China Enlists Western Media to Spread Its Message

 A poster with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping overlooks a street at sunset in Shanghai in September. Photo: aly song/Reuters 

 By Te-Ping Chen
Nov. 11, 2017 7:00 a.m. ET

BEIJING— Xi Jinping wants the media to tell China’s stories better. These days, he is increasingly finding willing partners abroad.

The Chinese leader has exhorted state media to do more to “enable the world to see a multidimensional and colorful China,” present his nation as a builder of global peace and help strengthen China’s influence abroad.

China has for years placed paid English-language state-media supplements in foreign newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal. Under Mr. Xi, Beijing, which often calls Western depictions of its society unfair, has also stepped up support for co-productions with foreign partners, including documentary tie-ups spotlighting the country’s culture, technological advancements and infrastructure projects.

One such feature is “China: Time of Xi,” a three-part documentary produced by Discovery channel’s Asia arm that was first broadcast in China in October—during a Communist Party congress that gave the leader a level of authority comparable to Chairman Mao.

A Discovery Channel’s documentary, shown in this YouTube video, portrays the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to development as a model for the world.

Interspersed in the production are admiring words for Mr. Xi and his policies from people such as Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a host for China’s state broadcaster, and former Australian Prime Minister           Kevin Rudd, who says “Xi Jinping is a leader who dreams very big dreams.”

In one episode, economist Dambisa Moyo praises Mr. Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative as “one of these incredibly transformative ideas.”

The documentary mentions some of China’s challenges, such as pollution. But there is no mention of more controversial aspects of Mr. Xi’s tenure, such as his crackdowns on speech and dissidents or his moves toward one-man rule.

“It’s not our place to sort of comment on or provide the good and the bad. We don’t look at it that way,” said Discovery representative Karun Arya. “We’re in the business of infotainment.”

Many of these projects receive support from state arms linked to government propaganda departments, including state broadcaster China Central Television. Such partnerships give China more say in how its story is told—with the imprimatur of a respected media outlet or producer.

For foreign media companies, the co-productions offer access to a large potential audience in a country that censors the media and routinely impedes camera crews. The tie-ups also bring new funding opportunities for makers of documentaries, which can be expensive and require funding from multiple partners.

Some producers involved in Chinese joint ventures said that with China’s resources and appetite for enhancing its profile abroad, its deepened interest in documentary work is a welcome development.

Discovery said the “Time of Xi” project was conceived by its team and received help with research and access from China Intercontinental Communication Center, a company belonging to the Communist Party Propaganda Department, whose role isn’t listed in the credits. CICC, which bought the distribution rights for China and other Asia-Pacific regions outside Discovery’s footprint, didn’t respond to a request for comment on its foreign production partnerships.

People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, celebrated the documentary as an “in-depth interpretation on China’s development path, ideas and inspirations for the world.”

Vikram Channa, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific’s vice president for production and commercial partnerships, describes Discovery’s approach as part Hollywood, part journalism. “We are visual, emotive storytellers,” he said. “It’s not CCTV but neither is it BBC or CNN. It’s bang in the middle.” 

Discovery has been making documentaries in China since 1997, with offerings that include a weekly one-hour special called “Hour China” on topics such as China’s wildlife, technological and engineering accomplishments and culture.

“There are too many stories of conflict, of us versus them,” said Kenny Png, a Singapore-based producer who has worked in China and was involved with postproduction work for “Time of Xi.” As China’s global profile expands, he said, people who work on Chinese co-productions “can help soften the dialogue.”

Production companies working with Chinese partners pick their content carefully, preferring topics such as culture, travel or history. Examples include wildlife and travelogue films such as Disney ’spanda-focused “Born in China” and National Geographic’s “China From Above,” on culture and infrastructure.

“Time of Xi” is rare in its focus on China’s leadership. “We just tend to not do anything about post-1949 history because you’re just asking for trouble,” said a producer, citing the year the Communists came to power.

Even seemingly innocuous topics can prove challenging. In the nature documentary “Big Pacific,” a co-production funded by parties including America’s PBS and CCTV’s documentary channel that premiered this year, an issue arose over images of sealife, according to one of the American producers, John Cullum.

After the Chinese side objected to what it saw as excessive footage from rival Japan, producers addressed such concerns by not stating the location for a segment on orange clownfish filmed in Japanese waters, he said. “That helped,” said Mr. Cullum.

CCTV didn’t respond to a request for comment.

China’s effort to get foreigners to “tell China stories well,” as Mr. Xi puts it, has been particularly on display with its massive “Belt and Road” plan to revive ancient trade routes. To promote the effort, Beijing has held forums for international journalists to guide them on how to create a “splendid chapter of media cooperation” based on Mr. Xi’s foreign-policy vision.

In Jiangsu province, employees of the state-owned broadcaster, Jiangsu Broadcasting Corp., explained in a recent article that foreign hosts are better at telling Chinese stories because they are believable and persuasive.

The company provided the majority of the funding for a series that aired this year on BBC, “Tales From Modern China.” The production, jointly financed by the BBC, highlighted topics such as China’s supercomputers.

When the company works with foreigners, a Jiangsu Broadcasting official said, the company strives to “show a Chinese image full of positive energy.”

—Xiao Xiao contributed to this article.

Appeared in the November 13, 2017, print edition as 'China Massages Its Global Message.'