Kindergartens, handicrafts markets, high-tech companies, hydroelectric dams and even political indoctrination camps — these are some of the sights international journalists are whisked around when they take part in all-expenses paid tours to China.
The motive of these invitations is, in the mantra of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), to “tell a good China story” to the outside world.
In the past, that story would have been told through clumsy Chinese Communist Party propaganda broadcast on its state-run news outlets.
However, during our research for the International Federation of Journalists, we found that Beijing is increasingly outsourcing the storytelling to foreign journalists, who often end up amplifying its messages in their own languages on the pages of their own news outlets.
At a roundtable discussion in Myanmar, all journalists present had been on all-expenses paid tours to China. One had been nine times. This was when we realized how systematic and sophisticated China’s global outreach campaign had become.
Journalists in half of the 58 countries we surveyed said they had been on such trips, and much of the reporting that came out was positive. While some were bowled over by China’s modernity and technological developments, others said they had signed agreements promising not to write critical reports.
It is worth noting that at a time when foreign-reporting budgets are shrinking, almost all those who took part believed these tours to be beneficial to their national media.
More than 120 US journalists have been on such tours, as well as at least 28 Australian journalists.
However, our analysis suggests that Beijing is especially targeting journalists from developing countries with repressive and ineffective governments, in particular those who have signed up to China’s massive global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Under the title “Silk Road Celebrity China Tours,” Beijing has even taken Muslim journalists to visit the re-education camps where it is holding as many as 1 million Uighurs. In many cases, the reports they then wrote faithfully repeated Beijing’s talking points.
“They all wrote about how beautiful [Xinjiang is] or certain stories praising China for cracking down on terrorists,” one Filipino journalist said.
These journalists often end up doubly co-opted, with their presence harnessed for domestic propaganda purposes. After visiting a re-education camp in January last year, a group of 12 reporters saw their faces all across China’s television news as they smilingly interviewed detainees in tracksuits.
Across the globe, journalism unions and organizations are having their needs — whatever they might be — met by Chinese entities, often with the involvement of local Chinese embassies.
This spans the whole gamut from a couple of computers and tape recorders donated to a journalism union in Guinea-Bissau, all the way up to a state-of-the-art studio built with Chinese funding for Kenya Broadcasting Corp.
A third of the journalism unions surveyed had been approached to sign memorandums of understanding with Chinese entities.
China’s involvement in foreign media is growing almost faster than it can be tracked. There are co-productions, joint ventures, Chinese-sponsored television and radio shows, and even Chinese-funded news outlets such as the Pauk Phaw newspaper in Myanmar. Chinese companies are also using apps and Web browsers to capture digital audiences.
In India, the UC Browser news feed — which is in Hindi and 15 other local languages — has 50 million users. Despite clashes at the border, it is hard to find a single story on China-India border tensions.
Such media ventures risk becoming choke holds on global news delivery systems, potentially denying other narratives outside Beijing’s favored version while embedding Chinese influence in media ecosystems far outside its borders.
In this way, Beijing is reshaping the global news landscape. We often use English-language output as our yardstick, yet Beijing’s inroads in other languages has gone largely unnoticed.
In the past few months, disinformation campaigns are being waged not just in English, but also in for example Italian or Arabic.
The ultimate aim is ideological and geopolitical: China is pushing its own model of journalism as an alternative to the liberal western way of reporting, while hoping to translate positive coverage of its projects into votes in its favor in multilateral institutions such as the UN.
At a time when news organizations are being pauperized, reporters who accept Chinese hospitality might risk compromising their journalistic ideals.
It is perhaps hubris that independent-minded reporters believe they can take part in these tours without internalizing Beijing’s messages. Yet their very presence makes them tools of a Chinese government that uses them in domestic propaganda to shore up its own legitimacy.
As China multiplies its investment in news production and distribution across the world, its advances can only weaken the “fourth estate” model of journalism.
Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin are the authors of the International Federation of Journalists report “The China Story: reshaping the global media.” Lim is an audiovisual journalism lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
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