China’s great leap forward in the media

“We know a lot about journalism and democracy, but we hardly know anything about dictatorships and the media. Many different kinds of authoritarian systems develop and change; they aren’t going to just quietly disappear,” says Professor Heikki Luostarinen, who has studied the Chinese media. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

“We know a lot about journalism and democracy, but we hardly know anything about dictatorships and the media. Many different kinds of authoritarian systems develop and change; they aren’t going to just quietly disappear,” says Professor Heikki Luostarinen, who has studied the Chinese media.
Photograph: Jonne Renvall

According to Professor Heikki Luostarinen, Finland will have to consider the role of China more thoroughly in the future.

China is starting to make its presence felt more strongly in Finland, as ever more Chinese money is involved in corporate acquisitions and media productions.

Luostarinen, professor of journalism at the University of Tampere, says that within the next few years, Finland will have to carefully consider whether China’s growing role is problematic.

Luostarinen started to study the Chinese media after he realised that Gbtimes, the European headquarters of China Radio International, was located quite close to the University of Tampere’s main campus. Gbtimes has a radio network covering eleven European countries and it publishes online news in twelve languages.

In his recent book, Kiinan median suuri harppaus (Chinese Media’s Great Leap Forward), Luostarinen reports the results of his study on the goals that motivate Chinese media investments.

The book’s title alludes to China’s industrialisation programme of 1958–60, which ended catastrophically and resulted in the death of tens of millions of people. The current modernisation of Chinese media is a project of equal proportions.

China has invested heavily in media visibility

After the 2008 Olympics, China invested 45 billion yuan – about six billion US dollars – in the development of its media companies’ international activities.

Luostarinen estimates that on the scale of international communications, the sum is huge, even though it is small in comparison to the turnover of the world’s largest media corporations.

The investments were provoked by the negative coverage that spread internationally about China when it was preparing for the Olympics. Such news included winter storms, unrest in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the tainted baby formula scandal.

China’s media campaign was described variously as the “Cultural Industries Promotion Plan”, the “Go Out policy plan of the Chinese media” and the “Great External Propaganda Plan” whose aim is “developing Chinese media in order for them to become international disseminators” and “reinforcing the national discourse of Chinese identity”.

In Chinese, the term “propaganda” does not have such negative connotations as it does in the West.
China campaigns like the US in the 1950s

To the Western eye, the products of international Chinese media seem clumsy. Reports of stiff ceremonies where leaders shake hands are served up as front page news.

Professor Jiang Fei, whom Luostarinen interviewed, compares the Chinese media campaign with the way the United States developed relationships with allies in Europe after World War II.

Between 1945 and 1955, the United States had a negative image in Europe. In order to solve the problem, the country adopted a multipronged approach. One of them was the Foreign Service Institute, which started to educate visitors to Europe to encounter the hostile environment. According to Jiang, the predominance of American culture in Europe and elsewhere in the world is the result of such policies.

Luostarinen finds this an apt comparison.

“People in Europe have spent more time thinking about this issue than we have in Finland. After the financial crisis, the arrival of Chinese capital in Europe raised concerns that something similar to what happened with the United States might be going on. For quite some time, the Chinese have not been interested in investing in Finland. However, that money has now also arrived in Finland and we might have to think about these issues here too,” Luostarinen says.

Chinese investment funds are already operating in the Nordic countries and seeking promising, innovative companies in which to invest.

“Finland is not the only coward”

According to Luostarinen, China’s interest in Finland stems from the opportunities offered by the biotechnology sector and the country’s political harmlessness. The Finnish mental image of China is one of a giant panda rather than a dragon.

Is Finland cowardly in its policy on China? Should Finland raise contentious issues – such as human rights abuses – more often?

“Finland is not the only coward. There is a ‘pleasing the Chinese’ contest in the European Union. Everyone wants new investments and access to large markets,” Luostarinen points out.

According to Luostarinen’s observations, the Finnish media is not uncritical. When President Xi Jinping visited Finland in April 2017, the media reported widely on human rights issues. The giant pandas China will lend to a Finnish Zoo for fifteen years were considered to be “propaganda animals”.

Within the European Union, Finland is among the countries that have a positive attitude to China and it has supported lifting the arms embargo the EU placed on China in 1989.

The political stance Finland has adopted is not radically different from that of the other EU countries. Sweden is usually very active in human rights issues, but Prime Minister Stefan Löfven did not raise them during his recent visit to China.

Two of Sweden’s leading brands, the carmakers Volvo and Saab, were sold to the Chinese in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

China temporarily interrupted diplomatic relations with Norway in 2010 when the Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo won the Noble Peace Prize. Denmark, on the other hand, maintains good trade relations with China.

Dictatorship will not disappear

China’s state-centred media reality does not fit the concept of the authoritarian press theory that Luostarinen learned in the 1970s. He used to consider dictatorships as relics of a bygone age, and he had not expected to still be running into vibrant authoritarian regimes in the 2010s.

“We know a lot about democracy and journalism, but we hardly know anything about dictatorships and the media, and there are several kinds of dictatorships. We cannot imagine that they are evolving and changing systems; we somehow always seem to think that we have left dictatorships behind us. However, quite the opposite seems to be true at the moment,” Luostarinen says.

Examples of countries with recurring authoritarian systems include Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Russia, China, and the United States, where President Trump has named mainstream news media the enemy of the people.

“I have used China as an example to examine the mechanisms and relationships of power, politics and the media and how they develop,” Luostarinen explains.

In the conclusion of his book, Luostarinen asks whether dictatorship and autocracy are necessarily bad; after all, the majority of people regard them as the best administrative systems.

“If the world were to organise a democratic election on the issue, dictatorship is likely to win because it would receive one billion votes just from China,” Luostarinen writes, cryptically.

According to the British newspaper The Independent, only 4.5 percent of the world’s population lived in democracies in 2016. However, Luostarinen regards this estimate as too low. What is more essential is the observation that the relationships between the media and politics are in a state of flux.

“There are threats and problems. Events that undermine democracy and democratic principles may evolve quite fast,” he says.

Amidst the protests in Hong Kong

The most important data for Luostarinen’s book were gathered by interviewing experts during three trips to Hong Kong and Beijing between 2014 and 2015.

Although he never got to interview representatives from Gbtimes, Luostarinen did talk with reporters at China Radio International in Beijing.

He also happened to travel to Hong Kong during the democracy protests in 2014.

“It was an important experience, because it gave me the opportunity to see the protests and what was happening at the grassroots level, and to simultaneously follow the media reports of the events. That was quite educational,” Luostarinen says.

Luostarinen found that Hong Kong’s own media did rather well, but the level of international media reports varied.

American news media had problems because of their style of parachuting into a country to report on events and then leaving without learning about the wider context.

The manner in which the news was reported in mainland China had little to do with what was really happening in the streets of Hong Kong. Luostarinen had the opportunity to interview some reporters, but not those who wrote about the protests in mainland China.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli

Heikki Luostarinen: Kiinan median suuri harppaus, Into Kustannus Oy, 2017
Please also read: UTA establishes Tampere Research Centre for Russian and Chinese Media