Written by Vivien Marsh.

There are few phrases more likely to strike dread into a western global journalist’s heart than “bilateral relations” and “expanding ties”. They portend a news story of excruciating dullness peopled by national leaders and diplomats in suits getting on and off planes. For western hacks accustomed to finessing catchy leads and soundbites, the term “bilateral relations” is the spanner in the news machine. In broadcasting in particular, it is horribly difficult to illustrate. The only physical manifestations of “expanding ties” are probably to be found in a joke-shop next to the whoopee cushions.

But as the Chinese premier Li Keqiang embarked on yet another foreign tour – this time to Britain and Greece – much more verbiage of this kind zipped across journalists’ screens on their news agency feeds. The phenomenon is particularly marked at the beginning of political visits when intentions and generalisations, rather than agreements and outcomes, are the order of the day. For western reporters, particularly on TV and radio, “selling” such a story to editors is a perennial challenge.

Chinese official media coverage of Mr Li’s European trip has been typically unswerving. The English-language CCTV News led with the premier’s impending departure from China last Sunday, carrying Chinese foreign ministry comments about developing relations and expanding co-operation on a number of fronts. By contrast, the bilateral relations that the BBC chose to illustrate in its prelude to the visit were those of Chinese brides and grooms at a faux-English village near Shanghai – a  façade of a setting that did much to encourage broader figurative comparisons.

Western media’s aversion to repeating political platitudes was probably to blame for the relative lack of interest in the Chinese premier’s week-long tour of Africa in May.  Most Anglo-American coverage, in particular, focused on a single tangible outcome of the trip – the agreement for the construction of a standard-gauge railway in East Africa.  Other themes emerging from the visit, such as China’s increasing involvement in security in the continent, were either mentioned in passing or not reported at all.

The foregoing might appear to vindicate China’s decision to pour money into its news provision overseas. Beijing wants its voice to be heard; it desires input – commensurate with its burgeoning economic power – into what it sees as a western-dominated world news agenda wielding disproportionate influence on global political debate.

Scrutiny of CCTV Africa’s coverage of Li Keqiang’s African visit, however, indicates that this “soft power” objective is competing with two strategic journalistic aims.

The first of these is the ambition to become a credible purveyor of international news, a global English-language rival and alternative to al-Jazeera, CNN and the BBC. CCTV Africa’s blanket coverage of Mr Li’s tour certainly delivered information not available on other news channels, his every move chronicled by on-site reporters, accompanied by exposition of Chinese projects in Africa and interviews with African leaders on China-Africa relations. But the relentlessly positive vocabulary employed in the reporting of the premier’s tour was in marked contrast to the more nuanced tone of CCTV’s other African news.

Also striking were CCTV Africa’s editorial priorities. In the week of the South African elections, face-to-face South Sudanese peace talks, the escalating fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria and explosions on several buses in Kenya, the progress of Li Keqiang’s visit remained the bulletin lead. Only once in the sample of coverage studied, when President Goodluck Jonathan thanked China for its promise to help free the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, did the premier’s trip cede centre stage to major African news. The editorial deference to the activities of China’s political leaders that is the norm for official Chinese media at home may prove harder for executives to defend and sustain in the marketplace of international news.

The second journalistic aim at variance with China’s soft power strategy is CCTV Africa’s stated determination to deliver “African news from an African viewpoint.” The broadcaster certainly raised the profile of China-Africa trade, investment and co-operation through a series of reports showcasing Chinese initiatives in various parts of the continent. Most notable was a clip of an Ethiopian worker at a shoe-making factory who spoke in Chinese. Yet the majority of the project managers interviewed in these features were Chinese, not African. And an analysis of the China-Kenya relationship was accompanied by a map of east Africa and an explanation of where Kenya and its neighbours were situated – raising questions about where exactly CCTV expects the audience for its African programmes to be.

The enduring dilemma for Chinese state broadcasting is how far it can serve as a vehicle of soft power – if, indeed, soft power can be conveyed by an instrument of state – while competing as a purveyor of international news. Having declared its intention to smash the western news paradigm, China is finding that putting a coherent alternative in its place is more difficult. The challenge for official media remains how to chronicle China’s growing international influence – particularly on development issues – without renouncing the concept of newsworthiness itself.

Vivien Marsh is BBC World Service journalist turned doctoral researcher at University of Westminster (CAMRI, China Media Centre), comparing British & Chinese broadcast news. Vivien is a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar and tweets @vivmarshuk.

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