A Chinese take on the Arab world
BEIJING // In a nondescript building in the centre of the Chinese capital, hidden by a maze of corridors, lies a small studio that plays a role in China's mission to sell itself to the Arab world. Here the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) films news programmes for its Arabic service, which since July last year has broadcast to a potential audience of hundreds of millions in 22 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
Although launched as part of CCTV's ambitious plan to have a channel in each of the six official languages of the United Nations - Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish - the service has no pretensions to being the new Al Jazeera. While the Qatar-based channel has become influential through its coverage of the Middle East, CCTV Arabic aims to tell the Arab world about China. That means 90 per cent of the content, which includes news, feature stories and programmes covering entertainment, education and travel, comes from other CCTV channels, with much of the material subtitled in Arabic.
"Realistically, we don't think we can compete with Al Jazeera in terms of news broadcasts, but we have these special programmes on the culture and arts," said Li Zhongyang, the station's assistant controller and a former CCTV Cairo bureau chief. The channel has a staff of 110, among them 80 who have graduated in Arabic and 15 "special experts" on the Arab world. "Definitely I think there's an increasing interest in the Middle East and the Arab world from the Chinese government and the Chinese people," said Mr Li.
"We should let the Middle East have more of a say and a better voice round the world. We both belong to the developing world, so it's fair to say we have a lot in common. "But in essence this [channel's purpose] is to voice the Chinese view and our government's position. "We haven't done enough to air our own voice previously because we were a weak nation. Now we're stronger. "The mainstream media [is] dominated by the western media like the BBC and CNN, and we want to be part of the mainstream voice in international affairs."
Nearly a year on from its launch, Mr Li said it was "absolutely safe to say" the channel was generating growing interest in the Middle East, although this is likely to have been from a fairly modest base, since up to now the numbers of e-mails received from viewers responding to the station has numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands. He said surveys showed viewers had a "very positive" view of the channel.
Nevertheless, as its programmes about the Arab world are limited, observers say the service has niche interest. Ben Simpfendorfer, the author of The New Silk Road: How a Rising Middle East is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China, said there were "so many channels" broadcasting to the Middle East in Arabic from other parts of the world, including France, Russia and the United States. "It's difficult to see how anyone gains market share, particularly a channel that's not focused on the Middle East," said Mr Simpfendorfer, an Arabic and Chinese speaker who is also the chief Asian economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland.
He said there was "genuine interest" in China among Arabs, but the numbers who would regularly watch a channel devoted to China were "a small minority". However, he added that as the channel did not focus on the Middle East, it allowed China to extend its "soft power" without becoming entangled in the region's politics. "It agrees with [China's] politics of non-intervention," he said. Mr Li admitted CCTV puts more resources into its English-language news channel than its Arabic or other foreign language services, which in future will also include a Portuguese channel.
"We regard this [English] channel as the main platform to give balance to the western mainstream media rather than the other language services," he said. But in the future the Arabic channel may be less of a poor relation, as more content is likely to be generated in the Middle East. CCTV plans to open news bureaus worldwide to complement the 30 that it has already. In the Middle East, that means offices could open in Dubai, Syria, Lebanon and Israel as early as late this year.
While these are to serve CCTV's whole range of channels, some of the material generated will be used on the Arabic service. "It's part of the CCTV drive to have more say and more of a voice in the international sphere," Mr Li said. "Maybe some day we can compete [with Al Jazeera] in terms of news broadcasts." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: May 28, 2010 04:00 AM