Radio Beijing in the Middle East

by Joseph Braude

– Ratings matter to commercial radio and television because the size of the audience determines the price of sponsors’ airtime. But should they also matter to government-backed foreign broadcasts, which do not sell ads? In Washington, the Arabic-language television network Alhurra and its sister radio channel, Sawa, receive funding from the U.S. Congress to present America to the Arab world. They publish an annual performance review that quantifies success largely in terms of “audience weekly reach,” now estimated at 35.5 million. Their data comes from corporate research by the Gallup Organization and analysis from firms such as Nielsen, which tracks everything from Sunday Night Football viewership to how many Americans play video games.

These survey companies would presumably be unimpressed, for example, by government-backed offerings out of Beijing like the 45-minute documentary about the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, which aired late last year on the Arabic service of Chinese Radio International. Perhaps a mere 5,000 listeners tuned in online via the CRI Web site, alongside however many shortwave radio enthusiasts who picked up the aerial signal from its source in Albania. The program featured a synthesized keyboard soundtrack, a lean script, interviews with Chinese language teachers in two Arab countries, and musical interludes by a Beijing rapper (whose lyrics were untranslated).

But to evaluate the CRI program in Nielsen-like terms would be missing the point. The Chinese government has developed an approach to cultural outreach in the Arab world whereby a program’s ratings matter far less than who in particular is listening. Niche content on radio and television supports a broader effort to attract a modest number of Arabs in countries of high strategic concern, who go on to serve Beijing as assets and emissaries to the media as well as the society at large. With their help, China strives to reach a vast audience via the region’s indigenous broadcasts, with which no foreign outfit can compete. This exposure, in turn, supports a ground campaign of “soft power” to tweak the region’s cultural fabric in favor of Chinese interests.

On December 21, China’s media outreach to the Middle East achieved an unprecedented coup with the debut of a forty-part Chinese television comedy-drama, overdubbed into Egyptian Arabic, on Egypt’s government-controlled Channel 2, which broadcasts free-to-air nationwide. Happy Life (“Hayat Sa’ida”) is the story of a Beijing doctor from humble village roots who is in love with an upper class woman whose parents disapprove of him. The decision to expose Egyptians to the show was the outcome of a protocol signed by the Chinese government and the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), a division of Egypt’s information ministry, for the express purpose of using mass media to prepare the population for a stronger alliance between the two states. China gave ERTU the rights to the program for free and paid for the translation and overdubbing. Egyptian Information Minister Duraya Sharaf al-Din, toasting the program’s premiere during a visit to the Chinese embassy in Cairo, told Chinese radio that her government wants the series to instill an emotional connection with China that will popularize political and economic ties.

The important achievement represented by the Egyptian premiere of Happy Life was years in the making for Beijing. It was preceded by a long string of small-time communications gains in Arab countries, none of which appeared to count for much on their own. Taken together, however, they reveal the intricate style of thinking and planning of a modern superpower, rooted in ancient traditions, which is trying to engage another traditional society mired in strife. Numerous Western experts in the field of “soft power”—notably the originator of the term himself, Harvard University professor Joseph Nye—have dismissed Chinese public diplomacy worldwide as ineffectual. To be sure, according to a July 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, China’s image has suffered in popularity among Arab publics in recent years. But if we take a closer look, we see that pronouncements of China’s failure to win Arab hearts and minds are premature. There are important lessons to be drawn from the Chinese experience.

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The 45-minute documentary about Confucius aired in September 2013 on Arabic CRI’s weekly news magazine, Panorama. Four months later, it still enjoys some audience, reaching new listeners on social media via its permalink. In silk-smooth Arabic with a Chinese accent, a female announcer tells us of how the philosopher, born 2,564 years ago, has influenced China and its people. Then the narration abruptly shifts: “Recent years have seen the establishment of Confucius Institutes,” she reports, “which spread the ancient Confucian ideas and philosophy all over the world, and have become beacons for the dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The rest of the show profiles not Confucius the man but Confucius the Institute, a network of Beijing government-backed educational facilities that promote learning and instruction in Chinese, as well as cultural study and exchange programs. Some have criticized them for promoting Beijing’s geopolitical agenda as well, but the program mentions none of this. Though many Arab countries host a Confucius Institute, the documentary is chiefly concerned with the chapters in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia. Muhammad Ali al-Zayyat, who heads the branch at Suez Canal University in Cairo, explains to the audience that, while some Egyptian students enroll for love of Chinese, a larger contingent “are striving to find better job opportunities through the many factories and companies [in Egypt] that need workers who speak the language.” Egypt and China are both great civilizations, he says, and Confucian teachings suit Egypt well. He recalls that his late father felt modern Egypt might have grown into the powerhouse China is today, but for the pressures it faced from foreign powers. Like his father, Muhammad Ali believes that Egypt should “distance itself from the West, and its better partner is China…because our relationship is based on an exchange of benefits, rather than all the benefits going to one side.” His plans for the future include bringing a pilot program about China to Egyptian schools, which will be a step, he hopes, toward introducing the study of Chinese as a second language year-round.

Panorama then pauses for a Chinese hip-hop break, after which one of Muhammad Ali’s counterparts at the Confucius Institute in Sfax, Tunisia, joins the conversation. She echoes her colleague’s personal and political thoughts about China and recalls her happy years as a student in Beijing. So does the show’s final guest, an Egyptian student who returned from the city more recently. All the voices hint at what awaits the Arab listener willing to serve his country as a cultural bridge to China.

The show falls outside the news cycle and offers little entertainment value, but for the narrow purpose of inducing Egyptian and Tunisian youth to enroll in their local Confucius Institutes it strikes precisely the right chords. Young listeners in an unstable country with high unemployment hear that they can study Chinese for free and dramatically boost their job prospects. The show’s guests manage to preempt defensive reactions from the kind of nationalistic listeners who would bristle at such an overture from a foreign power: They are assured that Egypt, too, is a great civilization and only lags behind China owing to its history of exploitation by the West. A step toward China is a step toward liberation and progress. Beijing comes across as a refreshingly hospitable destination for study abroad, moreover. Its people honor guests and reject the anti-Arab stereotypes widespread in Europe and the United States. Some listeners of modest means probably begin to wonder whether the educational exchanges are funded by the hosts. For an answer, they will have to visit the Institute in person.

Meanwhile, the philosopher Confucius is mentioned many times, his name fulsomely enunciated over a placid musical backdrop; yet the substance of his life and work remains vague. The scant details of his life serve the broadcast as a metaphor: He is China’s secret recipe, the elixir Arabs need to reclaim their ancient glory. At one point the announcer adds that Confucius “has been nicknamed ‘the prophet of China.’”

Who listens to such a broadcast? Unlike America’s Radio Sawa or the BBC from London, CRI Arabic isn’t available on local radio in the region (with the exception of what appears to be a pilot project on FM radio in the sparsely populated North African republic of Mauritania). Nor does it figure prominently among Arabic stations hyped online. One finds it advertised in venues where Arabs already curious about China are likely to go. For example, the website of the Chinese embassy in Cairo features a link on its home page, while in person the embassy’s cultural attaché encourages the young people he meets to tune in. Some Confucius Institute chapters also disseminate links to prospective students as a kind of audio brochure.

Another means of dissemination enlists Arab nationals to do the work and become long-term assets to Beijing along the way: so-called “listener appreciation societies.” These are young people’s social clubs that appear initially to form spontaneously but grow thanks to concerted support from China. Witness the “Friends of Chinese Radio International Club” in Khouribga, a small working-class town in central Morocco that happens to be a hub of the country’s phosphate industry, a major source of imports for China. According to its website, a local Moroccan Tae Kwon Do enthusiast founded the club after discovering CRI online and participating in its on-air trivia competitions. CRI awarded him a visit to Sichuan province, where he joined other CRI fans from Turkey, Senegal, Cambodia, Hungary, and elsewhere—also founders of listener appreciation societies in their countries. Each guest was paired off with someone identifying as a staffer from the network who served as a full-time translator and guide. “We lunched and supped at the most beautiful restaurants in China, as if we were kings,” writes the Moroccan participant in his 4,400-word account of the visit. “I can hardly describe my shyness in front of the venerable female broadcaster who accompanied me throughout the trip…who never tired or got bored from translating every word.” She treated him “with the tenderness of a mother,” he says, and refers to the CRI staff as his “dearest family.”

The Friends of Chinese Radio International Club operates with permission from the Moroccan interior ministry to provide CRI with “listener reports,” cooperate with the Chinese embassy in its outreach efforts in Morocco, and broker “cooperation agreements” between Moroccan institutions and their Chinese counterparts. For the club’s members, the agreement in Cairo that led to the airing of a forty-part Chinese drama on Egyptian television is an example of something to aspire to. The Khouribga club made a stride in this direction in October 2013 with the opening of a week-long Chinese film festival in town.

All these projects, large and small, are manifestations of Chinese “soft power”—that is, the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce. Parallel efforts by the United States over the years have sometimes encountered extreme hostility, including attacks on American libraries and English teaching facilities in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Kuwait, and Jordan. Some personnel that staff the American initiatives have endured suspicions or charges of espionage—quite unlike their Chinese counterparts. To gauge the contrast, just imagine the backlash that would await an Arab youth group in Baghdad or Gaza calling itself the “Friends of American International Broadcasting Club,” pledging to submit “listener reports” to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington, and collaborating with the American embassy to establish “cooperation agreements” with the population. The harsh treatment these young people would face stems largely from America’s baggage in the Middle East following years of policies unpopular with Arab publics. China, by contrast, has never occupied an Arab country and does not face accusations of siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

That said, China has also adopted policies that are deeply disliked in much of the region today, and it has paid a price in public esteem. The country poured billions in oil contracts into Libya under Qaddafi and refused to support the NATO-led campaign to oust him, consequently finding itself shunned by the post-Qaddafi transitional government and most of the Libyan population. Syria’s embattled Sunni majority has come to loathe China for standing by the regime of Bashar al-Assad amid his regime’s atrocities in the ongoing civil war. There are economic grievances against China too: Arab private sector elites in Egypt, for example, fault their Chinese partners for repatriating so much of the profit from ventures on their soil that “the amount of money that sticks with the local economy is not a win-win,” says Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Last September, China experienced the first terrorist attack ever perpetrated against one of its embassies in the Middle East—a mortar strike in Damascus in retaliation for Beijing’s backing of Assad.

Yet the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey, while noting an overall decline in China’s favorability, also reports that China remains considerably more popular than the United States in the region, and that young Arabs tend to like the country more than their parents do. The Asian power’s long-running public diplomacy efforts are only now beginning to bear fruit, as evidenced by the unprecedented television deal with Egypt’s government. As China’s footprint grows in the Middle East, will regard for the country fall to American levels? The deeper one probes into the country’s communications approach, the more vulnerable it appears to the same types of charges Americans have long faced. On the other hand, its unique features have distinct advantages in the region today that might just help China avoid a similar fate.

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Like American public diplomacy efforts in the Arab world, the Confucius Institute—the franchise of Chinese educational facilities that was promoted in the Arabic CRI broadcast—also encounters opposition in some countries where it maintains a presence. The flak tends to come not from developing countries but from the world’s wealthier democratic states. The harshest and least substantiated charge against the Institute is that it serves as a vehicle for military and industrial espionage, as well as the monitoring of Chinese students overseas. The Canadian intelligence services acknowledge having investigated the organization’s branches on their soil. Public critiques in the United States have noted personnel overlap between some American-based chapters and the leadership of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company alleged to have spied on its American competitors.

A valid and more broadly shared objection is that the Institute stifles academic freedom in universities where it establishes a branch. Some cash-strapped colleges relying on it for language instruction have discouraged campus activism against human rights abuses in China. One cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama for fear that the Institute would shut its doors in protest. Organized opposition at the University of Chicago and University of Melbourne, as well as numerous colleges in Europe and Asia, has called for ousting the group altogether. Among the arguments, this opposition has asserted that the Institute is effectively an arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Though the group presents itself in Europe and the Americas as the Chinese equivalent of Germany’s Goethe Institute or the British Council, the latter organizations enjoy a political firewall from their government backers, whereas Confucius Institutes have no such mandate. To the contrary, as Li Changchun, a senior member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, told the Economist, the organization is construed by Beijing as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Numerous Confucius Institute language learners in the West have described teachers as using their platform to advance (if gently) the Chinese government position on its conflict with Taiwan, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Tibetan independence activists.

The same accusations would presumably apply no less to Confucius Institutes in poor countries such as Egypt, where universities are even more hard-pressed financially and thus inherently more beholden to foreign donors. But scour the Egyptian media for any criticism of the organization at all—even a disparaging acknowledgment of Western allegations—and one comes away empty-handed. One finds instead: a fawning thirty-minute guided tour of the Institute branch at Suez Canal University which aired on an Al-Jazeera channel last May; a twenty-minute interview with an Egyptian Sinophile who heads a branch in Dubai, broadcast on the Egyptian government network Al-Misriya; and a deluge of news releases, printed verbatim in the Egyptian press, about the growing number of Egyptians proficient in Chinese, thanks to the Institute’s work.

This astonishing record appears to stem from three main factors. The first is one Beijing’s Western rivals can’t replicate; the second is one that they should adopt; and the third is also one that is possible to emulate, albeit not without raising serious moral questions.

The first factor is that Western states are history’s children from a Middle Eastern perspective, centuries away from earning the respect accorded an ancient civilization such as China. It’s too late, moreover, to earn a mention in the collected sayings of the prophet Muhammad. (“Seek knowledge even unto China,” he told his followers.) A Moroccan radio lover’s feeling of devotion to the people of Sichuan province is not merely the result of a government program designed to forge such a bond; it is the natural outcome of an interaction between members of two traditional societies with similar values, family structures, rural ties, and pre-modern humor. These commonalities are what make the protagonist in the Chinese television drama Happy Life instantly recognizable to millions of urban Egyptians, also the product of rural migration, who remember the trauma of entering a globalized society overnight. For years to come in Arab countries, China will enjoy the admired status of a global superpower with one foot in the developing world, which will likely mitigate Arab anger toward opportunistic or draconian policies adopted by the Chinese government.

The second factor, a principal component of Beijing’s media strategy, is old-fashioned too and could be summed up by a term from medieval Arabian horseback warfare: “Al-Karr wa ‘l-Farr” (Attack and Withdrawal). Washington’s quest for high Gallup ratings led it to take on the entire region at once—a 24-hour phalanx of public diplomacy spanning 3,200 miles of Arab airwaves. Its approach came in for widespread criticism, prompting subsequent adjustments, several times. China, meanwhile, sneaks up on tiny audiences, racks up small victories, and recruits new assets from the field. When it experiments, the stakes are low; when it wages an ambitious campaign, the strategy is pre-tested. This is an approach that could be profitably emulated in North Africa and the Middle East in particular due to the diversity of the region’s cultures and politics, the fragmentary nature of its audiences, and the fact that the agenda of a foreign power simply cannot be summed up in different locations by a unitary message.

The third factor explains China’s uncanny success at avoiding bad press. It derives from the harsh reality that three years after the onset of revolution most of the region’s major media outlets still either fall directly under state control or reliably submit to state directives. Official and semi-official media outlets may resemble independent media in many respects, but they consistently boost their government’s policies and eschew anti-establishment reporting. When they produce incendiary content or traffic in conspiracy theories against another government, they generally do so at the behest of their backers. So China, in assuring Arab governments that it has no designs on their political systems, manages to fend off orders from on high to slander the country or its institutions. Rather than attempt to compete with indigenous broadcasts, moreover, it partners with them. An Arab establishment will even tolerate a Chinese ground campaign on its soil, whether to cultivate boosters in a Moroccan phosphate hub or to build a pro-Beijing beachhead at a Cairo university, because it knows that goals of such efforts are limited.

Of course, the idea of providing similar assurances to an authoritarian state (even an allied one) risks compromising America’s democratic values and poses a problem for American efforts in and out of government to foster independent media in the region. Nor, for that matter, would a strategy of partnership with official media structures sit well with American media executives raised on free market ideals and accustomed to viewing a media venture through the prism of the ratings game. But present circumstances in the region invite us to consider new ways to apply our values to our policies. Extremist transnational movements are making strides toward weakening states and eroding borders, and we must work to stop them. An important part of doing that is supporting the institutions of Arab states with which the United States is allied. Through media partnerships, Americans can gain a seat at the table, where they can then challenge the production of propaganda that would harm American interests. More important, Americans can use their access to more freely engage Arab journalists, editors, and television writers in creating education and training media that build up egalitarianism, tolerance, and civil society. In the long run, such a consensual approach will be more effective in advancing American ideals than persisting in a costly “battle of the networks” that has no clear endgame.

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