie in decision-making. But, in developed countries, implementing them is almost impossible.

In times of crisis however, it is easier to push through greater reforms – consider the vast stimulus packages that were unleashed throughout the developed world during the recent financial crisis. Ordinarily, spending of that magnitude would provoke intense political wrangling, but opponents were spooked in the face of economic meltdown. This would appear to be a point in favour of western-style democracy. In China, large swathes of those stimulus packages were pumped into the hands of developers and local governments, with the after-effects of that spending spree now being felt.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s, China has been on a path of steady growth and the Chinese Communist Party has reaped the rewards. They have yet to face a recession. The American economy is slowly emerging from one, bruised but still standing, while European lawmakers are still figuring out how the Eurozone can do so as a single unit. Individually however, many of the European political systems have extensive experience in dealing with economic hardship, which bodes well for their ultimate recovery.

Given the challenges that await China and the leadership’s inability to tolerate external criticism, constructive or otherwise, it’s not at all certain as to whether their leadership will possess the same resilience when faced with a recession. This is especially problematic when you consider that they have predicated their legitimacy on 8% economic growth per annum – and even if this is accomplished, what happens when they reach the $10,000 to $12,000 economic tipping point mentioned earlier? The difficulties faced by developed democracies pale in comparison to the seriousness of the challenges faced by the Chinese leadership.

Ultimately, the Chinese political system is a work in progress, which has yet to face the kinds of shocks that developed democracies have proven capable of withstanding. Until they prove they can do so, it seems that the pundits who predict China’s ascendancy are getting too far ahead of themselves.

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Some Thursday links – the ‘Stability’ edition.

One of my pet interests is the relationships between the Central Government, local governments and ‘stability preservation’. For interesting articles, this week has been a spectacular one with some high-quality articles.

Start out with Yu Jianrong’s piece on ‘China’s Violent Push for Stability’ over at the China Media Project. This article was printed in select Xinhua publications, which is an encouraging sign of some dissenting voices entering mainstream discussion.

Then move on to Global Voices for this top-notch analysis of what’s really going on with the local government and Chen Guangcheng. It describes how the local government is using the situation to their advantage, to extort money from the central government.

Then for the latest updates on that, check out this reuters piece, which details a recent visit to the capital by activists.

Whilst on Beijing, check out Russell Moses’ latest piece, where he analyses the recent outbursts from Bo Xilai. It’s not ‘stability’ at the local level, but this is what unstable waves look like when they’re rocking the boat at the top.

Then check out two pieces in some of the world’s most famous newspapers, which are demonstrating that the mainstream media are getting their act together and writing some damn good China pieces – the first, a piece in the New York Times, offers great insights into how comedy is used to evade censorship online. The second piece, in the Wall Street Journal, focuses on the recent awarding of ‘most influential’ artist for China’s Ai WeiWei.

If that’s not enough, peruse the recent entries in the China section of the New York Times, they’ve been on their game lately.

Happy reading.

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