Watchdog organization Freedom House released a new report this week warning that several of the nation’s largest news publications—the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal, to name a few—are serving as propaganda outlets for the Chinese government.
The report, titled “Beijing’s Global Megaphone” states that the Chinese Communist Party has employed the use of state-owned news organizations like China Daily to promote the country’s policies through U.S.-based publications through the periodic inclusion of a “paid news-like advertising supplement” from Chinese state proxy, China Daily, called China Watch. It’s called native advertising, and the content is designed to give the reader the false impression that the articles they’re reading local content from these newspapers.
Freedom House reports that similar advertorials have also been published in newspapers elsewhere in the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain, and India. It’s a global effort to make China look good, curtailing perhaps the negative press over its treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
While some of the content is paid for, others are provided free of charge to their media partners from Chinese state news agencies like Xinhua and China News Service, operating with a model similar to Reuters and the Associated Press—but with news biased in favour of the Chinese regime. According to the report, which borrows from a November 2018 investigation by the Financial Times, the news provided by these agencies is nominally reprinted for the Chinese diaspora in at least 200 supposedly independent Chinese-language publications. Readers are given the impression that the content is native to nominally independent publications but is repackaged propaganda by the Chinese government.
The nation has, for a long time, “sought to influence public debate and media coverage about China outside the country, particularly among Chinese-speaking communities.” Freedom House states that the complexity of the tactics used by the Chinese are new, and combines the country’s official diplomatic efforts with subversive activities that undermine not only the sovereignty of the nations they target, but severely affect independent media. After all, no one wants to buy fake news.
Curiously, the report found that “Russian-style social media disinformation campaigns,” which were blown out of proportion by the Democrats following the 2016 election, have been attributed to China-based perpetrators. The perpetrators of these campaigns are referred to as the “50 Cent Army” by Hong Kong protesters and pro-democracy activists who deal with fake pro-China social media accounts.
The impact of China’s attempt to manipulate the narrative through social media and news publications cannot be understated. Beijing’s control of the free press effectively cedes the information infrastructure of targeted countries to the Chinese with little to no pushback. Other arms of the Chinese government—notably their tech giants like Huawei—are working in tandem with their propagandists to acquire contracts to build 5G networks and other telecoms infrastructure in countries as far as the Faroe Islands.
Furthermore, China’s propaganda extends well beyond promoting China as a tourist destination or simply downplaying the horrors in Xinjiang. According to Freedom House’s findings, the propaganda also presents China as a model for other countries. “[T]hey are taking concrete steps to encourage emulation through trainings for foreign personnel and technology transfers to foreign state-owned media outlets.”
All these efforts allow China to heavily influence local politics to its benefit, earning both government contracts and control over the local infrastructure as well as allowing Beijing to meddle directly in internal political debates and even elections.
Should democracy hope to survive the 21st century, much needs to be done to curtail China’s influence not just in North America, but worldwide, where other sovereign nations remain vulnerable to the Chinese hegemony. If left unchecked, China will—sooner or later—take over the world, and the next time you’ll hear from us is through a letter written on toilet paper in a Chinese prison cell.