Win Some, Lose Some: China’s Campaign for Global Media Influence

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 19

Politburo members (left to right) Liu Qibao, Liu Yunshan and Liu Yandong attending the launching ceremony of China Global Television Network (CGTN) in Beijing in December 2016 (Source: State Council Information Office)


In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事, jiang hao zhongguo de gushi) (Global Times, December 31, 2016). Xi’s exhortations entwine with his broader ambitions to increase China’s “international discourse power” (国际话语权, guojia huayu quan) and thereby augment the nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力, zonghe guoli). (People’s Daily, June 7). Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has spent billions of dollars to increase the reach of its state-run media outlets and bolster its reputation abroad. CGTN, which was previously the international branch of China Central Television (CCTV) but rebranded in 2016, exemplifies this government-led effort. The state-owned Xinhua News Agency has expanded its overseas bureaus from 100 in 2008 to 181 as of February 2021, a move all the more notable as many Western outlets have slashed their numbers of foreign correspondents (Xinhua, February 9; The Conversation, January 10, 2019). Both CGTN and Xinhua extensively recruit foreign and English-speaking talent (Facebook, April 14, 2018). The state-led effort to raise the international prestige of Chinese state media has produced tangible results. For example, in 2019, the International Olympic Committee recognized Xinhua as one of its four official international news agencies—alongside Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Paris-based Agence France-Presse (Olympics, January 30, 2019).

China’s campaign to expand its media influence is not limited to CGTN and Xinhua. Lesser-known entities have ventured abroad including Hunan Province’s Mango TV, which has a strong presence in Vietnam, and the Beijing-based StarTimes, which has expanded majorly in Africa. Beijing’s global media strategy to cultivate a positive image of China has primarily succeeded in developing markets, likely due to these outlets’ funding limitations, and the greater audience receptivity in developing areas. These challenges have prompted a strategy shift by Communist Party officials to “buying the boat,” that is, directly acquiring foreign media outlets and shaping their coverage. However, sanctions against Chinese news organizations in the United Kingdom and the United States suggest that Beijing’s campaign for hearts and minds abroad remains less effective in nations with more developed media institutions.

Few Can Tango with Mango TV

Mango TV, a subsidiary of the state-run Hunan TV, is the company behind China’s second most-watched television network after China Central Television (CCTV). Mango TV can roughly be understood as a Chinese video platform that combines elements of Netflix and YouTube. The streaming service is a tour de force in China’s entertainment industry with hit shows like Happy Camp (快乐大本营, kuai le dabenying) and Sisters Who Make Waves (乘风破浪的姐姐, chengfengpolang de jiejie). The latter, a reality show that follows 30 female celebrities over the age of 30 who compete to form a girl group, was an instant sensation and accrued over 44.5 billion  total views (Global Times, September 7, 2020). In 2020, Sisters Who Make Waves was among the top ten most-searched terms on Baidu, China’s main search engine (China Skinny, December 15, 2020).

Mango TV has also resonated with overseas audiences: its programming has amassed significant fanbases across Vietnam, Europe, and the United States. The streaming service launched an official YouTube channel in 2014 that currently has 4.45 million subscribers and is one of the largest Chinese-language media channels on the platform (YouTube, accessed October 5). A channel dedicated exclusively to its dramas boasts 2.72 million subscribers (YouTube, accessed October 5). Mango TV’s popularity on YouTube is particularly notable, as the latter remains banned in China.

In Vietnam especially, the streaming service has become an entertainment powerhouse. Mango TV produced three of the nation’s top ten television shows in 2020. As of the time of writing, the official YouTube channel for Mango TV Vietnam has 1.62 million subscribers (YouTube, accessed October 5). Videos feature actors dubbing in Vietnamese over the Chinese dialogue, accompanied by subtitles in simplified Chinese. In June 2021, Mango TV was one of the top five most downloaded video apps in Vietnam (Sohu, July 17). The Chinese platform recently collaborated with Vietnam TV, the largest state-owned broadcaster, to produce a Vietnamese-language edition of its popular variety show XJR Sports Carnival (小巨人运动会, xiao juren yundonghui) (CGTN, July 30). At present, Mango TV seems well positioned to achieve its stated goal of creating a globally influential “Chinese culture going out platform” (Mango TV, accessed October 5).

Winning Hearts and Minds in Africa

China’s efforts to increase its media influence in Africa trace back to the transfer of Xinhua’s regional editorial office from Paris to Nairobi in 2006. [1] These efforts accelerated in 2012 with the establishment of CCTV Africa (later rebranded as CGTN Africa). That same year, the China Daily Africa newspaper and ChinAfrica magazine were launched (The Asia Dialogue, October 16, 2018).

The Beijing-headquartered StarTimes, a privately-owned television company that retains close ties to the Chinese government, has a robust presence in sub-Saharan Africa. Its cheapest packages combine African channels like Uganda Premier League soccer matches with Chinese language kung fu movies and family dramas—all priced lower than competitors like the BBC and Al-Jazeera. The “StarTimes Basic” package retails for $5.99 per month (Xinhua, April 3, 2019; Xinhua, September 2, 2018). Since starting operations in Rwanda in 2008, StarTimes has expanded to 30 countries, and has over 10 million subscribers across Africa (People’s Daily, July 28, 2017). Its rapid growth and low prices have even sparked concerns that StarTimes aims to push local companies out of certain African markets (The Daily Nation, February 17, 2015).

StarTimes offers more than just cheap television packages. The firm has revamped the continent’s broadcast infrastructure, assisting African states with the transition from outdated analog to high-quality digital television. StarTimes was the Chinese government’s primary contractor for the 10,000 Villages Project—announced by Xi in 2015—which sought to increase digital television access in impoverished parts of Africa. By 2019, StarTimes had delivered digital television to 8,162 villages in 23 countries and assisted over 150,000 families, according to the firm’s website (StarTimes, December 2, 2020).

China has also invested in private African media companies. In 2013, a group of state-backed investors—including a CCTV subsidiary—purchased a 20 percent stake in Independent Media, which is South Africa’s second largest media company. In 2018, Independent Media dismissed a journalist at one of its digital publications, IOL News, over his coverage of Xinjiang (The African Exponent, October 7, 2018). [2]

China’s campaign to win hearts and minds via media influence in Africa, combined with infrastructure investments as part of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, seems to be working. Polls show that 62 percent of Nigerians and 65 percent of Kenyans have a favorable opinion of China, and most African states view China’s strengthening economy as positive (USIP, June 23; SCMP, June 26).

UK-China Media Clashes

In contrast to its successful campaigns for media influence in Southeast Asia and Africa, Beijing-backed outlets have struggled to gain traction in the West. In the United Kingdom, the state-owned China Daily has purchased a monthly “China Watch” supplement in The Telegraph. China Daily has purchased similar supplements in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as other publications such as Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, France’s Le Figaro, and even the Iowa-based Des Moines Register (Des Moines Register, accessed October 5). In 2016, local UK media outlets reported that China paid the London-based Telegraph over $1 million each year to publish the supplement. China Daily also distributed a free weekly newspaper around London called the China Daily European Weekly, with content similar to that of “China Watch” (Hong Kong Free Press, April 3, 2016). In response to criticism, however, many of these publications have since stopped publishing the China Daily-sponsored insert in their newspapers.

Over the past few years, however, previously cordial ties between London and Beijing have turned frosty over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Under its post-Brexit “Global Britain” foreign policy, the UK has increased its focus on the Indo-Pacific and augmented its military presence in the region.[3] London’s involvement with AUKUS, the recently concluded trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to counter China, highlights this new posture. Britain’s ruling center-right Tory Party, which traditionally advocates for human rights, has seen the number of China skeptics among its ranks increase. Earlier this year, the House of Lords tried to amend a proposed international trade law that would allow the London High Court to judge if a trading partner like China has committed genocide. While the House of Commons ultimately rejected the amendment by a narrow vote of 319-308, the incident nonetheless reflected growing unease with China in Britain (Nikkei Asia, February 20; SCMP, January 20).

In this context, China’s campaign to win hearts and minds in the UK has been snarled by tit-for-tat restrictions on media access. London struck first. In February 2021, the government media regulator Ofcom revoked CGTN’s broadcasting license, a decision based on British laws that require license holders to exercise editorial oversight of their programs and be free of control from political bodies. CGTN’s broadcasts of the Hong Kong protests came under fire for biased and one-sided coverage (Ofcom, February 4). In response, China banned BBC World News for an alleged “serious content violation” (Xinhua, February 12). According to China’s National Radio and Television Administration, BBC World News “fail[ed] to meet the requirements to broadcast in China as an overseas channel” and violated “requirements that news reporting must be true and impartial.”

U.S.-China Media Restrictions

China’s push to tell its story well has similarly drawn ire and pushback in the U.S. In September 2018, then-President Trump’s Justice Department required leading Chinese state-run media organizations like CGTN and Xinhua to register as agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Xinhua, October 22, 2020). In June 2019, the U.S. Radio and Television Correspondents Association declined to renew CGTN’s credentials, which allowed its journalists to access congressional press galleries (SCMP, June 2, 2019). In 2020, the State Department designated 15 Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions,” requiring them to register all staff in the same way that embassy and consulate employees must (SCMP, February 19, 2020). The Trump administration further ordered five state-owned news outlets to cut their number of staff to a combined total of 100 Chinese citizens in the U.S.—a reduction of about 40 percent (Taipei Times, March 4, 2020).

China responded by expelling 13 journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal on the grounds that it  opposes any “fake news made in the name of press freedom” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 18, 2020). Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang decried one headline from The Wall Street Journal about China’s management of COVID-19, written by three of the expelled American reporters, as discriminatory.


Apart from its relative gains in developing countries, the tribulations of China’s media expansion in the U.S. and UK governments suggest that efforts to extend influence into the West remain a work-in-progress. Xinhua, CGTN, and Mango TV have increased Beijing’s ability to “tell China’s story well” abroad, but these organizations still lack the worldwide influence and wealth of Western media organizations such as the BBC, the New York Times and Netflix. For example, Mango TV trades for $8.53 per share on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, valuing the entertainment platform at around $15.3 billion (Sina, August 20). Conversely, Netflix has a current value of $226.8 billion, and the value of Disney’s streaming business, which includes platforms such as Disney+ and Hulu, is estimated to exceed $100 billion (NASDAQ, August 20; CNBC, January 6, 2020).

Media has transformed into a new battleground between China and the West. Foreign journalists who strive to provide fair coverage find their work politicized and are caught in geopolitical crosshairs. And the conflict shows few signs of abating: on July 29, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was “deeply concerned by the increasing trend of surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of foreign journalists in China” (Twitter, July 29). Unfavorable views of China in the U.S. and elsewhere ultimately hinder Beijing’s ability to expand the influence of its state-backed media outlets. Regardless, it seems that the campaign to “tell China’s story well” will continue—at least for those willing to listen.

William Yuen Yee is a Research Assistant for the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. He has previously written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, SupChina, the China Story, and the SOAS China Institute.


[1] Xinhua recognized developing a presence in the capital of Kenya as central to achieving China’s media aspirations abroad. For more, see Yu-Shan Wu, “The Rise of China’s State-Led Media Dynasty in Africa,” South African Institute of International Affairs, June 2012, pp. 17,

[2] The dismissed journalist, Azad Essa, published an op-ed about his experience. See Azad Essa, “China Is Buying African Media’s Silence,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2018,

[3] In October 2020, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke before the Foreign Affairs Committee about the importance of the “Indo-Pacific tilt.” For more, see “Oral evidence: Work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, HC 253,” Foreign Affairs Committee, October 6, 2020, pp. 14,