When Ofcom cancels CGTN’s license to broadcast in the UK, China’s Foreign Ministry aims both barrels at the BBC. This is going to get worse: it is a metaphor for something much bigger, and the latest nail in Britain’s golden era coffin with China.


First published in February 2021.


For well over a year, we have witnessed the passage of Britain’s erroneously labelled ‘golden era’ with China turn to rust, and dust. A succession of events and issues have contrived to bring this about, including notably China’s management and diplomacy surrounding the pandemic, national security issues over the role of Huawei in the roll-out of 5G, the offer of a route to citizenship to BNO passport holders in Hong Kong, now succumbing in earnest to the repression of the new National Security Law, and the brutal treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang Province.

The UK has also been raising the profile of the role the Royal Navy might play in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the significant Asia-Pacific free trade area that excludes China. Now, a new row is breaking over broadcasting, which is in many ways a metaphor for the structural break in Anglo-Chinese relations.

Britain’s independent communications regulator, Ofcom, announced last week it was revoking China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) license to broadcast in the UK. And faster than Lewis Hamilton could execute a hand-brake turn, China’s Foreign Ministry lodged ‘stern representations’ to the BBC over what it claimed to be ‘fake news’ coverage of Covid 19 and demanded an apology. But this apparent tit-for-tat entails fundamentally different issues.

Ofcom investigation reaches a conclusion

Ofcom is an independent regulator of the communications sector, with duties laid out by Parliament. On its website, you can read the minutes of its Content Board meetings. The March and May 2020 minutes refer discussions in which Ofcom asked CGTN to clarify its licensing status. The reason is that Ofcom’s requires licensees be responsible for editorial and programming content. The licensee in this case was not CGTN, but an organisation called Star China Media, a private subsidiary of an ostensibly private Chinese media company but Ofcom rightly deemed that Star China Media was patently not responsible.

CGTN, the foreign agency of China Central Television (CTV), is an arm of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China and therefore, affiliated with and tied to the Chinese Communist Party. Ofcom felt it was entitled to an explanation and requested information over a number of months. This, by the way, was separate from other cases in which Ofcom was looking into the possibility of sanctions for broadcasts deemed to have contravened standards here, including impartial coverage of the Hong Kong protests.

Although Ofcom’s website does not yet carry minutes for later meetings, its enquiries resulted in an application by CGTN in September last year to have the broadcasting license transferred to a subsidiary. Ofcom was not satisfied, however, either with the CGTN’s failure to supply information it had requested, or with the transfer of license which had not been processed. In any event, Ofcom said it was unable to transfer a license under UK broadcasting law to an agency controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Hence last week’s decision to disqualify CGTN from broadcasting in the UK.

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BBC in China’s crosshairs

Quick as a flash, the Chinese government has aimed retaliation at the BBC. It may have wanted to anyway because of the BBC’s coverage of the repression of and conditions suffered by the Uighur people in Xinjiang Province, most recently here. However, the Ofcom announcement gave the Chinese Foreign Ministry cover to retaliate.

The fundamental problem here is that we and the Chinese government are ships passing in the night. We think independent regulators should be independent of the government and be responsible for honest and transparent governed according to the law, charter and statute. We think the Chinese government taking aim at the BBC is false equivalence, and a childish riposte. There is no such parallel in China where, according to Xi Jinping, ‘the Party, government, military, civilian, and academic; east, west, south, north, and centre, the Party leads everything’. He didn’t include the law specifically in this slogan, but we can assume safely that it is. China thinks that there is no blue water between Ofcom and the British government, and that the former’s decision is yet another example of foreigners ganging up on the benign intentions and ambitions of China for the world.

Next up

It’s hard to predict precisely where this is going to go. It will certainly fuel the fires going on in Anglo-China relations, and probably result in further actions against the BBC’s broadcasting operations in China and possibly Hong Kong. US media and broadcasting in China has already been hollowed out, with eminent journalists and reporters having to leave China, and in one celebrated vase last December a Chinese employee of Bloomberg in Beijing was detained for ‘endangering national security’,  and so there is already a significant precedent.

The Ofcom/CGTN/BBC row seems like a petty spat between broadcasting agencies, which will leave most people unaffected. Yet, it has much greater significance. A just released report by the National Endowment for Democracy describes in some detail how the Chinese Communist Party uses its power to shape media content around the world, pressuring people and institutions to propagate its economic, financial, political and foreign policy narratives.

The media dispute is symbolic of the much deeper ideological chasm that’s opening up between Chinese and Western standards, beliefs and values.  



George Magnus, Economist, Author and Commentator. Associate at the China Centre, Oxford University, and adviser to some asset management companies. Former Chief Economist at UBS. Global macro, China, demography.