The articles on the Web site of a leading Taiwanese newspaper gushed about a new Chinese government program to attract Taiwanese entrepreneurs to China.
China “treated Taiwanese businessmen like its own people,” one of the articles said, citing “multiple perks.”
Far from being a threat to Taiwan, the program to give economic incentives to Taiwanese to start businesses in China was an “unprecedented” opportunity, it said.
While the articles were presented as straight news, they were actually paid for by the Chinese government, said a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement and internal documents from the Taipei-based newspaper.
The placement of the articles was part of a broader campaign by China to burnish its image in the Taiwanese media as part of efforts to win hearts and minds in Taiwan for China’s “unification” agenda.
Reuters has found evidence that Chinese authorities have paid at least five Taiwanese media groups for coverage in publications and on a television channel, according to interviews with 10 reporters and newsroom managers, as well as internal documents, including contracts signed by the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), which is responsible for overseeing China’s policies toward Taiwan.
The efforts have been going on since Taiwan and China deepened their economic collaboration nearly a decade ago, but details like the financial arrangements of such partnerships had not previously been reported.
Reuters is withholding the name of the media groups at the request of the former and current employees who provided the documents.
The TAO paid 30,000 yuan (US$4,300) for the two feature stories about China’s efforts to attract Taiwanese businesspeople, according to a person familiar with the arrangements and internal documents from the newspaper.
“It felt like I was running propaganda and working for the Chinese government,” the person said.
The placement of news stories by companies and special interest groups is common in Taiwan.
However, the commissioning of such stories by China is potentially explosive in Taiwan, which has been increasingly sensitive about Beijing’s efforts to sway popular sentiment amid rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
While the TAO paid for most of the stories in the documents reviewed by Reuters, other Chinese government bodies also commissioned stories, three people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
One of the contracts was signed by a municipal government in southern China, they said.
One senior news manager said he handled stories paid for by the Chinese government at a major newspaper for several years.
He left the publication in 2016 and now works for a news organization affiliated with the central government.
“The money was mostly paid via the TAO,” the person said, adding that provincial or municipal governments across China also sponsored coverage.
The government said it was aware of the Chinese efforts and that such partnerships were subject to a fine of up to NT$500,000 for breaching regulations on Chinese advertisements.
“It is using our press freedom to harm press freedom,” Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正) said.
“This is part of the mainland’s media war against Taiwan,” he said, vowing to strengthen laws to close what he called “loopholes” in Taiwan’s national security.
“It’s spreading messages of Chinese ideology, harming our free speech and democracy,” he said.
The TAO did not respond to requests for comment.
Employees from the media companies said Beijing’s efforts to sway the public’s perception of China was undermining Taiwan’s media.
“When funding from the Chinese government becomes a big part of your revenue, it is impossible not to exercise self-censorship,” said a reporter, who added that she was involved in several stories commissioned by the Chinese government in 2017 and last year for a newspaper based in southern Taiwan.
“It gives China space to manipulate politics and influence public opinion in Taiwan,” she said.
Several reporters and newsroom managers said that some media organizations were engaging in self-censorship, as stories placed by China had become increasingly important sources of income.
Issues seen as “sensitive” by China, such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, were no longer being covered by their news outlets, they said.
Beijing’s campaign comes at a time of growing concern over Chinese infiltration. In June, tens of thousands of people rallied to call for the regulation of “red media” — media that they claimed ran favorable coverage of a China-friendly presidential candidate.
Two officials working at a Taiwanese state security agency, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that Chinese infiltration of media posed “threats” to the nation’s security.
“Their ultimate goal is unification,” said one of the sources, who oversees Chinese activities in Taiwan. “They think it is better to win the heart of the people than to start a war.”
The TAO has set up companies that carry out the story placement campaign. The companies liaise with news organizations’ sales representatives, ordering up topics and lengths for stories, five people with direct knowledge of the arrangements said.
Such firms include Beijing-based Jiuzhou Culture Communication Center, as well as Publishing Exchange Center Across the Taiwan Strait in Guangzhou, according to a contract signed by the TAO unit and the Taipei newspaper, as well as the person familiar with the arrangement.
Liu Tan, a representative from the Beijing company, ended a phone call after a reporter identified himself.
The Guangzhou company did not respond to requests for comment.
In one deal, signed in early 2017, the Beijing company paid the publication 120,300 yuan (US$17,047) in exchange for 10 full-page, color-print stories to promote investments and tourism in an eastern Chinese province.
The two features about the business incentives in the leading Taiwan newspaper were even edited by the TAO before they were sent to the paper’s newsroom in Taipei for publication, the person said.
The people interviewed in the reports had been picked by an official from the Chinese Communist Party’s Publicity Department, the source said.
“Readers were unable to tell that the stories were paid for,” the person said. “All they could see was positive coverage of the mainland.”
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