Since Wang Guan arrived in the U.S. from Beijing in February, the correspondent for state-owned China Central Television embedded with the U.S. Navy and broadcast live from the Republican and Democratic conventions. “It’s exciting … to observe democracy in action,” he says.
Guan is one of 100 journalists who CCTV has put to work in Washington, D.C., this year. He and a few dozen colleagues send dispatches in Mandarin to 42 channels back home, while 60 others produce business and news-magazine shows for a new English-language channel. Dubbed CCTV America, it airs on cable and satellite and is meant to burnish China’s image in the U.S. “There’s an overall sense in government circles that China is not always given a fair shake in Western media coverage,” says Jim Laurie, a veteran of ABC and NBC who consults for CCTV. “They see opportunities at a time when the U.S. media is contracting.” CCTV officials declined to be interviewed.
The push is part of a broader expansion of Chinese media in the U.S. Xinhua, the government-owned news wire that launched an English-language edition in America in 2010, announced the opening of its U.S. headquarters in a Midtown Manhattan tower last year with a massive LED-lit billboard in Times Square. According to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. issued 868 visas to Chinese journalists in 2011, up from 616 the prior year. “The Chinese see the BBC, CNN, the Qataris, the Russians as the big players,” says Laurie. “They say … ‘We want to be part of the game.’”
There’s been no shortage of China-bashing to report on this election year. President Obama has used stump speeches in Ohio to tout cases filed with the World Trade Organization against China for policies that hurt American autoworkers. Mitt Romney has repeatedly said he would label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office. “Such blaming-China-on-everything remarks are as false as they are foolish,” read a Sept. 14 Xinhua story. “We know that the U.S. presidential candidates often say one thing during the campaign and do another when they become presidents,” CCTV’s Guan told viewers in August.
Laurie says CCTV America reporters have slightly more leeway than they would in China. In March the network covered Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, unusual because China hasn’t had diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1957. Yet the same month, when Communist Party leader Bo Xilai was ousted after allegations of his involvement in a homicide, the network didn’t mention it. After Bo was charged in late September, David Shambaugh, director of George Washington University’s China Policy Program, who’d been a commentator on CCTV America several times, offered to discuss the indictment on air: “They said, ‘No, that’s too sensitive.’”
While America’s been opening its doors to China’s state-owned media, U.S. journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the world’s second-largest superpower. In a survey of its members last year, the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found a third had had difficulties obtaining visas. Incidents of police violence against foreign journalists are also on the rise, according to the U.S. State Department. In May, for reasons that are unclear, Chinese authorities refused to renew a visa for Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen working for Al Jazeera—the first time the country had expelled a foreign reporter in 14 years.
That treatment doesn’t sit well with some Republicans in Congress. California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who was a journalist in the 1970s and chairs the House’s oversight subcommittee, introduced a bill last year that would mandate parity between U.S. visas issued to Chinese journalists and visas that China grants U.S. reporters working for the government-funded Voice of America—who currently number two.
The bill would effectively expel 99 percent of the Chinese media from the U.S., which the Committee to Protect Journalists says would only goad Beijing to retaliate by cracking down harder on the foreign press corps. Rohrabacher’s response: “Do you not stand up to a gangster who is murdering guys in the neighborhood because you’re afraid that might get them angry—while he goes on murdering more people?”
Having benefited from so much access in the U.S., CCTV’s Guan says it’s “upsetting” to think that his American counterparts struggle to cover his country. “The only way to address misperception,” he says, “is to allow people to come to the scene, to report, to find out for themselves.”