Los Angeles Times
How I became a tool of China’s propaganda machine
When I write critical columns about U.S. policies and politics, I occasionally strike a nerve and get enraged letters from readers denouncing me as a traitor or suggesting I am providing grist for our nation’s enemies.
I’ve been told, for instance, that I should move to China because I’m antiAmerican. And when I raised the possibility of negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, I was accused of being Vladimir Putin’s lapdog.
I’ve never taken such accusations seriously because, while I’m sure I write things that many readers disagree with, I know I’m not a shill or an apologist or a propagandist for America’s adversaries.
So I must admit I was taken aback when I learned, just a few weeks ago, that one of my columns had become the subject of an article on the website of China’s official Xinhua News Agency, a huge news-organization-cum-propaganda site that publishes articles in Chinese, English and other languages for consumption by millions of people around the world.
The Chinese government was using my column, which admittedly painted a grim, depressing picture of presentday American politics, as part of its ongoing efforts to convince its readers that the United States is less stable, democratic and egalitarian than they might think, and that it is in fact in a state of malaise, chaos and incipient crisis.
It’s true that my column talked about
“dangerous” partisanship and a “culture of extreme political polarization” in the U.S.
Xinhua paraphrased my fear of “dysfunctional government” accurately.
Yet somehow my words took on a harsher tone when I read them on a site dedicated to making the United
States look bad. “L.A.
Times columnist bashes fight between U.S. Democrats and Republicans,” was the headline.
I stand by my critique of D.C. politics, but now it was set in a different and far more hostile context. Here were some of the other headlines on the site: “U.S. sanctions deprive Iranians of breathing fresh air under severe pollution: experts.” “China urges U.S. to abandon hegemony, bullying.” “World Insights: Washington has money for wars overseas but not for railways at home — critics.” “Miracle needed for U.S. to avert recession: American economist.”
The site carries endless stories on racism in America, police shootings, heat-related deaths, power outages and environmental disasters.
On the other hand, Xinhua’s stories about China have, shall we say, a different tone: “Farmers benefit from tea industry in Pu’an county in SW China.” “Tourists have fun at Harbin Songhua river and ice snow carnival.”
And my personal favorite: “Xi tells party cadres to make every possible effort to ensure people’s happy lives.”
The Xinhua News Agency is not some inconsequential, marginal effort. It is nearly 100 years old, has more than 180 bureaus globally. Its one-sided, agenda-driven version of the world reaches an audience that could soon match that of the Associated Press or the BBC, according to Joshua Kurlantzick in Foreign Policy. The press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called Xinhua “The World’s Biggest Propaganda Agency.”
China is hardly the first or only government to distort or manipulate the news for its own benefit. Propaganda is at least as old as the Roman civil wars. It was honed by, among many others, Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the British Empire in India in the 19th century and Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in the mid-20th century.
The U.S. does it too. Just one of many examples of American propaganda is Radio Free Europe, a government-funded news organization created during the Cold War to sell America and American values to people behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
But Chinese propaganda is the big new thing today. Last month, the Economist magazine estimated that Chinese President Xi Jinping spends $7 billion to $10 billion to “tell China’s story well.”
And apparently it works. The Economist pointed to a recent study in which scholars from Yale, Harvard and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands showed 6,000 people in 19 countries Chinese propaganda and messaging from the American government. In advance and afterward, they were asked about the two countries’ political models. By the end of the study, a majority said they preferred China’s form of government to that of the United States. The messaging had convinced them that China, while not necessarily more democratic, “delivers growth, stability and competent leadership.”
And now my article is a part of that messaging. That’s certainly disconcerting. But what can I do about it?
I suppose I could vow to be less negative about U.S. policy, because, well, politics stops at the water’s edge and all that. But that would be foolish.
Let the Chinese do what they want with my articles. I still believe that in the long run, free debate leads to a stronger and healthier country.
In China, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2022 report, free expression is severely limited. The government censors news, punishes dissenters and propagates disinformation. People have been harassed, detained or prosecuted for their online posts and private chat messages critical of the government. They’ve been slapped with spurious charges of “provoking trouble” and “insulting the country’s leaders.” Increasingly, Chinese citizens have been punished for speech deemed “unpatriotic.” You don’t see that mentioned on the Xinhua site. I’ve criticized the U.S. government plenty during my four decades in journalism, but I’ve never faced intimidation or censorship or the possibility of official punishment.
Suppression of speech empowers dictators. Free debate allows citizens in a democracy to make informed decisions about the way they are governed.
No system is perfect, but if I have to choose, I’ll take the latter, thanks. And as for being a tool of Chinese propaganda, I’ll roll with it.