Bridging Europe and China: The power of Media, Communication and Storytelling

Information is power, now, more than ever. In times of covid-19 confinement, news and media served as our only windows to the outside world. By shedding light on the ongoing situation and reducing uncertainty by offering a constant flow of information on the pandemic’s evolution, the power of the media has grown upon us. The media industry has reached a golden moment, having acquired unprecedented influence, thanks to the most refined and extensive communication channel in history: social media.

The media has become a diplomatic tool for countries to wield their soft power by telling their version of the story. Although many Western communications companies are privately owned, many popular news channels are publicly funded, such as for example BBC News in the UK. Furthermore, as in China, many official channels have considerable power, credibility and influence in Western countries. However, this should not lead to a media war between nations. Instead, it should allow for a higher level of dialogue and conversation between journalists of different regions. Unfortunately, two of the world’s most important territories in the world, China and Europe, have so far put little concrete plans into place for dialogue and cooperation between their media industries, which is striking in this time of crisis and unpredictability. Instead of taking joint actions, media channels on both sides have been active and more present in each other’s territory and have engaged in bilateral conversations and trade (i.e. buying and selling specific TV programmes and documentaries). Citizens deserve to have access to reliable and accurate information. For this reason, Chinese and European journalists must engage in conversation, eliminate misconceptions of each other, and increase collaboration and mutual understanding within the media industry.

The expansion of Chinese media in the EU

Over the last decade, Chinese media has been gradually becoming more present in Europe. The Xinhua News Agency, the most influential media organisation in China, has a European regional office in Brussels since 2004. CGTN (China Global Television Network) offers news in three European languages (namely English, Spanish and French). Nonetheless, the most impressive expansion efforts are to be found in Southeast Europe. In Albania, for example, talks that began in 2012 between Chinese and Albanian media executives resulted in a comprehensive cooperation agreement between Albanian Radio Television and China’s National Radio and Television Administration in 2019. As a result, many programs and documentaries produced by CGTN, such as “China: Time of Xi”, which explains China’s governance, are broadcasted on several local channels. One of the most surprising findings is the dramatic rise of Belt-and-road news items delivered by public and private Albanian media, which increased from 42 in 2016 to 184 in 2019.

Xinhua has been signing cooperation agreements with local agencies of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2012, becoming the leading company providing Chinese media content in the country. What is most interesting about this case is that Xinhua journalists have paid close attention to academia, lecturing new generations of Bosnian journalists by giving university lectures. At the same time, the Chinese embassy organises training and exchange courses for these young professionals. The Chinese ambassador in the country, as is the case in many other countries, has been much more active in the public domain in recent times, increasing his social media activity, offering interviews to both state-owned and private channels, and organising meetings with journalists and industry experts.

Also, Sino-Bulgarian collaboration in the media sphere has decades of history behind it. The Union of Bulgarian Journalists (UBJ), created under the Communist regime, has shared data and information with the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) for 30 years, and there is an extensive official collaboration agreement between the Chinese National Radio and the Bulgarian National Radio, and the Bulgarian National Television and the Chinese National Television. Xinhua is also a strong collaborator with the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency (BTA) and one of the primary sources of information and audiovisual content in the country, apart from Western and Russian news agencies. Finally, some Bulgarian media companies have dedicated news segments exclusively to China. Some examples include 24 Hours, a major web news portal with a section named “Focus China”; or, a news website focused only on China. 

There is a historical explanation of why China has so much influence in Southeast Europe and how Serbia became the entry point for Chinese companies in the region. China’s relationship with Communist Yugoslavia under Tito dates back to 1949. Originally, Tito wanted to recognise the People’s Republic of China but was rejected by Mao after Tito’s split with Stalin. However, Tito finally visited Beijing in 1977. Later, when Sino-Albanian relations started to decay, Serbia, a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, served as a gateway into Southwestern Europe. Even after Tito died in 1980 and the civil war leading to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević visited China in 1997 and continued to nurture Serbia’s good relations with China. As a result, Serbia earned China’s diplomatic support two years after the Dayton peace agreement (illustrating China’s stance towards Taiwan and Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems principle”) and would later earn China’s support against the EU’s pressure to recognise Kosovo’s independence. Furthermore, Sino-Serbian relations became even stronger after five U.S. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guided bombs, part of a NATO operation, collided against China’s embassy in Belgrade killing three Chinese reporters, which led to massive outrage in Beijing. These smooth diplomatic relations between China and Serbia explain how Chinese media companies have made their way through Serbia for decades to enter the European media market and establish new offices all over Southeast Europe.

What is the impact of Chinese media on EU-China relations?

This question is challenging to answer since there is hardly any open-access data available on Chinese programs’ audience rates in Europe. Hence, it is complicated to determine the acceptance rate of this content and to define how popular they have become among European audiences. However, a report published by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) found that one of the main strategies implemented by the Chinese government to expand its soft power in Europe is to use media, social media and political messaging. According to this group of researchers, China has been increasing its presence in the traditional European media in 3 ways:

  • By opening European-national branches of Chinese media companies
  • By creating partnerships and institutional cooperation between Chinese and European press agencies and media enterprises
  • By increasing the number of interviews and op-eds done with European media companies and purchasing advertisements.

It is very challenging to define the exact impact Chinese media have on European audiences. Still, this report provides an interesting review of China’s soft power in Europe that can help us understand China’s increasing influence in Europe. By analysing the “use of media” as a tool to exercise soft power, this report allows us to determine to a certain extent the influence of Chinese media companies in European public opinion about China. This same report divided European countries into 4 groups according to their responses to Chinese media:

  • Firstly, in Group A (Austria, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia), there is no considerable public debate about China’s influence in the region,
  • In Group B (Italy and Greece), the general public opinion about cooperating with China has been positive, and China has a considerable degree of soft power, but it is losing influence,
  • In Group C (Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and the UK), China is gaining an increasingly negative image, but it is still an important economic partner,
  • In Group D (the Czech Republic, Denmark, France and Sweden), it is improbable that China will be able to increase its soft power.

Perceptions of the spread of Chinese media across Europe by EU policy-makers

The expansion of state-owned Chinese media across Europe did not seem to catch many EU policy-makers’ attention until September 2020, when Politico reported that the China Media Group (CMG) planned to set up a European office in Brussels. This group, also named “The Voice of China,” is a state media powerhouse established in March 2018, when the government fused China’s three main media groups (China Central Television, China National Radio and China Radio International).

Some experts like David Bandurski, co-director of the research project China Media Project, remain sceptical about China’s efforts to expand its media influence on European soil. Bandurski argues that creating a CMG office in Brussels “almost certainly signals China’s intention to bolster its media presence and deployment of CCP narratives in Europe”.

On the other hand, some see the presence of Chinese media companies in the heart of Europe as an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding. This is what Cai Mingzhao, the director of Xinhua, argued at the College of Europe 8 years after the regional headquarters opened in Brussels. “Xinhua is willing to show Chinese people the true images of Europe through our objective, timely, and accurate reports, and also to show the Europeans the true development in China, and serve as a bridge between the two peoples,” he stated.

How can China improve its media outreach/image/reporting in the EU and vice-versa?

The efforts made by Chinese telecommunications companies have clearly paid off. However, significant tensions remain with European countries. On the 5th of February 2020, the U.K. communications regulator revoked CGTN of its broadcasting license and expelled three Chinese journalists accused of espionage. In response, China announced on the 11th of February 2021 that BBC World News will be banned from broadcasting in the country, alleging that it “seriously violated the “Regulations on Radio and Television Administration “and “Administrative Measures on the Landing of Overseas Satellite TV Channels.”

Meanwhile, CGTN has moved its European operations to France but risks losing its license. On 5 April, Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group registered in Spain, sent a formal complaint to the French TV regulator CSA (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel) about the China Global Television Network (CGTN) accusing the Chinese government of targeting the Muslim Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. On 3 March, the CSA granted CGTN a license to broadcast into Europe and made it public in an official notice. Nonetheless, the primary justification provided by the CSA was that CGTN approached them due to the difficulties caused by “Brexit”. Still, the UK licence revocation was also included in the statement. In response, CGTN issued a statement accusing Calling Dahlin, the Safeguard Defenders’ founder, of being an “anti-China crusader”, which escalated tensions.

Bilateral dialogue with European media companies has developed notably during the past decade, proving that Chinese media executives are willing to clean up their image and improve their global reputation in the coming years. But how can they do this? First, they must identify the limitations of their current strategy (even if they do not publicly acknowledge these). Chinese media companies have been accused of having opaque ownership, creating critical legal issues when trying to broadcast content in Europe. This moved the UK to revoke CGTN’S license, rejecting the Chinese Communist Party’s control on the channel, but the permit was in name “an entity which has no editorial control over its programmes”.

Western counterparts’ main criticism towards Chinese media is that they tend to provide a very positive discourse of the Chinese governments’ activities but rarely any critiques, particularly when analysing media products offered by agencies such as Xinhua or CGTN. News analysis written by channels like the BBC, France 2 or France 3, in contrast, tend to highlight policy deficiencies or denounce policy-makers’ mistakes when treating domestic affairs. On the other hand, European or American media also tend to provide a more positive depiction of their governments’ administration, especially when comparing them to the policies applied by foreign governments. Media companies are more likely to favour their own policy-makers, particularly when reporting on international affairs, which is what makes media and telecommunications such a powerful diplomatic tool.

Moreover, the European audience mainly has access to American or European-produced news, which tends to be critical of the Chinese government. In contrast, the Chinese audience is offered a more positive assessment of China and Chinese actions and an increasingly more critical view of Europe and the West. Hence, it may be useful to give Europeans access to both Chinese and Western media in an appropriate manner that appeals to them, allowing to combine both sources of information to gain a more critical view of ongoing affairs.

However, for this to be effective, information needs to be accessible, transparent and verifiable. This can only be achieved if Chinese and European media organisations engage in a more profound dialogue and share more data. The most prominent joint effort in this domain is the Europe-China Dialogue: Media and Communication Studies Summer School. This is a training programme for journalism students, which has been organised for 5 years in a row (2014-2019) by The China Media Observatory (CMO) of Università Della Svizzera Italiana (USI) in cooperation with the School of Journalism and Communication of Peking University (PKU). Moreover, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Shanghai Jiao University launched the “Europe-China Media Exchange” initiative in 2011, an annual people-to-people dialogue event to allow senior journalists from the EU and China to better understand each other’s societies and how they interpret each other’s attitudes and actions. This program has proven to increase dialogue among media professionals of both regions and has served as a trust-building exercise. However, other than this, there have been feeble efforts of EU-China media collaboration in the past decade.

The latest and most crucial dialogue took place on 10th December 2020. The CMG organised the “European Media Partners 2020 Online Cooperation Forum“, which brought together 28 delegates from 25 organisations from China and 16 European countries. The CMG and its European media partners issued a joint statement, calling for greater cooperation between Chinese and EU media services to address misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis and increase mutual understanding of the two regions. This event created many expectations in the telecommunications sector. It set out to create a “China-Europe Media Partnership” forum to ensure the compromise of both parties to this collaboration in the long run. However, one of the main unanswered questions is which delegates and European media executives were present at this event. The main ones currently confirmed are the guests of the only recorded and published debate by CGTN, including guests from European News Exchange (ENEX), NTV of RTL Germany, France 24; and Grupo Vocento. This minimal amount of data available about the event does unfortunately not allow us to fully grasp its importance, impact and outreach.

For now, several obstacles are separating the Chinese and European media, but perhaps this moment of need can encourage them to collaborate, to talk and to join hands in finding consensus. Nevertheless, for cooperation to be enhanced and trust to be built, it would be conducive for editorial plurality in China to be increased and access to and for European media expanded, for instance through the internet and other channels. This is especially critical now, given that sanctions imposed by both sides have been eroding EU-China relations, and fewer and fewer channels for communication have been left open for dialogue. It is essential to find ways to keep the channels open and increase mutual understanding rather than to be turning inwards. To increase media plurality in Europe and China and expand cooperation in the media industry, the Chinese press could be made more visible and enticing in Europe, and certain restrictions in China limiting access to online foreign media eliminated. For this reason, the initiative to create a “China-Europe Media Partnership” forum must not simply turn into hot air. This forum should enable a much-needed dialogue between Chinese and European journalists, thus being the first stone on the path to increase mutual understanding and cooperation.

Author: Marina Ortega, Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Xinhua News Agency, Flickr.