By John Fitzgerald, Director, CSI Swinburne Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne University, and Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Technology Sydney.
On 26 May, six agreements were signed between Chinese and Australian media outlets in Sydney. Liu Qibao, Head of the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), flew in to attend the signing. Gary Quinlan, Acting Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, joined him.
Liu's visit was noteworthy. A party official with no government title, Liu is one of the most powerful Party cadres outside the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee.* The scale and significance of the media agreements was newsworthy as well. And yet mainstream Australian media failed to report his visit or any of the deals associated with it.
Fortunately, we can learn what happened by reading China's party and state media, which reported widely on Liu's visit and the associated media tie-ups. China Daily reported on 27 May that six agreements were signed involving Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, China Radio International, People's Daily Website, and Qingdao Publishing Group on the Chinese side, and Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia, Global China-Australia Media Group, Weldon International, and Bob Carr's Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, on the Australian side.
On 28 May, the Central Propaganda Bureau's flagship journal, People's Daily, pointed to the significance of the event. 'China-Australia ties will be further intensified as their media cooperation increases following the signing of a series of agreements in Sydney on Friday.'
Xinhua, China's official news agency, reported that as a result of its memorandum with Bob Carr's UTS centre, 'myths will be dispelled and cross-cultural understanding is set to grow as China-Australia media cooperation increases following the signing of these six agreements.'
Each of these deals may not amount to much in isolation. But taken together, the visit by propaganda chief Liu Qibao suggests a landmark victory for the Chinese Communist Party.
Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has implemented a 'going global' strategy, including a hefty push for Chinese state media to go abroad. Taking to heart Joseph Nye's argument that soft power is 'about whose story wins (not whose army wins)', the Party has tasked the external branch of the Propaganda Bureau with the mission to 'tell the world China's story.'
At home the Propaganda Bureau's primary task is to tell China's media what can't be published. Every day it issues a list of forbidden current affairs topics to guide all media operations. The Panama Papers was recently among them. It polices some topics to ensure they never receive favourable mention, including freedom of the press, universal values, civil society, civil liberties, and so on. These prohibitions apply to its overseas publications placed in prestige media outlets such as the Fairfax press. Overseas, the Propaganda Bureau plays an additional role in ensuring that whatever is published burnishes a glowing image of China and its rightful place in the world.
As far as the Chinese side is concerned, deals such as this are not about commercial opportunity. They are about using propaganda to advance national strategy. China's media experts have done their homework on the Australian media and found opportunities to exploit the financial vulnerability of the mainstream private media market.
The failure of mainstream media to report on the Propaganda Bureau's arrival in Australia contrasts curiously with its perpetual vigilance in reporting on government censorship and deprivation of civil liberties in China. Why the silence? There is a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the possible implications of these deals for Australian standards of journalism.
Australia's commercial media have historically separated their editorial and commercial departments. But they are increasingly vulnerable. Fairfax cut 100 staff in the week leading up to the lucrative deal with the Party Propaganda Bureau. Senior executives in major television networks too can hear the death rattle of free-to-air television. All are nervous and cash-strapped. China is confident and cashed up.
At what point do the barriers separating the commercial and editorial sections of our hard-pressed commercial media start to give? We have already seen Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, sacrifice news coverage for commercial gain in China with its AustraliaPlus.cn website. And the ABC is taxpayer-funded. How long before commercial media are tempted to do the same?
Fairfax subscribers and shareholders have particular cause for concern in the inaugural eight-page supplement of China Daily that was inserted under their mastheads on Friday 27 May. It carried a full-page article affirming China's claims to contested islands in the South China Sea under the title 'Manila has no leg to stand on.' Nothing in the piece indicated that this was paid advertising purchased by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Propaganda Bureau (though the supplement does say on its front page that it does 'not involve the news or editorial departments of The Age').
The silence that has pervaded the Australian news media over the past four days is a fitting start to the new era of media cooperation with China's Propaganda Bureau. Leninist propaganda systems work not by persuading people through what they say but by intimidating or embarrassing others into not reporting things that matter. Under the new agreements, many 'myths will be dispelled,' possibly including myths of the independence and integrity of Australia's mainstream news media.
Photo by Flickr user whatleydude.
* Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Liu Qibao’s visit was the first to Australia by a Party Propaganda Bureau chief. Liu Yunshan visited in a similar role in 2003.’