China Power | Society | East Asia

What Is the Belt and Road News Network?

A centralized source for BRI information would be welcome, but BRNN may blur the line between data and party-state talking points.

Eleanor Albert
What Is the Belt and Road News Network?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In April, China quietly launched a new media group: The Belt and Road News Network (BRNN). The BRNN’s mission is to boost “understanding, friendship and cooperation, and form a normalized mechanism for collaboration,” across the participating countries and regions of China’s multi-billion dollar connectivity project. Concepts of dialogue, the exchange of ideas, information, and products, and innovation feature prominently in BRNN materials. 

The BRNN is likely an outgrowth of ideas posited by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the first Belt and Road Forum in 2017. In the concluding portions of his address that year, Xi said “We will also develop a network for cooperation among the NGOs in countries along the Belt and Road as well as new people-to-people exchange platforms such as a Belt and Road news alliance and a music education alliance.”

Two years on, the platform is headquartered in Beijing and chaired by the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper group and the official outlet of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. According to the network’s charter, the BRNN’s council consists of 14 members from China and 26 others from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eurasia (Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Tanzania, U.A.E, U.K. and Zambia).

BRNN activities include reporting trips, seminars, awards, access to news archives and databases, and training workshops and programs. Separately, the People’s Daily describes the BRNN’s website as providing a hub for communication, content uploading and downloading, and content exchange among the network’s members. The network claims to source content in six languages: Chinese, Arabic, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Interestingly, the People’s Daily maintains online sites in all of the same languages. The site architecture also suggests that BRNN will seek to provide comprehensive data and information on BRI projects and investment.

In September, the BRNN organized a two-week media workshop in Beijing ahead of the 70th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China. There were more than 50 workshop attendees — senior editors and journalists — from almost four dozen international media outlets from 26 Latin American and African countries.  

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The media workshop consisted of lectures, tours of state-owned media outlets such as the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, field trips to several provinces, and panel discussions, including briefings by Chinese scholars and experts. Official reports note that topics covered included China’s poverty alleviation, environmental conservation efforts, tech and data industry development, urban planning, and intellectual property rights over the past 70 years. Also on display was an emphasis on new media and technological development. 

Notably, the workshop was hosted by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) in cooperation with the Secretariat of the BRNN and the Communication University of China. The SCIO is one of the primary coordinating and implementing agencies of China’s external propaganda work. While the SCIO is nominally under the State Council, it also straddles a second bureaucratic structure — that of the Chinese Communist Party. This duality is known “as one organ/institution, two signboards.” State-owned Chinese media outlets often disseminate information and news according to parameters set by the SCIO.  

In that same vein, the BRNN’s first joint statement reads as high praise and admiration for the BRI, highlighting the initiative as a “new model of multilateral cooperation.” Moreover, the document presents the BRNN as “essential” with the claim that it will boost innovation and shared opportunity for win-win development, and retain its long-lasting vitality and vigor.” Beyond Chinese outlets, news of BRNN’s establishment was first placed in the UK’s Telegraph as a paid ad sponsored by the network’s chair, the People’s Daily. 

The BRNN is still just getting off the ground, with few publicized events and minimal salience in the mediasphere to date. The idea of a centralized source of information on BRI would be a welcome development as it has become harder and harder to differentiate what qualifies a project as BRI-worthy in contrast to China’s general foreign economic cooperation. However, the more likely scenario is a blurred line between reported data and highly controlled, curated party-state talking points.