China's 18th party congress concluded last week. Other than a slightly delayed news conference to announce the new leadership, which spawned the hashtag #whyXiJinpingIsLate, there were few surprises. One of the more interesting turns in coverage of the Congress was the Andrea Yu affair. Yu has been lambasted by the ABC, the International Herald Tribute, and the Wall Street Journal for softballing questions to officials and party members after it was revealed that her purportedly Australian media company, Global CAMG Media, was actually majority-owned by Chinese state media broadcaster China Radio International (CRI). Yu has been at the centre of the furore, with some jumping to her defence, but the real issue here is of undisclosed, international subsidiaries of Chinese state media masquerading as independent foreign media. As the ABC's Stephen McDonell so aptly put it to Yu:
"You could say that it's as if the Chinese government has brought you [Yu] up here, as a sort of friendly journalist, to essentially ask itself questions that it likes about its own performance ... in the long run do you think that this will be more the way things will happen; that the Chinese government will be setting up companies like yours all over the world to present itself in the way it wants to?"
This is the crux of the whole affair, and McDonell's question cuts especially close to the bone, as I currently work as a reporter for CRI here in Beijing. But the answer? Well, yes, this is how China's state media has been operating for some time now, and it is a model they are pursuing aggressively. Last week, as part of a congress special, CRI broadcast a report on its Beijing Hour program that ostensibly surveyed foreign media coverage of the congress. Of the more than 1700 international journalists CRI mentions covered the congress, CRI chose to garnish the views of the chairman of Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspaper Wenweipo, a reporter with the Kenyan-based People Daily, and the executive producer of Europe-based GBTimes. It appears to be an innocuous, if slightly off balance, survey of the foreign media -- Asia, Africa, Europe -- but it simply isn't. All sources had nothing but praise for China, and many are in fact owned by the Chinese government. CRI's report is not the only one of its kind, but it is certainly the most blatant in stacking the deck. How Wenweipo can be "foreign media" while at the same time the Chinese government falls over itself in declaring Hong Kong an inalienable part of China is a little mystifying, but that's beside the point. Wenweipo is both well-known as a mouthpiece of the PRC and a willing recipient of Party funding. The paper's one and only editorial stance against the PRC -- opposing the use of martial law during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests -- resulted in the firing of the editor-in-chief, the paper's president, and many of his assistants. Since that time it has maintained a reputation for questionable and poor journalism, as reported by WND. So what did Wenweipo's chairman, Wan Shucheng, have to say to CRI about China and the congress? Among resounding praise for China's performance, he said that he's "confident about China's economic prospects".
"The point for most concern is that these "foreign" sources are then played back to viewers within China, giving them the impression that the rest of the world agrees with the party ..."
Next up, Joseph Muiruri, a reporter from the Kenyan-based the People Daily, told CRI that "the Chinese model for economic growth could be a useful reference for African nations to follow" and essentially that China's economic presence in Africa was positive. China is extremely keen to present its role in Africa as nothing but the glorious social and economic liberation of the continent, resulting in blatantly biased reporting like this. As The New York Times has reported, China's state newswire Xinhua frequently provides reports to African media free of charge, and CRI, CCTV, and Xinhua’s CNC have a rapidly growing presence on African radios and TV sets. While the People Daily isn't directly owned by Chinese state media, it is unsurprising that Muiruri's only words were unqualified praise for China's presence in Africa. Andrew Jones, an executive producer with GBTimes, also praised China's economic development. On its website, GBTimes says it is a "broadcasting, media, and communications and training company" based in Finland and owned by Futuvision Media. A report from Finland's Helsingin Sanomat revealed that Futuvision Media is actually financed by none other than China Radio International. Through its various stations and websites, Futuvision now produces Chinese state-sponsored content in 20 languages, runs offices in Paris and Milan, and broadcasts CPC friendly content from northern and eastern Europe to the Middle East. Its expansion has been mimicked by Global CAMG Media, which began in Australia, and now broadcasts across south-east Asia and South America. Essentially the Chinese Communist Party is working to expand an echo chamber filled with its own sycophantic, state-approved spin. It's the ventriloquising of global media. International radio stations, print media, and websites from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, to Asia, Oceania, and South America produce content on China that appears independent, but is actually carefully managed to avoid unwanted subjects like an independent Tibet or the pro-democracy movement, while focusing on economic growth and social cohesion. Like the Chinese state media that owns them, these companies are essentially PR firms for the CPC. The point for most concern is that these "foreign" sources are then played back to viewers within China, giving them the impression that the rest of the world agrees with the party, and similarly is not concerned with things like human rights and democracy. The whole murky apparatus is not just eerily Orwellian, it is also quite unprecedented. Heikki Luostarinen at the University of Tampere summed it up best when speaking to Helsingin Sanomat about Futuvision: "It's a bit like money laundering. They are looking for places where the tracks of propaganda can be covered up."