China holds charm offensive with foreign journalists

At new media conference in Beijing, 15 international media outlets sign cooperation deal on ‘One Belt, One Road’ project with Chinese government-run newspaper ‘People’s Daily.’

FOREIGN MEDIA outlets pledge to join the ‘International Coalition for New Media Cooperation on One Belt and One Road’ in Beijing in late July.  (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
FOREIGN MEDIA outlets pledge to join the ‘International Coalition for New Media Cooperation on One Belt and One Road’ in Beijing in late July.
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
BEIJING – Fifteen media outlets from around the globe inked a cooperation deal with China’s People’s Daily newspaper on the sidelines of a conference in Beijing last week. The media organizations – including those in Portugal, Russia and the Netherlands – agreed to establish the “International Coalition for New Media Cooperation on One Belt and One Road.”
“We will improve cultural harmonization, and enhance mutual understanding, trust and tolerance via new media platforms,” the outlets pledged. “We will establish an information and resource sharing mechanism among world media following our plans.”
More than 200 journalists from 100 different countries converged on Beijing for the 2016 Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road in late July. The event was run by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Chinese Community Party.
The forum, in its third year, seeks to bring media outlets from around the world together to promote the government’s initiative to construct a massive regional trade network throughout Asia and Europe, including developing stronger rail, highway and maritime links across the continents. The concept was announced by President Xi Jinping in a 2013 speech, and China has already invested $1.4 billion in what is expected to be a decades-long initiative, according to a government official speaking at the conference.
The goal of the conference was quite clear: to woo the foreign media in attendance into promoting the government’s lofty agenda when it comes to One Belt, One Road.
It is clear that China’s billions in potential trade and economic ties are an enticing sight for countries in Asia, Europe and beyond. But while the benefits of the initiative are obvious for the majority of Asia and Europe, the Chinese government officials’ repeated claims at the conference to be seeking “peace and prosperity” raise questions for some of the journalists, especially considering the timing.
Just as the conference convened in Beijing, China was embroiled in an international law brawl in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognize the July ruling by an arbitration court in the Hague in a case brought by the Philippines.
China claims most of the 3.5-million- square-km. South China Sea, with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also staking claims.
Indeed, Wang Chen, secretary-general of the ruling National People’s Congress, denounced the ruling as a “political farce” in his address to the conference. And just a few days later, Beijing announced it would be holding “routine” naval exercises with Russia in the South China Sea in September. China has received heavy criticism from Western countries on the issue in recent months, including from the US, Britain, France, Germany and Australia.
But, setting those issues aside, could its charm offensive work on a group of Western media? The answer, it seemed – at least anecdotally – was yes.
“I’m a fan of democracy,” said Guy Zitter, commercial adviser and former managing editor of the UK’s Daily Mail, in remarks at the outset of the conference. “But it does have its drawbacks.”
Zitter went on to lament how needing to campaign for reelection and the likelihood of regular regime change can hinder progress and delay such enormous projects like One Belt, One Road. It was slightly jarring to hear Zitter bemoaning democracy, although considering the upheavals that it has led to in the UK recently, it can almost be understood.
The next day, speaking to Li Yunshan, one of the top leaders of the Communist Party, Zitter said the Daily Mail would be “working closely” with the People’s Daily to produce “a series of guides to encourage readers to learn about China.”
Other representatives from foreign outlets – including Reuters, Bloomberg and Sky News – were effusive in their praise of the initiative and of the newspaper’s forum, but less specific in their efforts, and none were part of the “international media coalition.” It should be noted that many of the media outlets that did join the coalition were state-run news agencies.
Reuters contributed to this report.
The writer was a guest of the People’s Daily.