According to a long report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), released Monday, China is using several different strategies to infiltrate and manipulate foreign media.
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According to the report, the Chinese government has invested something like 1.3 billion dollars a year to increase the global presence of Chinese media.
Thanks to these powerful investments, the Chinese propaganda machine has managed to expand drastically in recent years.
China Global Television Network reaches 140 countries, and China Radio International is produced in 65 languages.
China ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
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Dozens of journalists and bloggers are in prison for collecting or circulating information censored by the Chinese Communist Party.
A system of hitech censorship restricts the news and information available to China’s 800 million Internet users, while a sophisticated propaganda and surveillance apparatus places additional constraints on their ability to inform themselves freely.
President Xi Jinping is forthright about being an enemy of democracy, universal values, human rights and press freedom.
In the course of a harsh, five-year crackdown on journalists and bloggers, he has succeeded in imposing this totalitarian vision on his own country and is now seeking to extend it beyond China’s borders.
Beijing is lavishing money on modernizing its international TV broadcasting,investing in foreign media outlets, buying vast amounts of advertising in the international media, and inviting journalists from all over the world on all-expense-paid trips visits to China.
The regime even organizes its own international events as an additional way of promoting its repressive vision of how the media should function.International publishing and social network giants are forced to submit to censorship if they want access to the Chinese market.
In Southeast Asia, authoritarian regimes are adopting Internet control regulations based closely on Chinese legislation.This expansion – the scale of which is still hard to gauge – poses a direct threat not only to the media but also to democracies.
If democracies do not resist, Chinese citizens will lose all hope of ever seeing press freedom in their country, and Chinese style propaganda will increasingly compete with journalism as we know it outside China, thereby threatening the ability of citizens everywhere to freely choose their destiny.
Revealing Signs Of Beijing’s Growing Influence
1 – CHINA: At the opening of the fifth annual World Internet Conference in the
resort town of Wuzhen in November 2018, the state-owned news agency Xinhua
unveiled an artificial intelligence (AI) TV news anchor capable of reading propaganda news items in English – the future of journalism, in Beijing’s view.
2 – UNITED KINGDOM: The Chinese state-owned TV broadcaster CGTN opened
a production centre in London with 90 locally-hired employees in December 2018.
The centre will eventually produce programmes specifically designed to disseminate
Chinese propaganda in Europe, as its Washington-based centre already does for the
Americas, and its centre in Nairobi does for Africa.
3 – SOUTH AFRICA: Just hours after Azad Essa’s column criticizing China’s
persecution of its Uyghur community was published by South Africa’s Independent
Online in September 2018, all further columns by Essa were suddenly cancelled.
Chinese investors have a 20% stake in Independent Online.
4 – SWEDEN: The Chinese embassy issued a statement in July 2018 accusing
Jojje Olsson, a reporter for the Swedish daily Expressen, of “instigating hatred
against China”. Olsson’s only “crime” was to have written an article detailing the
methods that the Communist Party uses to control news and information in China.
5 – CAMBODIA: Hun Sen has employed increasingly authoritarian methods to
rule Cambodia since 1985 and, with Beijing’s help, recently cracked down on his
country’s media, which used to be among the freest in Asia. As a result, his party
won all 124 seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections, compared with only 68 in the
6 – VIETNAM: The cyber-security law that Vietnam adopted in June 2018, which
significantly reinforces the regime’s grip on the Internet, is a close replica of the one that China adopted just one year earlier.
7 – UNITED KINGDOM: Peter Humphrey, a private investigator and former
journalist who was forced to make a confession on Chinese state TV in 2013, filed
a complaint against CCTV-CGTN with the British broadcast media regulator Ofcom
in November 2018, calling for its licence to operate in the UK to be revoked for
“violating the broadcasting code”.
8 – AUSTRALIA: In March 2018, Australia’s defence department banned its
personnel from installing the Chinese messaging app WeChat on their mobile
phones. Unlike its rivals, WeChat is not encrypted and all of the data it processes
– from message content to geolocations – is accessible to the Chinese authorities.
9 – MEXICO: In October 2018, the New York investor H&H Group, linked to Beijingcontrolled television network Phoenix Television in Hong Kong, bought the Mexican radio station XEWW 690. Based in the border town of Tijuana, the station now offers Chinese-language programmes and broadcasts to the entirety of southern California, which has a large population of ethnic Chinese.
10 – USA: As a result of opposition from its own employees and from human rights
organisations including RSF, Google was forced in November 2018 to suspend plans
for a censored search engine called Dragonfly that was meant to enable the tech
giant to re-enter the Chinese market.
Propaganda Apparatus Targeting The Outside World
From the “Chinese Dream” to the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s China likes to present itself as a peaceful state focused on trade and guided by the principle of fairness. At the same time, the regime’s discourse paradoxically reflects a paranoid vision in which China is the victim of persecution by “Hostile forces” in Western countries that feel threatened by China’s success and use their media to try to sully its image. Li Congjun, who used to head the state news agency Xinhua and is now a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, is the architect of this rhetoric. In an interview published in People’s Daily in 2013, he warned against a mercurial enemy that uses its “Powerful dissemination abilities” to infuse minds with such pernicious concepts as the “China threat theory” and the “China collapse theory”. As “Global opinions are still dominated by Western media outlets” and China’s ability to make its own voice heard “Fails to match its international standing”, Li advocated the creation of a “New world media order” to redress the imbalance. “If we cannot effectively rule new media, the ground will be taken by others, which will pose challenges to our dominant role in leading public opinion”, he said.
Death of journalism
References to “Media warfare” began being included in the People’s Liberation Army strategy in 2002 but it wasn’t until 2011 that Li Congjun developed the concept of a “New world media order” in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. The media of all countries, he wrote, had the right to “Participate in international communication on equal terms” and should respect the “Unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations”. Twisting a recommendation that UNESCO made in 1980, he also said that the media should ensure that they were “An active force for promoting social progress”. Li Congjun constantly uses such terms as the “Media industry” and “Mass communication” but has never used the word “Journalism”. By treating the media as an industry whose mission is to exercise influence on the state’s behalf, his “New world media order” abolishes the watchdog role the media are meant to play. The role of journalists is essential for the rule of law to be effective. Without their criticism, and without their ability to question official discourse and to establish facts by investigating independently, there is no way to guarantee proper respect for individual freedoms, civil rights and human rights.
Internet under state control
When Li Congjun talks of respect for the “Unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations”, he is echoing the theory of cultural relativism that grants each nation the sovereign right to define its own criteria with regard to freedoms and human rights, treating them as matters of solely domestic concern. This doctrine is also the basis of the concept of “Cyber sovereignty” or “Internet sovereignty”, according to which each government must be able to regulate online content within its own territory. In China’s repressive vision of a “New world media order”, it is clearly hard to accept that the Internet still represents an area of freedom. To export their vision, the Chinese authorities have gone so far as to create several specific international events such as the World Media Summit, launched in 2009, and the World Internet Conference, held annually since 2014. Defending his repressive online policies in an interview for the Wall Street Journal on 22 September 2015, President Xi Jinping argued that the “Rule of law also applies to the Internet” and that nations have to safeguard their “Sovereignty, security and development interests” as much online as in the real world. In a world grappling with online disinformation and harassment, this position might at first appear legitimate. Three years later, it is clear that harsher Internet regulation in China has not benefited its citizens and has instead just facilitated propaganda, censorship and social control.
“Made In China” Media Events
To achieve the desired “New world media order”, Beijing has created international events under its control, using them to promote its repressive vision of the media and journalism. Since 2003, Internet governance has in principle been debated at World Summits on the Information Society organized by a UN agency. Until recently, Beijing only had power over its domestic Internet infrastructure. In the last few years, it has actively promoted its model with foreign governments and in international forums. Traditionally, China also had no more than a very limited role in international media meetings. This has been the case, for example, with the Web Summit, an annual event organised by an Irish company that describes itself as the world’s biggest gathering of journalists, with more than 2,500 participants from such media outlets as Bloomberg, the Financial Times, Forbes, CNN, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal. The annual World News Media Congress, held for the 70th time in Portugal in June 2018, awards a press freedom prize called the Golden Pen of Freedom – a feature that clearly does not appeal to Beijing’s leaders.
A world media summit devised by Xinhua
Against such a background, it is not surprising that China decided to organise its own international events in order to promote its authoritarian vision of the news media. In 2009, it created the World Media Summit, which – as its name fails to suggest – is entirely designed, organised and funded by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. The second summit, which set itself the task of “Meeting Challenges of the 21st Century”, was held in Moscow in 2012 with 213 international media organisations from 102 countries represented. The Qatari TV broadcaster Al Jazeera organized a third one on “The Future of News and News Organizations” in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in March 2016 with 120 organisations and 100 media outlets represented. Held in countries that are authoritarian and reject press freedom, these summits provided China with an opportunity to promote its concepts of “Positive reporting” and a “New world media order”. They also helped to legitimize Xinhua by allowing its leaders to debate on equal terms with international media with a reputation for producing objective, quality journalism. Since 2016, China has also been organising the annual BRICS Media Summits for news organisations from the five emerging national economies known as the BRICS. They have allowed China to influence media regulations and practices in the four other countries, as well as provide additional opportunities to denounce Western media hegemony and call for “Imbalances” to be corrected.
World Internet Conference
In 2014, China launched the World Internet Conference, an annual event organized in the resort town of Wuzhen by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the agency that controls China’s Internet. Behind the WIC’s official goal, which is to debate Internet governance, China is aiming to promote the concept of cyber sovereignty, according to which every government is free to manage the Internet as it sees fit within its own borders – a concept that opens the way to all kinds of abuses, especially in authoritarian countries. Blithely indifferent to the obvious contradiction, the authorities suspend China’s Great Firewall around the site of the conference while it is taking place to allow foreign visitors to use websites such as Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which are normally blocked in China. When Jimmy Wales, the founder of the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, gave a speech in 2015, significant sections were omitted in the transcription provided by the Chinese state media. The fourth World Internet Conference, in December 2017, was particularly successful for China thanks to the presence of around 1,000 Internet entrepreneurs, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and vice presidents from Facebook, Microsoft and LinkedIn. The fifth WIC, in November 2018, was clearly a setback for Beijing, with just one speaker from Silicon Valley and a much sparser foreign presence in general. The tech giants are courting China and its markets more than ever, but their executives appear to have realised the dangers of rubbing shoulders publicly with an authoritarian regime that practices large-scale censorship, propaganda and surveillance and openly tries to export these practices to the rest of the world.
Censorship And Surveillance: Successful Exports
From consumer software apps to surveillance systems for governments, the products that China’s hi-tech companies try to export provide the regime with significant censorship and surveillance tools.
In May 2018, the companies were enlisted into the China Federation of Internet Societies , which is openly designed to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s presence within them.
Chinese hi-tech has provided the regime with an exceptional influence and control tool, which it is now trying to extend beyond China’s borders.
Baidu, which is China’s leading search engine and number two in the world, launched a Japaneselanguage version in 2008, but abandoned the project in2013 after users discovered that it was secretly storing certain content on servers in China.
Baidu tried again in Brazil in 2014, with a Portuguese-language version called Busca that filtered out terms censored in China.
Baidu eliminated the censorship from Busca.
In a class action suit brought against Baidu by a group of US pro-democracyactivists, a US federal court in the southern district of New York ruled that itwas not illegal for Baidu to delete items from its search engine results because, in so doing, it was simply exercising a form of “Editorial judgment“.
WeChat, the instant messaging app launched by Chinese tech giant Tencent in 2011, has had more international success. In an Amnesty International ranking of consumer messaging apps according to how well they protect online privacy, WeChat came last, with a score of 0 out of 100. Unlike its US rivals Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and its Japanese and Korean rival Line, WeChat does not provide end-to-end encryption. All WeChat messages pass through Tencent’s China-based servers and are thereby accessible to the Chinese authorities. WeChat’s functions include payments, geolocation and microphone and camera activation, which increase its potential as a security risk. In 2015, Apple included WeChat in its list of iPhone apps that had been infected with XcodeGhost, malicious code suspected of enabling remote access to certain mobile phone functions. The Indian defence department has put WeChat on a list of apps that are regarded as dangerous.
Huawei under fire
With 18,000 employees in 170 countries, the Chinese telecom equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer Huawei already holds 15% of the world’s smartphone market – second only to Samsung and ahead of Apple – and aspires to become the world’s leader in its field. This is a disturbing ambition, given that the company was created by a former People’s Liberation Army engineering officer and questions have repeatedly been raised about its very close relationship with the Chinese state. A key partner in Chinese Internet censorship and in the persecution in Xinjiang province, Huawei has also been accused of installing a “Backdoor” in some of its products that allows secret access to data, and of providing its surveillance technologies to the Iranian regime. At the start of 2019, many countries, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Norway and Japan, were considering banning the use of Huawei telecom equipment on national security grounds. In November 2018, Huawei launched a “Smart City Solution”, an urban population surveillance service that is supposed to protect the public by means of a network of cameras and data collection sensors. The service has already reportedly been sold to 120 cities in 40 countries including Zambia and Pakistan, which are both positioned in the lower half of RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. In the wrong hands, these Chinese surveillance systems facilitate all kinds of abuses and therefore pose a serious threat to journalists and their sources, and to all those who defend unfettered information.
Chinese hi-tech services are being exported more and more. The microblogging service Sina Weibo, China’s second biggest social network with 400 million active users, announced last November that it intends to expand internationally, with the approximately 50 million overseas Chinese as its initial target. Alibaba, China’s Amazon equivalent, has just brought the United States into its online payment service Alipay, which claims to have 500 million users worldwide and which can easily be used for surveillance purposes. China’s ubiquitous technology even contaminates hi-tech companies in other countries. In August 2018, the world learned that Google was recommending that victims of hacking attempts should buy a USB security key that turned out to have been manufactured by Feitian Technologies, a Chinese company that works closely with the People’s Liberation Army. If Chinese journalists followed Google’s advice, their notes, messages and contact details may have been sent to the regime’s security apparatus without their knowledge.
DISINFORMATION AND HARASSMENT: CHINESE-STYLE “SHARP POWER”
Unlike “soft power”, a term that implies relations that are mutually beneficial, China makes excessive use of its “sharp power”, a set of aggressive practices that include disinformation and harassment.
Typhoon Jebi, which hit the city of Osaka in central Japan with torrential rain and winds of up to 177 kph on 4 September 2018, was the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in Japan for 25 years. Kansai International Airport was flooded and had to close for two days. In nearby Taiwan, reports circulated that Taiwan’s representative office in Osaka had done nothing to help the Taiwanese citizens trapped at the airport, leaving the Chinese embassy to rescue them. This triggered protests against President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party opposes rapprochement with China. Taiwan’s dismayed representative in Osaka, Su Chii-cherng, a 61-year-old diplomat who had been in post for only a few months, committed suicide on 14 September. It later emerged that the reports were false. The Taiwanese tourists trapped at the airport had been immediately evacuated by the Japanese authorities, and China’s embassy had played no role in their rescue. Beijing had been involved, but in another way: it seems to have been responsible for the initial false report, as part of a carefully coordinated and extremely effective disinformation campaign. The Taiwanese authorities established that the initial report came from a “content farm” in mainland China. Posted on the sites of Chinese propaganda media such as Global Times and Guancha.cn and on the Taiwanese social media site PTT, the report was then picked up and amplified by the Taiwanese media without being fact-checked.
Ambassadors at the forefront
China’s diplomatic missions are another source of pressure on freedom of information in democracies. Some of China’s ambassadors have no qualms about openly denigrating journalists or demanding the right of reply when they think they can claim – and they often do – that a newspaper article has “hurt the feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. Such claims about the feelings of Chinese citizens are more than a slight exaggeration given that 97% of China’s 800 million Internet users have no access to foreign media because of censorship. An exceptionally irate statement on 3 July 2018 from the Chinese embassy in Stockholm, headed by ambassador Gui Congyou, accused Jojje Olsson, a reporter for the Swedish daily Expressen, of “instigating hatred against China” by writing an article criticizing the methods used to suppress freedom of information in China. Olsson is accustomed to being harassed by the Chinese authorities. After being based in China for nine years and writing a critical book about the country, his visa renewal was denied in July 2016, with the result that he was effectively expelled. The Australian newspaper reported in 2017 that Apple had stopped advertising in Vision China Times and the Epoch Times, two Chinese-language publications based outside China, because of political pressure from Beijing. Vision China Times owner Don Ma said ten of his advertisers had been threatened by Chinese officials to get them to stop placing ads in the newspaper.
In Canada, journalists complain of similar pressure from Chinese diplomatic circles. Gao Bingchen , a journalist writing under the pen-name Huang Hebian, lost his column in the Global Chinese Press , a Chinese-language newspaper based in British Columbia, in 2016 after the publication of an article criticizing China’s foreign minister. Toronto-based journalist Helen Wang was fired as editor of the Chinese Canadian Post in 2015 after writing a critical column about the Chinese government. The Chinese government’s influence in the United States is such that even the personnel of state-funded Voice of America ‘s Mandarin service are sometimes summoned to embassies and consulates to be dressed down by diplomats. An interview by Sasha Gong Xiaoxia , the head of the Mandarin service, with Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, which was being broadcast live on the VOA website on 19 April 2017, was cut short as a result of pressure. In Australia, Charles Sturt University academic Clive Hamilton reported in 2017 that, due to fear of Chinese reprisals, the publishing house Allen & Unwin had cancelled plans to publish his book, entitled Silent Invasion, about Chinese Communist Party activities in Australia.
The harassment began after she posted an article entitled “Magic Weapons”, about China’s political influence activities in New Zealand, on the website of the Wilson Center think tank in the United States in November 2017. Li Yuan , the chief technical officer at the Chinese-American newspaper the Epoch Times, was attacked and beaten in his Atlanta home in 2006 by suspected Chinese agents who took his two laptops.
Xiao Qiang , the founder and editor of China Digital Times, an independent news website based at the University of Berkeley, reported in 2018 that his sta had been the target of repeated hacking attempts and that he had been harangued by a diplomat at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
Toronto-based freelance journalist Xin Feng received death threats in 2016 after criticizing China’s prime minister in an article, while a Chinese-Australian cartoonist who uses the pseudonym Badiucao had to cancel an exhibition in Hong Kong in November 2018 after receiving threats. US-based journalists with Radio Free Asia ‘s Uyghur-language services reported in 2018 that the Chinese authorities had arrested dozens of their relatives in China after Radio Free Asia ran a detailed exposé about China’s persecution of the Uyghur community in the western province of Xinjiang. Then there is the notorious case of Gui Minhai , a Chinese-born Swedish publisher who was kidnapped in Thailand in 2015 and was still detained in China as of early 2019.
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