China Power | Society | East Asia

Despite High Ambition, China’s Media Influence Operation Is Far From Successful

A case study of CGTN reveals how bureaucracy and a flawed incentive structure is holding the state media outlet back from true influence power.

Despite High Ambition, China’s Media Influence Operation Is Far From Successful
Credit: Depositphotos

CGTN, China’s English-language news media, has nearly 5 million more followers than CBS News on Twitter, yet it receives less than a quarter of CBS’s average retweets and likes per post. Despite being directed to “tell China’s story well,” Chinese state media is clearly failing to gain an authentic following outside the Great Firewall. Its struggle to influence stems from the organization’s incentive structure, which reflects shortcomings in China’s bureaucracy.

In recent years, China’s overseas influence operations have received scrutiny from the U.S. national security community. Many Washington officials and scholars treat China’s influence operations as a tremendous threat to U.S. strategic interests. Propaganda work has been a top priority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); Mao Zedong, who famously said that power comes from the barrel of guns, equated pens (propaganda) with guns as the two keys to the CCP’s victory. The Central Propaganda Department, which oversees China’s vast media network and regulates censorship, is a party organ rather than part of the government bureaucracy, keeping the “pens” tightly controlled.

Xi Jinping values the importance of China’s overseas influence operations and elevated them to a grand strategic level. During a Politburo meeting in 2013 he proposed “telling China’s story well” to the world audience as the new mission of China’s propaganda works. The CCP must use “all channels, resources, and means” to propagate its idea to gain worldwide recognition. This mission has three goals: spreading China’s political values and governance model, promoting China’s positive image, and struggling for ruling-making, agenda-setting, and voice-shaping power on the world stage. In particular, the propaganda mission must combat “anti-China voices” from “hostile powers” and spread “Marxism with Chinese characteristics.”

China Global Television Network (CGTN) is the CCP’s most crucial frontline solider in this “global propaganda struggle.” CGTN was originally the foreign-language service of China Central Television (CCTV), the official television station of the Chinese government. On December 31, 2016, CCTV foreign language channels were reorganized into CGTN in a major bureaucratic reshuffle. CGTN was elevated from CCTV’s subordinate into an equal counterpart in bureaucratic ranking. Despite gaining independence from CCTV, CGTN and CCTV continue to share an office (the famous CCTV headquarter in Beijing, nicknamed “Big Underwear” by locals) and resources.

Xi values CGTN highly. In the open letter to celebrate CGTN’s inauguration in 2016, Xi urged the network to “tell China’s story and spread China’s voice.” In this letter, Xi declared that the objective of CGTN is to show the world that China is “a promoter of world peace, a contributor of world development, and a protector of international order.”

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However, CGTN has not achieved Xi’s high expectations. Many China observers conclude that CGTN has not gained any significant international recognition and audience. Kaiser Kuo, the founder of the Sinica podcast and SupChina’s editor-at-large, called CGTN “the most boring news program probably in the whole world” during his podcast.

CGTN’s Twitter account offers insights into this failure. CGTN’s official Twitter account is the most followed and active Chinese state media Twitter account, with 13.3 million followers. Between April 30 and May 13, the account posted 144 tweets per day. On May 5, its daily tweets even surpassed 200. This number makes both former U.S. President Donald Trump and the wealthiest man on earth, Elon Musk, two famous Twitter celebrities (before Twitter banned Trump), look like Twitter rookies.

But despite the seemingly non-stop posting, these tweets did not get any attention. Each tweet, on average, received only seven retweets and 23 favorites between April 30 and May 13. In other words, only 0.00022 percent of CGTN’s followers retweeted, and 0.00048 percent of followers liked its tweets.

What contributed to CGTN’s Twitter account failure? In contrast to what many might assume, CGTN Twitter’s editorial team enjoys considerable creative freedom. According to an intern who worked closely with the CGTN social media team, content creation is a bottom-up process. Each editor comes up with several ideas for social media posts and presents them to the editor-in-chief. The editor-in-chief picks the most appropriate idea among the proposed ideas; the editors then finish the content and send it to the editor-in-chief for a seal of approval before publishing. According to the intern, the editor-in-chief usually only corrects grammar and numerical errors without interfering with the actual content. Sometimes, producers, who enjoy a higher bureaucratic ranking and are usually the head of a larger section, make a final check before publishing. However, a producer check is rare due to their busy schedule and multiple duties.

The biggest reason behind CGTN’s Twitter failure is the incentive to maximize content quantity at the cost of quality. Quantity over quality is a pandemic in the Chinese bureaucratic system. Chinese officials are evaluated by their superiors under the cadre responsibility system, which determines their achievement and career advancement. Under such an evaluation system, officials logically pursue quantifiable targets, which are more visible for evaluators, over less visible and less measurable “high quality” targets.

The CGTN Twitter team receives a daily target on how many tweets it must put out. The exact target is unknown, and it is likely determined daily. One reason behind the high target is the bureaucratic rivalry with China Daily, the overseas section of the People’s Daily. China Daily’s Twitter account has about 4.2 million followers. Between April 30 and May 13, China Daily’s Twitter account posted 65 tweets per day on average and received nine shares and 20 favorites per tweet.

A CGTN insider reported that the CGTN leadership explicitly said that the short-term goal is to “surpass China Daily in international influence” during a staff meeting. Therefore, the leaders of the CGTN might view putting out more tweets than China Daily as a good demonstration of their hard work and achievement, which they can leverage for either career advancement or attracting more resources.

This high tweet target implies that the editors are motivated to lower content quality because they are constantly under pressure to put out new content. The Twitter team must work overtime until finishing the daily target; conversely, editors can get off work early if they complete the target. As the former CGTN intern admitted, even though many editors want to demonstrate creativity in the content, the pressure to hit the target as quickly as possible forces them to sacrifice content quality to maximize quantity.

This content maximization strategy also puts tremendous pressure on editors-in-chief. Due to the large number of tweets daily, the editor-in-chief is unlikely to make any significant edits before posting. In addition, editors-in-chief usually pay little attention to whether each social media post will receive a broad audience.

Compounding the problem, many editors-in-chief at CGTN do not even have a media studies background. The CGTN is losing the battle to attract the best and brightest media studies graduates from Chinese universities because of its inability to provide a Beijing hukou (official residence registration) to new workers. According to a student at the Communication University of China, China’s most prestigious media studies university, many students prefer working for People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency because of the hukou option.

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Thus, according to the CGTN intern, editors-in-chief without proper media studies background neither know nor care about reaching a wider audience. Their primary focus is to post content online as fast as possible to complete the daily target.

The negative effect of CGTN’s quantity maximization strategy is easily visible. The non-stop, low quality posting actually turns many followers away. The data suggest a strong negative relationship between the number of tweets per day and the number of shares and the number of likes per tweet. The more tweets the account posts per day, the less likely each tweet is to receive a reaction from followers. In contrast, China Daily’s Twitter account does not show such a negative trend.

CGTN’s Twitter account illustrates that China’s propaganda apparatus is struggling to adapt to an open information environment. Chinese media operate in a closed information space as the sole source of information within the mainland. Thus, their job is largely to fill the information space. Quantity maximization ensures the voice of the CCP bombards citizens and pushes unwanted “noises” to the periphery. In addition, the ubiquitous party propaganda also demonstrates the CCP’s power and discourages independent thinking by showing that no one can escape from the party’s grip.

However, competing in an open information space is different. People can choose the media they want to consume. Therefore, a large quantity of low-quality content only turns audiences away. Unless the propaganda apparatus can overcome its bureaucratic inertia and redesign cadre incentives to compete in an open information environment, China’s soft power projection through its state media will remain ineffective.