China officially announced the launch of its long-rumored Arabic TV station CCTV the other day. It thus joins the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and Iran -- and possibly soon India -- in having a state-backed satellite television station broadcasting in Arabic. Why, given that none of them are likely to ever capture much of a market share or have much impact on Arab public opinion?
I would love to listen in to Chinese strategic planners discussing the possible contributions of what will likely be a little-viewed TV station. Do they think it will allow China to combat the scourge of anti-Sinism and "move the needle" on its numbers in the Pew Global Attitudes surveys? Do they want a weapon to wage a "war of ideas" against al Qaeda for its alleged fomenting of unrest among Muslims in Xinjiang province? That would be hilarious.
I'd guess that it's more about pure great power status competition. After all, the rest of the members of the Security Council have got one, as does one major wannabe, so why shouldn't China? It might also marginally be about protecting state interests through the exercise of soft power. China has got major energy interests in the Middle East, and it's probably half a decade too soon to think about actual naval bases in the Gulf to protect them. So why not launch a TV station? At least they should be able to staff it -- I still remember an al-Jazeera program broadcast from China a few years back featuring an impressive group of Chinese Arabic speakers.
Whatever the case, the rush of America's great power competitors to launch Arabic language satellite television stations is a marvel to behold. America's al-Hurra has been a hugely expensive sinkhole which has had virtually no identifiable impact on Arab public opinion. But instead of happily watching the U.S. throw its money away, all of its great power competitors have instead opted to throw their good money down the same mine shaft, thus helping to erase the relative costs of the endeavor (in relation to U.S. competitors, at least, if not with regard to other possible public diplomacy or foreign policy initiatives). Success!
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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.