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Can Chinese media rule the airwaves?

By Lara Farrar, for CNN
Both state-run and independent media in China is reaching out to new audiences abroad.
Both state-run and independent media in China is reaching out to new audiences abroad.
  • China state-run media is expanding its presence aboard
  • Expansion is focused on traditional media like TV, radio and newspapers
  • New non-state media are also setting up to give alternative perspective on China
  • Founder of BON TV promises to show positives and negatives in coverage

Beijing, China (CNN) -- At a time when many Western media outlets are contracting, Chinese media outlets are expanding, rapidly.

Beijing is pouring billions into the country's state-run media machine, which is churning out new TV networks, radio stations and newspapers aimed at foreign audiences.

But there are gaps emerging for non-state broadcasters to operate.

One such TV station is Blue Ocean Network (BON TV) that is owned and operated by Chinese from within China. It hopes to offer American cable TV viewers a new perspective on the world's most populous country.

Video: China's media explosion
The Chinese government believe that China's international image has become a major problem.
--Li Cheng, U.S.-China analyst

The key difference between BON TV and its state-owned counterparts is that, well, it is not state-owned.

According to its co-founder Justin Ku, an ethnic Chinese who holds an American passport, the project has not received government money.

"At the very beginning, we realized that is probably our lifeline -- to be totally independent and non-government funded," Ku said.

Even so, the story of how BON TV came about, the challenges it has faced and its plans for expansion raise questions about the future of Chinese media abroad. Can it win over audiences and is it indicative of a greater sea-change taking place within China's heavily government-controlled media?

"[The Chinese government] believes that China's whole international image has become a major problem for the country," said Li Cheng, a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations at the Brookings Institution.

A recent BBC/Globescan poll of 28 nations showed that only in Africa and Pakistan is China viewed positively while in Asia, North America, Europe and Latin America, public opinion is either neutral, poor or negative.

"They believe part of this misunderstanding is the lack of knowledge of China, and the Chinese," Li said.

"And they also believe as China's economic power continues to grow, it should also have cultural and political influence as well. That is the mindset."

We want to reflect China, including the negative side of China.
--Justin Ku, founder BON TV
  • China
  • Media
  • Business
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It is a mindset that has resulted in big makeovers for many of the country's major state-run media outlets.

Some are now recruiting Western reporters and editors to help reshape content. There also is a push to hire from the pool of Chinese journalists who have been trained abroad or in a number of recently-launched international journalism programs at Chinese universities.

These media outlets have also been busy launching global endeavors. In July, for example, Xinhua News Agency, the country's largest news service, started a 24-hour English-language channel and announced it would open offices in the heart of Manhattan.

Meanwhile, China Central Television (CCTV), which already broadcasts in English, Spanish and French started an Arabic channel airing in 22 countries last year. The China Daily newspaper is creating U.S. and European editions, and China Radio International (CRI), continues to expand its reach on stations from Texas to Thailand.

According to Ku, who once produced programming for CCTV through an independent company, what differentiates BON TV from its state-run counterparts is not only its independence from the government but also the content that it offers.

"Of course, we want to reflect China, including the negative side of China," he said.

"We will not shy away from that. If you purposely censor yourself without reporting those things, you are not providing a full picture to Western audiences. Anything that is fundamentally important to what China is now, we will report it."

The satellite network, which celebrates its first year in operation this week, now only has contracts with cable operators in New York, New Jersey and Hawaii. The company, however, is in negotiations that Ku hopes will have it available in most major U.S. cable markets within a year.

Ku says the network, located in a high-rise only minutes away from CCTV's Beijing headquarters, has run sensitive stories on prostitution, abused children and black jails. Last June, he said, BON TV reported on "media reaction" to the anniversary of the military crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- a taboo topic that is rarely, if ever, mentioned by government news agencies.

Like state-run agencies, it has hired a number of foreign staff to anchor and produce its shows, including Susan Osman, a former BBC anchorwoman who also hosts programs on CRI.

Yet many question whether any Chinese news operation, state-run or otherwise, will ever appeal to Western, particularly American, audiences.

"Americans are suspicious of them," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the Beijing-based, a site that covers media in China. "No one is going to take them seriously."

Instead China stands to make in-roads with its media in the developing world where it is also aggressively expanding its reach.

BON TV has plans to launch in Africa where Xinhua is already "becoming the principle source of news," according to David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, in a recent New York Times op-ed.

"If they do have success with soft power, it does sound more likely they could develop a voice in the developing world," said Goldkorn.

"[The Chinese media] don't have the structures to compete in America or Europe."

Ku, however, sees it differently.

"We think this thing has very big potential," he said.

"There is a huge demand for information about China, and we feel there is nobody that has fulfilled that need satisfactorily, so we think the time is ripe for us to launch this big mission, this big undertaking."

In July, BON TV received a $10 million investment from CDH Investments, a Chinese private equity fund.

"China is misunderstood, and we can easily be misunderstood by a majority of people," he added.

"When they first heard about this kind of thing, they cannot imagine that China would allow it to exist. But the mere fact that it is existing speaks a lot about China today, you know."