Chinese state television launched an Arabic-language channel beamed to the Middle East and Africa on Saturday as part of efforts to expand the communist government's media influence abroad. The 24-hour channel will air in 22 Arabic-speaking countries, reaching a total population of nearly 300 million people, China Central Television said in a statement. The channel "will serve as an important bridge to strengthen communication and understanding between China and Arab countries," said a CCTV vice president, Zhang Changming, in the statement. Beijing is carrying out a multibillion-dollar effort to increase the profile of its state media abroad by expanding CCTV, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency. The effort has a budget of 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion), according to a report last month by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post. The Arabic channel will have news, feature stories, entertainment and education programs and will gradually expand its offerings, CCTV said. The network already broadcasts in English, French and Spanish as well as in Mandarin. The media drive echoes efforts by Russia and Qatar to have an influence on international news coverage through their state-funded Russia Today and Al-Jazeera channels. Those attempts to challenge the BBC and CNN have scored some success.