The voice of China – in Arabic

“Marhaban bikum,” says the elegantly dressed newsreader. She’s not wearing a headscarf and she sounds like a highly educated Arab. Her name, if I’ve deciphered it correctly, is Chiang Lu, and she’s presenting the TV news in Arabic – from Beijing.

The main news of the day is President Hu Jintao’s visit to Yunnan province. The area is home to 26 different ethnic groups, we’re told, and the president has called on Chinese of all ethnic backgrounds “to show mutual respect and concern”. The president smiles benignly as he walks among the crowds, shaking hands.

Last Saturday, China Central Television (CCTV) began broadcasting to the Middle East in Arabic, 24 hours a day. Considering that America’s venture into this area with al-Hurra TV has proved an unmitigated and expensive flop, the Chinese attempt to follow suit raises two obvious questions. Why are they doing it? And will anyone watch?

Marc Lynch, a leading analyst of the Arab media, is sceptical. But for China, this seems to be part of a grand plan to raise its profile on the world stage. Arabic is CCTV’s fourth foreign-language channel (after English, French and Spanish, with Russian to follow shortly).

Whereas most Arabs already know quite a lot about the US and English is the main foreign language taught in schools, they know little about China and very few Arabs speak Chinese. Nevertheless, Arab countries are flooded with Chinese goods and China is clearly hoping to gain influence in the region.

Whereas the aim of al-Hurra was to win Arab hearts and minds by marketing an unsaleable foreign policy in glossy packaging, CCTV seems more modest in its ambitions: it is trying to disseminate awareness of China and its culture (in a government-approved version, of course). This can be seen from its programme listings… “Tourism in China”, “Learning the Chinese language”, “Chinese arts”, “Cultural films”, etc.

With so many Arabic satellite channels broadcasting populist trash these days, I really can’t see CCTV getting much of a look-in. Its news bulletins certainly won’t pull away crowds from the blood and gore on al-Jazeera; in style they are much more like the long-discredited bulletins on Arab state-run channels.

In any case, I’m not sure that China is wise to raise its profile in the Middle East at the moment. Until recently, I’d have said that most Arabs have a neutral-to-favourable view of the Chinese, and some Arab regimes (such as Syria) look to China as a model for economic progress without democracy.

However, signs of anti-Chinese sentiment in the region emerged recently over Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims. The Yemeni authorities, for example, responded by cracking down on various Chinese businesses (including brothels), and al-Qaeda issued its first-ever threat against China. A higher profile does come at a cost.