China’s global in­for­ma­tion war

Bei­jing is buy­ing up me­dia out­lets and train­ing scores of for­eign jour­nal­ists to ‘tell China’s story well’ – as part of a world­wide pro­pa­ganda cam­paign of as­ton­ish­ing scope and am­bi­tion. By Louisa Lim and Ju­lia Ber­gin

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - ouisa Lim is a se­nior lec­turer at the Cen­tre for Ad­vanc­ing Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne Ju­lia Ber­gin is a re­searcher for The Lit­tle Red Pod­cast

As they sifted through re­sumes, the team re­cruit­ing for the new Lon­don hub of China’s state-run broad­caster had an en­vi­able prob­lem: far, far too many can­di­dates. Al­most 6,000 peo­ple were ap­ply­ing for just 90 jobs “re­port­ing the news from a Chi­nese per­spec­tive”. Even the sim­ple task of read­ing through the heap of ap­pli­ca­tions would take al­most two months.

For western jour­nal­ists, de­mor­alised by end­less bud­get cuts, China Global Tele­vi­sion Net­work presents an en­tic­ing prospect, of­fer­ing com­pet­i­tive salaries to work in state-of-the-art stu­dios. CGTN – as the in­ter­na­tional arm of China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion (CCTV) was re­branded in 2016 – is the most high-pro­file com­po­nent of China’s rapid me­dia ex­pan­sion across the world, whose goal, in the words of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, is to “tell China’s story well”. In prac­tice, telling China’s story well looks a lot like serv­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal aims of the state.

For decades, Bei­jing’s ap­proach to shap­ing its im­age has been de­fen­sive, re­ac­tive and largely aimed at a do­mes­tic au­di­ence. The most vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion was the lit­eral dis­ap­pear­ance of con­tent in­side China: for­eign mag­a­zines with pages ripped out, or the BBC news flick­er­ing to black when it aired sto­ries on sen­si­tive is­sues such as Ti­bet, Tai­wan or the Tianan­men killings of 1989. Bei­jing’s crude tools were do­mes­tic cen­sor­ship, of­fi­cial com­plaints to news or­gan­i­sa­tions’ head­quar­ters and ex­pelling cor­re­spon­dents from China.

But over the past decade or so, China has rolled out a more so­phis­ti­cated and as­sertive strat­egy, which is in­creas­ingly aimed at in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences. China is try­ing to re­shape the global in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment with mas­sive in­fu­sions of money – fund­ing paid-for ad­ver­to­ri­als, spon­sored jour­nal­is­tic cov­er­age and heav­ily mas­saged pos­i­tive mes­sages from boost­ers. While within China the press is in­creas­ingly tightly con­trolled, abroad Bei­jing has sought to ex­ploit the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the free press to its ad­van­tage.

In its sim­plest form, this in­volves pay­ing for Chi­nese pro­pa­ganda sup­ple­ments to ap­pear in dozens of re­spected in­ter­na­tional pub­li­ca­tions such as the Wash­ing­ton Post. The strat­egy can also take more in­sid­i­ous forms, such as plant­ing con­tent from the state-run ra­dio sta­tion, China Ra­dio In­ter­na­tional (CRI), on to the air­waves of osten­si­bly in­de­pen­dent broad­cast­ers across the world, from Aus­tralia to Turkey.

Mean­while, in the US, lob­by­ists paid by Chi­ne­se­backed in­sti­tu­tions are cul­ti­vat­ing vo­cal sup­port­ers known as “third-party spokes­peo­ple” to de­liver Bei­jing’s mes­sage, and work­ing to sway pop­u­lar per­cep­tions of Chi­nese rule in Ti­bet. China is also woo­ing jour­nal­ists from around the world with all-ex­penses-paid tours and, per­haps most am­bi­tiously of all, free grad­u­ate de­grees in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, train­ing scores of for­eign re­porters each year to “tell China’s story well”.

Since 2003, when re­vi­sions were made to an of­fi­cial doc­u­ment out­lin­ing the po­lit­i­cal goals of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, so-called “me­dia war­fare” has been an ex­plicit part of Bei­jing’s mil­i­tary strat­egy. The aim is to in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion over­seas in or­der to nudge for­eign gov­ern­ments into mak­ing poli­cies favourable to­wards China’s Com­mu­nist party. “Their view of na­tional se­cu­rity in­volves pre-emp­tion in the world of ideas,” says former CIA

an­a­lyst Peter Mat­tis, who is now a fel­low in the China pro­gramme at the Jamestown Foun­da­tion, a se­cu­ri­ty­fo­cused Wash­ing­ton think­tank. “The whole point of push­ing that kind of pro­pa­ganda out is to pre­clude or pre­empt de­ci­sions that would go against the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China.”

Some­times this in­volves tra­di­tional cen­sor­ship: in­tim­i­dat­ing those with dis­sent­ing opin­ions, crack­ing down on plat­forms that carry them, or sim­ply ac­quir­ing those out­lets. Bei­jing has also been pa­tiently in­creas­ing its con­trol over the global dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture through pri­vate Chi­nese com­pa­nies, which are dom­i­nat­ing the switchover from ana­logue to dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion in parts of Africa, launch­ing tele­vi­sion satel­lites and build­ing net­works of fi­bre-op­tic ca­bles and data cen­tres – a “dig­i­tal silk road” – to carry in­for­ma­tion around the world. In this way, Bei­jing is in­creas­ing its grip, not only over news pro­duc­ers and the means of pro­duc­tion of the news, but also over the means of trans­mis­sion.

Though Bei­jing’s pro­pa­ganda of­fen­sive is of­ten shrugged off as clumsy and down­right dull, our five­month in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­der­lines the gran­u­lar na­ture and am­bi­tious scale of its ag­gres­sive drive to re­draw the global in­for­ma­tion or­der. This is not just a bat­tle for clicks. It is above all an ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal strug­gle, with China de­ter­mined to in­crease its “dis­course power” to com­bat what it sees as decades of un­chal­lenged western me­dia im­pe­ri­al­ism.

At the same time, Bei­jing is also seek­ing to shift the global cen­tre of grav­ity east­wards, prop­a­gat­ing the idea of a new world or­der with a resur­gent China at its cen­tre. Of course, in­flu­ence cam­paigns are noth­ing new; the US and the UK, among oth­ers, have ag­gres­sively courted jour­nal­ists, of­fer­ing free­bie trips and priv­i­leged ac­cess to se­nior of­fi­cials. But un­like those coun­tries, China’s Com­mu­nist party does not ac­cept a plu­ral­ity of views. In­stead, for China’s lead­ers, who re­gard the press as the “eyes, ears, tongue and throat” of the Com­mu­nist party, the idea of jour­nal­ism de­pends upon a nar­ra­tive dis­ci­pline that pre­cludes all but the party-ap­proved ver­sion of events. For China, the me­dia has be­come both the bat­tle­field on which this “global in­for­ma­tion war” is be­ing waged, and the weapon of at­tack.

Nige­rian in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist

Dayo Aiyetan still re­mem­bers the phone call he re­ceived a few years after CCTV opened its African hub in Kenya in 2012. Aiyetan had set up Nige­ria’s premier in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism cen­tre, and he had ex­posed Chi­nese busi­ness­men for il­le­gal log­ging in Nige­ria. The caller had a tempt­ing of­fer: take a job work­ing for the Chi­nese state-run broad­caster’s new of­fice, he was told, and you’ll earn at least twice your cur­rent salary. Aiyetan was tempted by the money and the job se­cu­rity, but ul­ti­mately de­cided against.

As the lo­ca­tion of the Chi­nese me­dia’s first big in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion, Africa has been a test­bed. These ef­forts in­ten­si­fied after the 2008 Olympics, when Chi­nese lead­ers were frus­trated with a tide of crit­i­cal re­port­ing, in par­tic­u­lar the in­ter­na­tional cov­er­age of the hu­man rights and pro-Ti­bet protests that ac­com­pa­nied the torch re­lay around the world. The fol­low­ing year China an­nounced it would spend $6.6bn strength­en­ing its global me­dia pres­ence. Its first ma­jor in­ter­na­tional foray was CCTV Africa, which im­me­di­ately tried to re­cruit highly-re­spected fig­ures such as Aiyetan.

For lo­cal jour­nal­ists, CCTV promised good money and the chance to “tell the story of Africa” to a global au­di­ence, with­out hav­ing to hew to western nar­ra­tives. “The thing I like is we are telling the story from our per­spec­tive,” Kenyan jour­nal­ist Beatrice Mar­shall said, after be­ing poached from KTN, one of Kenya’s lead­ing tele­vi­sion sta­tions. Her pres­ence strength­ened the sta­tion’s cred­i­bil­ity, and she has con­tin­ued to stress the ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence of the jour­nal­ists them­selves.

Vivien Marsh, a vis­it­ing scholar at the Univer­sity of West­min­ster, who has stud­ied CCTV Africa’s cov­er­age, is scep­ti­cal. Analysing CCTV’s cov­er­age of the 2014 Ebola out­break in west Africa, Marsh found that 17% of sto­ries on Ebola men­tioned China, gen­er­ally em­pha­sis­ing its role in pro­vid­ing med­i­cal aid. “They were try­ing to do pos­i­tive re­port­ing,” says Marsh. “But they lost jour­nal­is­tic cred­i­bil­ity to me in the por­trayal of China as a benev­o­lent par­ent.” Far from telling Africa’s story, the over­rid­ing aim ap­peared to be em­pha­sis­ing Chi­nese power, gen­eros­ity and cen­tral­ity to global af­fairs. (As well as its English-lan­guage chan­nel, CGTN now runs Span­ish, French, Ara­bic and Rus­sian chan­nels.)

For non-Chi­nese jour­nal­ists, in Africa and else­where, work­ing for Chi­nese state-run me­dia of­fers gen­er­ous re­mu­ner­a­tion and new op­por­tu­ni­ties. When CCTV launched its Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters in 2012, no fewer than five former or cur­rent BBC cor­re­spon­dents based in Latin Amer­ica joined the broad­caster. One of them, Daniel Sch­weim­ler, who is now at al-Jazeera, said his ex­pe­ri­ence there was fun and rel­a­tively trou­ble-free, though he didn’t think many peo­ple ac­tu­ally saw his sto­ries.

But for­eign jour­nal­ists work­ing at Xin­hua, the staterun news agency, see their sto­ries reach­ing much larger au­di­ences. Gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies cover around 40% of Xin­hua’s costs, and it gen­er­ates in­come by selling sto­ries to news­pa­pers around the world. “My sto­ries were not seen by 1 mil­lion peo­ple. They were seen by 100 mil­lion peo­ple,” boasted one former Xin­hua em­ployee. (Like most peo­ple we in­ter­viewed, he re­quested anonymity to speak freely, cit­ing fear of ret­ri­bu­tion.)

An­other former em­ployee, Chris­tian Claye Ed­wards, who worked for Xin­hua news agency in Syd­ney be­tween 2010 and 2014, says: “Their ob­jec­tives were loud and clear, to push a dis­tinctly Chi­nese agenda.” He con­tin­ued: “There’s no clear goal other than to iden­tify cracks in a sys­tem and ex­ploit them.” Out­right cen­sor­ship is gen­er­ally un­nec­es­sary at China’s state-run me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, since most jour­nal­ists quickly gain a sense of what kind of spin is needed. “I recog­nised that we were soft pro­pa­ganda tools – but not to any greater ex­tent than for the BBC or al-Jazeera, and cer­tainly noth­ing like RT,” said Daniel Sch­weim­ler, who worked for CCTV in South Amer­ica for two years. “We al­ways joked that we’d have no in­ter­fer­ence from Bei­jing or DC so long as the Dalai Lama never came to visit.”

When the Dalai Lama did come to visit Canada in 2012, one jour­nal­ist in Xin­hua’s Ot­tawa bu­reau, Mark Bour­rie, was told to use his par­lia­men­tary press cre­den­tials to at­tend the Ti­betan spir­i­tual leader’s press con­fer­ence, and to find out what had hap­pened in a closed meet­ing with the then prime min­is­ter, Stephen Harper. When Bour­rie asked whether the in­for­ma­tion would be used in a piece, his boss replied that it would not. “That day I felt that we were spies,” he later wrote. “It was time to draw the line.” He re­turned to his of­fice and re­signed. Now a lawyer, Bour­rie de­clined to com­ment for this story.

His ex­pe­ri­ence is not un­usual. Three sep­a­rate sources who used to work at Chi­nese state me­dia said that they some­times wrote con­fi­den­tial re­ports, know­ing they would not be pub­lished and were solely for the eyes of se­nior of­fi­cials. Ed­wards saw it as “the low­est level of re­search re­port­ing for Chi­nese of­fi­cials”, pro­vid­ing very low-level in­tel­li­gence for a gov­ern­ment client.

That van­ish­ingly thin line be­tween China’s jour­nal­ism, pro­pa­ganda work, in­flu­ence pro­jec­tion and in­tel­li­gence­gath­er­ing is a con­cern to Wash­ing­ton. In mid-Septem­ber this year, the US or­dered CGTN and Xin­hua to reg­is­ter un­der the For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act (Fara), which com­pels agents rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of for­eign pow­ers in a po­lit­i­cal or quasi-po­lit­i­cal ca­pac­ity to log their re­la­tion­ship, ac­tiv­i­ties and pay­ments. Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign man­ager, Paul Manafort, was charged for vi­o­lat­ing this act by fail­ing to reg­is­ter as a for­eign lob­by­ist in re­la­tion to his work in Ukraine. “Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing and in­for­ma­tion war­fare ef­forts are known to in­volve staff of Chi­nese state-run me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions,” a con­gres­sional com­mis­sion noted last year.

“Mak­ing the For­eign Serve China”

was one of Chair­man Mao’s favoured strate­gies, as epit­o­mised by his de­ci­sion to grant ac­cess in the 1930s to the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Edgar Snow. The re­sult­ing book, Red Star Over China, was in­stru­men­tal in win­ning western sym­pa­thy for the Com­mu­nists, whom it de­picted as pro­gres­sive and anti-fas­cist.

Eight decades on, “mak­ing the for­eign serve China” is not just a case of of­fer­ing in­sider ac­cess in re­turn for favourable cov­er­age, but also of us­ing me­dia com­pa­nies staffed with for­eign em­ploy­ees to serve party in­ter­ests. In 2012, dur­ing a se­ries of press con­fer­ences in Bei­jing at the an­nual leg­is­la­ture, the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials re­peat­edly in­vited ques­tions from a young Aus­tralian woman un­fa­mil­iar to the lo­cal for­eign cor­re­spon­dents. She was no­table for her flu­ent Chi­nese and her as­sid­u­ously soft­ball ques­tions.

It turned out that the young woman, whose name was An­drea Yu, was work­ing for a me­dia out­let called Global CAMG Me­dia Group, which is head­quar­tered in Mel­bourne. Set up by a lo­cal busi­ness­man, Tommy Jiang, Global CAMG’s own­er­ship struc­ture ob­scures the com­pany’s con­nec­tion to the Chi­nese state: it is 60% owned by a Bei­jing-based group called Guoguang Cen­tury Me­dia Con­sul­tancy, which in turn is owned by the state broad­caster, China Ra­dio In­ter­na­tional (CRI). Global CAMG, and an­other of Jiang’s com­pa­nies, Os­tar, run at least 11 ra­dio sta­tions in Aus­tralia, car­ry­ing CRI con­tent and pro­duc­ing their own Bei­jing-friendly shows to sell to other com­mu­nity ra­dio sta­tions aimed at Aus­tralia’s large pop­u­la­tion of Man­darin-speak­ers.

After the Bei­jing press pack ac­cused Yu of be­ing a

“fake for­eign re­porter”, who was ef­fec­tively work­ing for the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, she told an in­ter­viewer: “When I first en­tered my com­pany, there’s only a cer­tain amount of un­der­stand­ing I have about its con­nec­tions to the gov­ern­ment. I didn’t know it had any, for ex­am­ple.” She left CAMG shortly after, but the same per­for­mance was re­peated at the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress two years later with a dif­fer­ent Chi­nese-speak­ing Aus­tralian work­ing for CAMG, Louise Ken­ney, who pub­licly pushed back against ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing a shill.

The use of for­eign ra­dio sta­tions to de­liver gov­ern­men­tap­proved con­tent is a strat­egy the CRI pres­i­dent has called jie chuan chu hai , “bor­row­ing a boat to go out to the ocean”. In 2015, Reuters re­ported that Global CAMG was one of three com­pa­nies run­ning a covert net­work of 33 ra­dio sta­tions broad­cast­ing CRI con­tent in 14 coun­tries. Three years on, those net­works – in­clud­ing Os­tar – now op­er­ate 58 sta­tions in 35 coun­tries. In the US alone, CRI con­tent is broad­cast by more than 30 out­lets, ac­cord­ing to a com­bat­ive re­cent speech by the US vice pres­i­dent, Mike Pence, though it’s dif­fi­cult to know who is lis­ten­ing or how much in­flu­ence this con­tent has.

Bei­jing has also taken a sim­i­lar “bor­rowed boats” ap­proach to print pub­li­ca­tions. The state-run English­language news­pa­per China Daily has struck deals with at least 30 for­eign news­pa­pers – in­clud­ing the New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, the Wash­ing­ton Post and the UK Tele­graph – to carry four- or eight-page in­serts called China Watch. The sup­ple­ments take a di­dac­tic, old-school ap­proach to pro­pa­ganda; re­cent head­lines in­clude “Ti­bet has seen 40 years of shin­ing suc­cess”, “Xi un­veils open­ing-up mea­sures” and – least sur­pris­ingly of all – “Xi praises Com­mu­nist party of China mem­bers.”

Fig­ures are hard to come by, but ac­cord­ing to one re­port, the Daily Tele­graph is paid £750,000 an­nu­ally to carry the China Watch in­sert once a month. Even the Daily Mail has an agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment’s Chi­nese-lan­guage mouth­piece, the Peo­ple’s Daily, which pro­vides China-themed click­bait such as tales of brides­maids on fa­tal drink­ing sprees and a young mother who sold her tod­dler to hu­man traf­fick­ers to buy cos­met­ics. Such con­tent-shar­ing deals are one fac­tor be­hind China

In­side China the me­dia is tightly con­trolled, but abroad Bei­jing seeks to ex­ploit the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the free press to its ad­van­tage

Daily’s as­ton­ish­ing ex­pen­di­tures in the US; it has spent $20.8m on US in­flu­ence since 2017, mak­ing it the high­est reg­is­tered spender that is not a for­eign gov­ern­ment.

In Septem­ber, Don­ald Trump crit­i­cised this prac­tice, claim­ing China was push­ing “false mes­sages” in­tended to dam­age his prospects in the midterm elec­tions. His wrath was di­rected at a China Watch sup­ple­ment in the Iowa-based Des Moines Reg­is­ter, de­signed to un­der­mine farm-coun­try sup­port for a trade war. He tweeted: “China is ac­tu­ally plac­ing pro­pa­ganda ads in the Des Moines Reg­is­ter and other pa­pers, made to look like news. That’s be­cause we are beat­ing them on Trade, open­ing mar­kets, and the farm­ers will make a for­tune when this is over!”

In the Xi Jin­ping era,

pro­pa­ganda has be­come a busi­ness. In a 2014 speech, pro­pa­ganda tsar Liu Qibao en­dorsed this ap­proach, stat­ing that other coun­tries have suc­cess­fully used mar­ket forces to ex­port their cul­tural prod­ucts. The push to mon­e­tise pro­pa­ganda pro­vides canny busi­ness­peo­ple with op­por­tu­ni­ties to curry favour at high lev­els, ei­ther through part­ner­ing with state-run me­dia com­pa­nies or bankrolling Chi­nese prox­ies over­seas. The favoured strat­egy now is not just “bor­row­ing for­eign boats” but buy­ing them out­right, as the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury’s Anne-Marie Brady has writ­ten.

The most vis­i­ble ex­am­ple of this came in 2015, when China’s rich­est man ac­quired the South China Morn­ing Post (SCMP), a 115-year-old Hong Kong pa­per once known for its ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence and tough re­port­ing.

Jack Ma, whose Alibaba e-com­merce em­pire is val­ued at $420bn, has not de­nied he was asked by main­land au­thor­i­ties to make the pur­chase. “If I had to bother about what other peo­ple spec­u­lated about, how would I get any­thing done?” he said in De­cem­ber 2015. Around the same time, Alibaba’s ex­ec­u­tive vice-chair­man

Joseph Tsai made clear that un­der new own­er­ship, the SCMP would pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive view of China: “A lot of jour­nal­ists work­ing with these western me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions may not agree with the sys­tem of gover­nance in China and that taints their view of cov­er­age. We see things dif­fer­ently, we be­lieve things should be pre­sented as they are,” Tsai told an in­ter­viewer.

The mis­sion has fallen to 35-year-old CEO Gary Liu, a Man­darin-speak­ing Cal­i­for­nia na­tive with a Har­vard de­gree, who had pre­vi­ously worked at Digg and Spo­tify. Liu sounded a lit­tle bit un­com­fort­able when asked how well the SCMP is ful­fill­ing Tsai’s vi­sion. “The own­ers have their set of lan­guage, and the news­pa­per has our con­vic­tions,” he said. “And our con­vic­tion is that our job is to cover China with ob­jec­tiv­ity, and to do our best to show both sides of a very com­pli­cated story.” Liu is be­ing given sig­nif­i­cant re­sources. Staffers talk of “stag­ger­ing” ex­pen­di­tures, with one em­ployee de­scrib­ing the num­ber of new hires “like the cast of Ben Hur”.

Even un­der new own­er­ship, the SCMP treads a del­i­cate line on China, con­tin­u­ing to run gran­u­lar po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis and orig­i­nal re­port­ing on sen­si­tive is­sues such as hu­man rights lawyers and re­li­gious crack­downs. Though pages are free from Xin­hua copy, cyn­ics joke the pa­per it­self is trans­mo­gri­fy­ing into a kind of China Dai­lylite, with in­creas­ing promi­nence given to sto­ries about Xi Jin­ping, pro-Bei­jing ed­i­to­ri­als and po­lit­i­cally on-mes­sage opin­ion pieces. All this is com­bined with con­stant, fawn­ing cov­er­age of owner Jack Ma, mem­o­rably de­scribed by the pa­per as a “mod­ern-day Con­fu­cius”.

Two sto­ries in par­tic­u­lar have been heav­ily crit­i­cised. First, in 2016, it pub­lished an in­ter­view with a young hu­man rights ac­tivist named Zhao Wei, who had dis­ap­peared into po­lice cus­tody a year be­fore. In the in­ter­view, the ac­tivist’s quotes, re­cant­ing her past be­hav­iour, were rem­i­nis­cent of Mao-era “self-crit­i­cism”. Fears she had spo­ken un­der duress were con­firmed when she ad­mit­ted she’d given her “can­did con­fes­sion” after be­ing held in a heav­ily mon­i­tored cell for a year – “No talk­ing. No walk­ing. Our hands, feet, our pos­ture … ev­ery body move­ment was strictly lim­ited,” she wrote.

Then, ear­lier this year, the SCMP ac­cepted a “gov­ern­ment-ar­ranged in­ter­view” with book­seller Gui Min­hai. Gui, a Swedish cit­i­zen, was one of five sellers of po­lit­i­cally sen­sa­tional books who dis­ap­peared in 2015 and then reap­peared in po­lice cus­tody in China in 2016. The SCMP in­ter­view was con­ducted in a de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity, with Gui flanked by se­cu­rity guards.

But Liu is adamant that the pa­per has not made any mis­steps on his watch. He says the pa­per was in­vited – not forced – to cover these sto­ries. In Gui’s case, he in­sists the de­ci­sion was based on jour­nal­is­tic merit: “The se­nior ed­i­to­rial lead­er­ship team got to­gether, and said: This is im­por­tant for us to show up. If not, there’s a like­li­hood that the other sto­ries re­ported do not share the en­tire sit­u­a­tion. In fact, a lot of other re­ports did not men­tion the fact that there were se­cu­rity guards stand­ing on ei­ther side of Gui Min­hai at the start and at the end of the in­ter­views.” Liu stressed that “there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween how we re­ported it, and how we would ex­pect state pro­pa­ganda to re­port it.” But many in Hong Kong were upset that a pa­per of record was ef­fec­tively run­ning a forced con­fes­sion on be­half of the state.

Chi­nese money is also be­ing in­vested in print me­dia far from home, in­clud­ing in South Africa, where com­pa­nies linked to the Chi­nese state have a 20% stake in In­de­pen­dent Me­dia, the coun­try’s sec­ond-largest me­dia group, which runs 20 prom­i­nent news­pa­pers. In cases like this, Bei­jing’s im­pact on day-to-day op­er­a­tions can be min­i­mal, but there are still things that can­not be said, as one South African jour­nal­ist, Azad Essa, re­cently dis­cov­ered when he used his col­umn, which ran in a num­ber of news­pa­pers pub­lished by In­de­pen­dent Me­dia, to crit­i­cise Bei­jing’s mass in­tern­ment of Uighurs. Hours later, his col­umn had been can­celled.

Essa pulled no punches in a piece he sub­se­quently wrote for For­eign Pol­icy: “Red lines are thick and non­nego­tiable. Given the eco­nomic de­pen­dence on the Chi­nese and cri­sis in news­rooms, this is rarely con­fronted. And this is pre­cisely the type of me­dia en­vi­ron­ment that China wants their African al­lies to repli­cate.” This is true not just in Africa, but for

China’s me­dia in­ter­ests across the world.

These days Aus­tralia has come

to be seen as a petri dish for Chi­nese in­flu­ence over­seas. At the heart of the row is a con­tro­ver­sial Chi­nese bil­lion­aire, Huang Xiangmo, whose links to La­bor party politi­cian Sam Dast­yari pre­cip­i­tated Dast­yari’s res­ig­na­tion in 2017. Three years ear­lier, Huang pro­vided A$1.8m of seed fund­ing to es­tab­lish the Aus­tralia China Re­la­tions In­sti­tute, a think­tank based at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney. ACRI, which is led by former for­eign min­is­ter Bob Carr, aims to pro­mote “a pos­i­tive and op­ti­mistic view of Aus­tralia-China re­la­tions”.

In the past two years, ACRI has spear­headed a pro­gramme or­gan­is­ing study tours to China for at least 28 Aus­tralian jour­nal­ists, whisk­ing them on all-ex­penses tours with ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­cess. Many of the re­sult­ing ar­ti­cles – foot­not­ing their sta­tus as “guests of ACRI” or “guests of the All China Jour­nal­ist As­so­ci­a­tion” – ac­cord re­mark­ably closely with Bei­jing’s pri­or­i­ties. As well as paeans to China’s moder­nity and size, the ar­ti­cles ad­vise Aus­tralians not to turn their backs on China’s One Belt One Road ini­tia­tive, and not to pub­licly crit­i­cise China’s pol­icy in the South China Sea, or any­thing else for that mat­ter.

Close ob­servers be­lieve the scheme is tilt­ing China cov­er­age in Aus­tralia. Econ­o­mist Stephen Joske briefed the first ACRI tour on the coun­try’s eco­nomic chal­lenges, and was dis­mayed at the largely un­crit­i­cal tone of their cov­er­age. “Aus­tralian elites have very lit­tle real ex­po­sure to China,” he said. “There is a vac­uum of in­formed com­men­tary and they [ACRI-spon­sored jour­nal­ists] have filled it with very, very one-sided in­for­ma­tion.”

ACRI re­sponded to our ques­tions about the trips by is­su­ing a state­ment, say­ing that its tours “pale into in­signif­i­cance” com­pared with sim­i­lar trips or­gan­ised by the US and Is­rael. A spokesman wrote: “Not for a mo­ment has ACRI ever lob­bied jour­nal­ists about what they write. They are free to take what­ever po­si­tion they want.” The spokesman also con­firmed that in-kind sup­port to the trips has been given by the All-China Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion, a Com­mu­nist party body whose mis­sion is to “tell China’s sto­ries well, spread China’s voice”. For his part, Huang Xiangmo said he has no in­volve­ment in ACRI’s op­er­a­tions.

China’s ac­tive courtship of jour­nal­ists ex­tends well beyond short-term study tours to en­com­pass longer-term pro­grammes for re­porters from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. These moves were for­malised un­der the aus­pices of the China Pub­lic Diplo­macy As­so­ci­a­tion, es­tab­lished in 2012. The tar­gets are ex­traor­di­nar­ily am­bi­tious: the train­ing of 500 Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean jour­nal­ists over five years, and 1,000 African jour­nal­ists a year by 2020.

Through these schemes, for­eign re­porters are schooled not just on China, but also on its view of jour­nal­ism. To China’s lead­ers, jour­nal­is­tic ideals such as crit­i­cal re­port­ing and ob­jec­tiv­ity are not just hos­tile, they pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat. One leaked gov­ern­ment di­rec­tive, known as Doc­u­ment 9, de­fines the ul­ti­mate goal of the western me­dia as to “gouge an open­ing through which to in­fil­trate our ide­ol­ogy”. This gulf in jour­nal­is­tic val­ues was fur­ther un­der­lined in a se­ries of CGTN videos is­sued last year, fea­tur­ing prom­i­nent Chi­nese jour­nal­ists ac­cus­ing non-Chi­nese prac­ti­tion­ers of be­ing “brain­washed” by “western val­ues of jour­nal­ism”, which are de­picted as ir­re­spon­si­ble and dis­rup­tive to so­ci­ety. One Xin­hua edi­tor, Luo Jun, ar­gues in favour of cen­sor­ship, say­ing, “We have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for what we re­port. If that’s be­ing con­sid­ered as cen­sor­ship, I think it’s good cen­sor­ship.”

Some ob­servers ar­gue the ex­pan­sion of au­thor­i­tar­ian pro­pa­ganda net­works – such as Rus­sia’s RT and Iran’s Press TV – has been over­hyped, with lit­tle real im­pact on global jour­nal­ism. But Bei­jing’s play is big­ger and more mul­ti­faceted. At home, it is build­ing the world’s big­gest broad­caster by com­bin­ing its three mam­moth ra­dio and tele­vi­sion net­works into a sin­gle body, the Voice of China. At the same time, a reshuf­fle has trans­ferred re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pro­pa­ganda ma­chin­ery from state bod­ies to the Com­mu­nist party, which tight­ens party con­trol over the mes­sage. Over­seas, it has used prox­ies to in­crease its con­trol over global telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, while build­ing out new dig­i­tal high­ways. “The real bril­liance of it is not just try­ing to con­trol all con­tent – it’s the el­e­ment of try­ing to con­trol the key nodes in the in­for­ma­tion flow,” says Free­dom House’s Sarah Cook. “It might not be nec­es­sar­ily clear as a threat now, but once you’ve got con­trol over the nodes of in­for­ma­tion you can use them as you want.”

Such bla­tant ex­hi­bi­tions of power in­di­cate the new mood of as­sertive­ness. In in­for­ma­tion war­fare – as in so much else – Deng Xiaop­ing’s fa­mous maxim of “hide your strength and bide your time” is over. As the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy, China has de­cided it needs dis­course power com­men­su­rate with its new global stature. Last week, a group of the US’s top China ex­perts re­leased a star­tling re­port ex­press­ing con­cern over China’s more ag­gres­sive pro­jec­tions of power. Many of the ex­perts have spent decades pro­mot­ing en­gage­ment with China, yet they con­clude: “The am­bi­tion of

Chi­nese ac­tiv­ity in terms of the breadth, depth of in­vest­ment of fi­nan­cial re­sources, and in­ten­sity re­quires far greater scru­tiny than it has been get­ting.”

As Bei­jing and its prox­ies ex­tend their reach, they are har­ness­ing mar­ket forces to si­lence the com­pe­ti­tion. Dis­course power is, it seems, a zero-sum game for

China, and voices that are crit­i­cal of Bei­jing are co-opted or si­lenced, left with­out a plat­form or drowned out in the sea of pos­i­tive mes­sag­ing cre­ated by Bei­jing’s own “bor­rowed” and “bought” boats. As the west’s me­dia gi­ants floun­der, China’s own me­dia im­pe­ri­al­ism is on the rise, and the ul­ti­mate bat­tle may not be for the means of news pro­duc­tion, but for jour­nal­ism it­self. •

To China’s lead­ers, jour­nal­is­tic ideals such as crit­i­cal re­port­ing and ob­jec­tiv­ity pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat

CHRISTOPHE GOWANS/ GUARDIAN DE­SIGN

GUARDIAN GRAPH­ICS

MA ZHANCHENG/ XIN­HUA VIA AP

Xi Jin­ping at China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion’s Bei­jing HQ in 2016

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