Written by Ricardo Barrios.

Standing in a room full of Latin American and Chinese media elites, Xi Jinping declared the 2016 China-Latin America Media Leaders’ Summit an “unprecedented deed and a major event” in the history of Sino-Latin American media relations. The Forum—a joint event held by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Chinese State Council Information Office—was indeed a remarkable gathering, not only because it brought together over one hundred media leaders from both sides of the Pacific, but also because it shone a light on one of the less-scrutinised aspects of increasing Chinese activity in the region: the growing presence of Chinese state media.

A greater flow of information from China to Latin America could help address the issue by dispelling outdated ideas about China. A one-way stream of curated state narratives taken at face value, however, could leave LAC countries ill-prepared to deal with their newest partner.

Having already established an economic foothold in Latin America, China is increasingly relying on public diplomacy to ensure a productive relationship with the region. The country’s state media plays a significant supporting role in these efforts by allowing China to shape its own image before foreign publics.

In true digital age fashion, Chinese outlets in Latin America have skipped over traditional print media in favour of virtual platforms, which host content tailored to local audiences. Though slightly less up-to-date than their Chinese-language versions, newspapers Xinhua and People’s Daily produce daily Spanish and Portuguese-language content, as does China Radio International (CRI). China Central Television (CCTV), meanwhile, boasts a 24-hour channel, CGTN Spanish, which is available online, free of charge. Even the magazine China Today, which remains one of the few examples of Chinese print media in Latin America, maintains not one, but two Spanish-language websites, in addition to its two print publications in Mexico and Peru. Nearly all of these outlets have Spanish-language accounts on social media that are banned in China, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

The work of Chinese state outlets is also occasionally republished in regional (mostly state) publications, such as Agência Brasil, Granma (Cuba), and La Tercera (Chile), and is cited extensively (usually through third parties like AFP and EFE) on Chinese affairs. Pro-Venezuelan TeleSUR stands out in the Latin American media landscape for dedicating an entire section of its website to republishing daily Xinhua content. However, engagement is not limited to just LAC state media outlets. Increasingly, China is establishing links to non-state media, as demonstrated by recent exchanges with Bolivia’s El Deber.

The content of these platforms is a mixture of China-centric news and entertainment familiar to any other consumer of Chinese media. For example, coverage on the war in Syria alternates with segments on Chinese paper-making. Latin American stories of regional and international importance, such as Mexico’s ongoing presidential election, punctuate these Chinese media standbys. Outlets also highlight stories of Sino-Latin American engagement, including deals and state visits. Of all the platforms, CGTN Spanish arguably broadcasts the most varied content, including documentaries, cartoons, and Chinese-language learning programs in support of the country’s broader Mandarin-education initiatives.

Despite an already extensive presence in the region, some Chinese media professionals and scholars argue that China can do better. For example, a recent study by Professor Guo Cunhai of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Latin American Studies notes that, while Latin Americans’ perceptions of China are generally more positive than those of Europeans and Americans, these perceptions still lag behind Africa’s image of the Asian country. Guo partially attributes these disappointing results to the Chinese media’s poor performance in the region. He goes on to identify a lack of reporting on China in Latin America, Western media’s influence over the latter’s media landscape, and China’s own penchant for publishing positive stories—which he acknowledges “erode media credibility over time”— among the main factors impeding the development of a more positive image of China in LAC.

So far, Chinese leaders’ attempts to improve the situation are best described as outward-facing centralisation. The China-Latin America Media Exchange Center has been at the heart of China’s recent efforts to connect more extensively with Latin American journalists. As a subordinate organ of the China Public Diplomacy Association, the Center is tasked with bringing journalists from across LAC to China for study and work. The Center’s inaugural class arrived in China last May, and its activities included rubbing shoulders with notable players in China-LAC relations, including the head of the Foreign Ministry’s LAC Department, Zhu Qingqiao. During the Summit, Xi announced an ambitious goal of training 500 media professionals from Latin America over five years to “achieve common prosperity” in the media field.

Meanwhile, a series of moves announced by the Party’s Central Committee earlier this year shows a concurrent trend of media centralisation meant to strengthen Party control over official messaging. The first move is the centralisation of reporting at the hands of the Party bureaucracy through the transfer of responsibility for monitoring news publications; from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) to the Party’s Central Propaganda Department (under the guise of the state’s General Administration of Press and Publication). The second move is the abolition of the SAPPRFT, and the creation of the State Administration of Radio and Television, for the explicit purpose of “giving full play to the role of radio and television as the mouthpieces of the Party.” The last move is the folding of CCTV, CRI, and China National Radio (CNR) into one single broadcaster, the China Media Group, or as it is referred to overseas, the Voice of China.

This trend of centralisation has implications for Latin American consumers of Chinese state media, as information is increasingly controlled to reflect the official narrative of a foreign political party. The presence of Politburo Member and Party Propaganda Head Huang Kunming during the 2016 Media Summit is emblematic of just how deep the Party wants to involve itself in the country’s overseas media activities.

China’s media advances present opportunities as well as challenges for Latin America. The information gap between China and Latin America is real and needs to be bridged. A greater flow of information from China to Latin America could help address the issue by dispelling outdated ideas about China. A one-way stream of curated state narratives taken at face value, however, could leave LAC countries ill-prepared to deal with their newest partner. Rather than shunning these overtures outright, Latin America should redouble efforts to foster homegrown China specialists (including journalists, analysts, and scholars) that are able to see China through sober eyes and interpret it for their compatriots.

Ricardo Barrios is the program associate in the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America and the World Program, where he focuses on Chinese engagement with Latin America. He tweets @elbarrioschino. Image Credit: CC by Agencia de Noticias ANDES/Flickr.

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