China is ramping up its media abroad – and not just in Chinese

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly, the audiences that countries are targeting with state-approved messaging aren’t their own citizens, but ones abroad – making it all the more complicated to figure out whose “truth” we’re looking at. 

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Newspaper vending boxes in downtown Seattle sell China Daily, a Chinese government-controlled English-language newspaper, alongside The Seattle Times on June 10.

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It’s called the “Grand Overseas Propaganda Campaign”: Over the past decade, China’s Communist Party has aimed to bolster its image and soft power abroad by spreading its messaging via websites, newspapers, and TV. Such outlets broadcast Beijing-slanted news, for example by omitting reports about last month’s protests in Hong Kong, or that criticize China’s human rights violations.

“Before, the West was coming to influence China,” says Zhang Weiguo, a Chinese journalist who lives in Sacramento, California. “So now China’s strategy is to flip this upside down, and use Communist Party ideology to change the West.”

Increasingly, Beijing’s media push goes beyond Chinese-speaking communities. Since China launched the $7 billion campaign in 2009, it has moved swiftly to expand its English-language media in the United States. China Daily is a state-owned English newspaper and China Global Television Network reaches 30 million U.S. households with English programs. Both CGTN and China Daily are registered as foreign agents in the U.S., as required of groups representing foreign powers.

Still, some independent Chinese-language media retain a voice. Assunta Ng, an independent Chinese American publisher in Seattle, says, “We criticize China and Taiwan whenever we like.”

As Hong Kong protesters staged huge marches last month over a bill to allow extradition to China, some of Seattle’s Chinese-speaking residents knew nothing about the demonstrations. 

One reason: For their news, they rely on China’s propaganda outlets, which didn’t cover the large-scale, politically sensitive demonstrations in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese port city.

“I didn’t hear about any protests in Hong Kong,” says a health worker who moved to Seattle 11 years ago from China’s Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong. “I get all my news online from Sina.com – it’s very popular here,” she says, referring to the website of a Chinese technology company that runs news from China’s state-owned media. She declined to be quoted by name.

Over the past decade, the proliferation inside the United States of China’s official news – both in Chinese and English – is part of what the Communist Party calls its “Grand Overseas Propaganda Campaign,” aimed at “grabbing the right to speak” from Western media, according to official Chinese media reports and government websites.

The campaign aims to bolster China’s image and soft power abroad by spreading party messaging among the large Chinese diaspora in the U.S. and other countries – as well as, increasingly, foreigners. But it focuses heavily on millions of Chinese in communities abroad, aiming to mold overseas organizations into “propaganda bases” for China’s “united front,” according to a state-run publication cited in a 2017 report by Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics.

The campaign involves not just promoting pro-Beijing information, but discouraging negative reports. Censorship extends into social media, and is strengthened by Chinese platforms’ suppression of content that authorities deem negative. For example, some U.S. citizens have recently had messages or entire accounts censored on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, owned by the firm Tencent.

“It’s quite shocking to me that China’s Great Firewall is coming to the U.S. in digital form,” says George Shen, a technology consultant from Newton, Mass., who had his WeChat accounts banned last month. “It’s a very stealthy, sophisticated censorship. … They are filtering out your messages without even telling you,” he says. 

Bankrolled with billions of dollars of government funds, the strategy goes beyond establishing Chinese media entities abroad, to leasing or purchasing foreign news outlets and hiring foreign reporters. This tactic, known as “borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean” – or buying a boat, as the case may be – is aimed at offering a cloak of credibility.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Qiao Bao, a Chinese-language daily based in California, on sale in an herbal medicine shop in Seattle's International District, which has a large ethnic Chinese population, on June 12, 2019.

Even as China expands its channels to American audiences, it is increasing restrictions on U.S. media in China. Last month, Chinese authorities blocked several more U.S. media outlets from the internet in China, including the websites of The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and NBC News.

“The expansion of the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] media influence is a global campaign, and the United States is among its targets,” writes Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded NGO, in a report released last month. “The results have already affected the news consumption of millions of Americans.”

Last September prior to U.S. midterm elections, for example, China’s state-run media placed an advertising section in the Des Moines Register warning of the harm to soybean farmers of the U.S.-China trade conflict – an apparent effort to influence Iowa voters.

The spread of pro-Beijing content, often coupled with a lack of transparency over its origins, makes “the potential for political, electoral manipulation very strong,” Ms. Cook says in an interview.

In an herbal medicine shop in Seattle’s Chinatown, China’s state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) news beams from a flat-screen TV near the entry, as it does from many businesses in the historic district. Shopkeeper Jianhe Hang says he tunes into China’s government broadcasts every day.

Mr. Hang arrived in Seattle 10 years ago from Guangdong to join relatives, and has a green card, but like other residents of the district, he’s cautious about voicing opinions to a reporter. Asked about the protests in Hong Kong, he says he’s aware of them, but declines to say more. “I am middle of the road. I don’t support them, and I don’t oppose.”

CCTV dominates the Chinese-language cable offerings in the U.S., where it is available in about 90 million cable-watching households, far more than the estimated 4 million to 5 million Chinese Americans in the country.

“Here, every day I can watch CCTV or Phoenix TV [a pro-Beijing outlet based in Hong Kong], and when I go to the market I can buy Chinese state newspapers,” says Zhang Weiguo, a Chinese journalist in Sacramento, who was jailed and exiled by Chinese authorities.

The growing saturation of China’s official media over the past decade means some Chinese speakers in the U.S., particularly recent arrivals from China, “are very close to Beijing – in a lot of places their thinking is totally aligned,” he says.

Increasingly, however, Beijing’s media push goes beyond Chinese-speaking communities. Since China launched its overseas propaganda campaign in 2009, with a budget of $7 billion, it has moved swiftly to expand its English-language media in the U.S.

China Daily, a state-owned English newspaper, established a U.S. edition in 2009 with newspaper vending boxes on the streets from Seattle to New York City. China Daily did not respond to calls and email queries about its current U.S. circulation, but in 2012 it was reportedly 170,000. It has also placed paid “China Watch” advertising supplements in U.S. newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. China Daily has spent nearly $20 million on U.S. influence since 2016, according to U.S. Justice Department reports.

China Global Television Network (CGTN), part of the international arm of China’s state-owned CCTV, reaches 30 million U.S. households with English programs. Recently, CGTN anchor Liu Xin made one of the first major appearances for a Chinese media personality on mainstream U.S. television – a debate on U.S.-China trade with Fox News host Trish Regan.

Both CGTN and China Daily are registered as foreign agents in the U.S., as required of groups representing foreign powers. As a result of its registration this year, CGTN last month was denied press credentials by the Senate Press Gallery. The Justice Department reportedly asked the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which has several U.S. offices, to register as well. Asked about the matter, the Justice Department declined to comment.

China’s involvement is sometimes opaque. For example, pro-China radio content in English is broadcast from about 30 radio stations across the U.S. – from Boston to Los Angeles. The stations are owned or their airtime leased by a U.S. company that is, in turn, controlled by the state-run China Radio International. In another case, a Beijing-linked firm bought a radio station in Mexico and is broadcasting Chinese-language content throughout Southern California, although the FCC has not yet approved the sale.

Such outlets broadcast Beijing-slanted news, for example by omitting reports that criticize China’s human rights violations, while presenting the official line on sensitive issues such as China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Before, the West was coming to influence China,” says Mr. Zhang, “so now China’s strategy is to flip this upside down, and use Communist Party ideology to change the West.”

So far, China’s rising media presence in the U.S. has been felt most strongly among the Chinese diaspora, while having a relatively limited impact on average Americans, experts say. But the networks give China “the potential of mobilizing Chinese Americans and Americans alike to espouse policies counter to US interest,” according to a report by prominent China scholars published last year by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The constant drumbeat of anti-American reporting in pro-Beijing media outlets headquartered in the United States creates an unhealthy environment.”

Although U.S. authorities have limited tools for countering this influence in an open society, they can work to determine the ownership of Chinese companies buying U.S.-based media and require foreign-controlled media that promote a government agenda to register as foreign agents, the report concludes.

Relaxing near the Chinese pavilion at Seattle’s Hing Hay Park after a 10-hour shift at a local eatery, Tan Ancun reads a free copy of the pro-Beijing newspaper Qiao Bao. “I only read free newspapers,” says Mr. Tan, a slight man with graying hair who emigrated four years ago from Guangdong. Hard-pressed to cover rent for his small room, Mr. Tan says he can’t afford to pay for news.

A U.S. Chinese-language paper with a circulation of about 100,000 in 17 U.S. cities, Qiao Bao has an office in Bellevue, Washington, and also runs a Mandarin-language radio station in Seattle. Qiao Bao’s content echoes China’s messaging – for example in a story Tuesday condemning Hong Kong’s protests. Its founders and other personnel have close ties to Beijing; some formerly worked for state-run media in China.

“Qiao Bao is all over Chinatown,” says Assunta Ng, a veteran Chinese American newswoman in Seattle. “A lot of people like to get freebies, so they don’t care if they read propaganda,” says Ms. Ng, who was born in Guangdong, raised in Hong Kong, and has an M.A. in communications from the University of Washington.

Still, some independent Chinese-language media retain a voice in U.S. cities. For example, Ms. Ng publishes Seattle China Post, which she founded 37 years ago after she noticed Chinatown residents relying on news from a street-corner bulletin board.

Like other independent publishers, Ms. Ng has come under pressure from China’s growing media presence in the U.S. But she’s confident her paper’s combination of hard news and strong local coverage will continue to appeal to subscribers.

“We criticize China and Taiwan whenever we like,” she says, wearing a pink jacket and a baseball cap. Working late as her newspaper goes to press, she sits near a wall lined with prizes and awards for her service. “We are pro-community,” she says.

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