Looking behind the screens of the ABC’s China deal

ABC International's deal to provide content in China is less a sign of a more liberal media than it is an indication of an increasingly sophisticated Chinese soft power strategy.

ABC International has reasons to be proud of its recent “landmark” deal to provide ABC content in China.

The deal, which will see the establishment of an online portal, also seems to make it harder for the government to justify scrapping the Australia Network, funded by DFAT and functioning as an official instrument of Australia’s public diplomacy initiatives.

The benefit of exposing potentially 1.3 billion people to Australian media content is obvious: Australia is competing with many other countries to attract business, resources investment, education and tourism from China; and perceptions matter.

Some may think that doing business with the Shanghai Media Group (SMG), the second-biggest media conglomerate after CCTV (Chinese Central Television), may have the added benefit of teaching the Chinese media a thing or two about what media in a liberal democracy look like. But it’s not that simple.

Going out and coming in

From the Australian point of view, it seems that the ABC has managed to penetrate the Chinese market. In reality, it’s a matter of China wanting to set up myriad reciprocal relationships so that it can maximise its own exposure to the world. From the point of view of the Shanghai Media Group, allowing the ABC to have an online portal in China is part and parcel of the Chinese government’s recent “going out and coming in” strategy aimed at increasing China’s soft power.

China has been seeking new ways of pushing its media content globally. It still doesn’t have landing rights in many countries, especially the much-coveted Western countries. As a result, Chinese state media have experimented with diverse, highly pragmatic ways of making inroads into foreign mainstream media institutions.

The ABC deal is part of this approach. The deal will allow China to sell its own media content to the ABC and other media groups.

A few years ago, ABC and SMG signed a deal to broadcast an hour of each other’s content for a week. For the third year, ABC had a week on Shanghai TV this March during Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s visit, featuring mainly culture, travel and documentary programs.

SMG will have its turn in Australia in September. China sees this as a good vehicle to carry its media content to various parts of the world.

Not exclusive

But Australia is not the only country SMG has invited to come in. A month ago, the Shanghai Media Group signed a multi-year agreement with Walt Disney to co-develop Disney-branded movies with Chinese elements.

Sharing budget and resource strictly 50/50, the partnership is described in the Chinese media as an equitable “marriage” between SMG and Walt Disney Studios. If this is the case, Australia is but one of the partners in SMG’s polygamous operation.

The state-owned CCTV is positioning itself for soft diplomacy. JWalsh/Flickr, CC BY

Nor should the deal be read as a triumph of democracy over communism, or as a sign that Chinese media are becoming more liberal. There is no indication that China will let its partners dictate the terms and conditions of collaboration, what type of content local broadcasters will use and on what platforms the content will be made available.

To be sure, more than CCTV, SMG is positioning itself as a more effective instrument of China’s soft power diplomacy, and is encouraged by the government to be at the forefront of the “going out and coming in” initiative. At the same time, SMG has affirmed its commitment to reduce “frivolous” entertainment programs and boost politically sound and serious news content. Given this internal political climate, it remains to be seen to what extent Australia’s media content will be taken up by Chinese outlets, or indeed if and how Australian news, especially news that seems critical of China, will be made accessible to the Chinese-speaking public.

Who really wins?

Despite the fact that partnerships such as this are considered to be win-win arrangements, China can be expected to do its own cost-benefit analysis. And there is little evidence to suggest deals such as this will lead to a more open and free news media environment.

In more than one way, it was a coup for a news and current affairs program such as Q&A to broadcast live from Shanghai. That said, China seems to have gained much more.

First, it was able to show the world and its own people that, contrary to the popular belief about China’s lack of press freedom, China is open, cosmopolitan and willing to engage with global media. This is China’s most important impression-management objective.

Second, there was little risk of the Chinese audience seeing the Chinese government placed in a bad light. While broadcast live to the Australian audience, the show was not live to the Chinese audience except those in the studio. And it was scheduled to be on the English-language channel of Shanghai TV, a channel mostly watched by English-speaking expatriates and Chinese social elites in Shanghai. To these people, little that was said on the Q&A program was new.

Soft power diplomacy is a funny game. Win-win outcomes are always preferable, but who wins more is a matter of perspective.

The Conversation

Wanning Sun does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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