Several leading Australia media outlets (including Fairfax media and Sky News) have signed distribution deals with the Propaganda Department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. These deals were signed during the little-publicised tour by the country’s Grand Inquisitor, Liu Qibao, who is a member of the politburo and the minister for propaganda.
These agreements have sparked concerns from leading Australian China experts like John Fitzgerald, who has written on the topic for this publication. He calls these deals a 'landmark victory for the Chinese Communist Party', and rightly so – Chinese government propaganda outfits like China Daily can now access Fairfax readers through flagship publications like The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review.
For Chinese propaganda officials, it is a significant coup. They can tell their bosses in Beijing that they have managed to penetrate some of Australia’s leading mainstream English-language media outlets. I can already hear people popping champagne.
These deals are part and parcel of Beijing’s concerted strategy to enhance its soft power. The Chinese government is reportedly splashing US$6.8 billion a year to fund its major state-owned organisations such as Xinhua, CCTV, China Radio International and the China Daily to expand their presence globally. This concerted push is taking place at the time when Australia, the United States and other Western governments are scaling back their public broadcasting programs. The former US Secretary of State and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton has warned about the dangers of these propaganda pushes publicly. She told the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March 2011 that the US was losing an 'information war' against the likes of CCTV, Russia Today and Al Jazeera:
'We are in an information war and we are losing the war. I will be very blunt in my assessment. Al Jazeera is winning. China has opened up a global English and Multilanguage TV network.'
But is the West actually losing this information war? Clinton gives too much credit to Beijing’s propaganda machine in its effort to reshape China’s image abroad. In the case of Australia, these monthly China Daily inserts are unlikely to change readers’ opinion about China. I still have faith in Australian readers who have grown up reading critical journalism. Fairfax readers and Sky News viewers have access to vast ocean of information about China in English from local newspapers to international media outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, the Times and the Guardian. Without exception, these publications make important and critical observations about China’s transformation and shed lights on Chinese political repression. In fact, many Chinese scale the great firewall of China to read these publications in English as well as their Chinese websites. This is especially true amongst the country’s highly educated and more globally mobile professional class.
So I am not too concerned about the effectiveness of Beijing’s propaganda effort here. I believe Australian readers have strong enough immune systems to withstand the Chinese government’s lies and half-truths. However, what I am really concerned about Beijing’s effort to control and shape overseas Chinese-language media. This is a hidden disease, largely invisible to Australian public and English-speaking population. But it does have impact on a sizeable and growing Chinese-Australian community and especially new migrants and students from mainland China.
Once again, thanks to excellent work from John Fitzgerald, we understand the scale and gravity of this issue. Beijing has managed to penetrate and co-opted a large number of Chinese language media outlets. China Radio International is even using a Melbourne Chinese community radio station CAMG as a front to set an extensive international network of Chinese and foreign language propaganda outfits. The full extent of CAMG’s relationship with China Radio International was laid bare in the so-called Andrea Yu affairs, when a young unsuspecting reporter was used by CMAG to ask Dorothy Dixer questions at the Chinese government press conference.
Though Beijing’s manipulation of local Chinese-Australian media is a serious problem, Beijing’s ability to control popular social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo is a more pressing issue. Like people everywhere, China's population have increasingly turned to social media platforms as their preferred source of reading about news and commentary on current affairs. This means the ruling Communist party can extend its censorship tentacles into Australia effectively without the need to own any publications. Even public broadcasters like the ABC and SBS rely on these social media platforms to reach their Chinese-speaking audience. These posts and articles get censored and deleted all the time – SBS’s Chinese language social media editor has to deal with this issue every day. Let me illustrate this point with an example. I did an interview with SBS’s mandarin program about Taiwan’s new president Dr Tsai Yingwen. The interview could not be sent on SBS’s WeChat as well as Weibo platforms, because Dr Tsai’s name is censored in China. It took a lot experiments and a combination of homophone and symbols to finally get the piece out.
Australia’s growing mainland Chinese migrant community is more susceptible to Beijing’s propaganda effort than the English-speaking population. This is due to the Chinese government’s ability to control key information portals such as WeChat. Imagine for a second, that Beijing can exercise complete editorial control over channels like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and consider what kind of damage that control can do to press freedom. The government and the press should be much more vigilant about Beijing’s effort to control the Chinese-language media than monthly China Daily inserts.
Photo: Getty Images/Feng Li