02 November 2020

The Guardian: “Inside China’s audacious global propaganda campaign”

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 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.

The purpose of this “borrowed boats” strategy may also be to lend credibility to the content, since it’s not clear how many readers actually bother to open these turgid, propaganda-heavy supplements. Part of it really is about legitimation, argues Peter Mattis. If it’s appearing in the Washington Post, if it’s appearing in a number of other papers worldwide, then in a sense it’s giving credibility to those views.

Louisa Lim & Julia Bergin

Another older article – almost two years old by now – but I think the underlying message continues to be relevant. The transition to digital, the emergence of social media, and the concentration of distribution power in the hands of a few major corporations, have all contributed to a decline in revenues for independent news organizations. Under these circumstances, many are turning to alternative sources of income, and foreign governments with an agenda are more than willing to provide, in exchange for spreading their narratives. From this perspective, TikTok is simply the newest channel in an expanding array of propaganda tools for the Chinese government.

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 a year later, 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.

This tactic is certainly not exclusive to China: according to more recent reports, several Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms are engaging in similar activities in the United States, paying reporters at local news sites to promote Republican candidates or a company, or to smear rivals. This further erodes public confidence in journalism, and it erodes the ability of journalists to provide independent reporting, to provide checks for government officials and corporate overreach.

‘Telling China’s story well’: the global reach of the China Watch newspaper supplement

When the Dalai Lama did come to visit Canada in 2012, one journalist in Xinhua’s Ottawa bureau, Mark Bourrie, was placed in a compromising position. On the day of the visit, 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-door 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 that they would not be published on the newswire and were solely for the eyes of senior officials. Edwards – who wrote one such report on Adelaide’s urban planning – saw it as the lowest level of research reporting for Chinese officials, essentially providing very low-level intelligence for a government client.

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