China is attempting to use journalists from non-English speaking countries to promote its policies beyond its borders in a concerted push for influence.
An International Federation of Journalists survey of journalist unions across 58 countries found that through study tours, control of media infrastructure and the provision of pro-Beijing content, China is “running an extensive and sophisticated long-term outreach campaign [in] a strategic, long-term effort to reshape the global news landscape with a China-friendly global narrative.”
The report, “The China Story: reshaping the world’s media,” argues that Beijing is also seeking to build control over messaging infrastructure — effectively the channels by which countries receive news — through foreign media acquisitions and large-scale telecommunications ventures.
The report found that the decade-long campaign “seems to be escalating.”
The survey, carried out in September and October last year, asked journalism unions from 58 countries on whether they have received overtures from Beijing. This included questions about sponsored trips, content-sharing agreements and approaches to sign bilateral agreements with Chinese bodies.
Journalists from 29 of the surveyed nations had been on trips to China, with almost two-thirds of respondents saying that China has a visible presence in their national media. One-third of the journalism unions had been approached by Chinese entities seeking joint agreements.
The research found that Beijing increasingly relies on foreign journalists, especially from developing countries, to amplify its own talking points.
“Beijing’s strategy whereby state-approved propaganda is diffused into existing systems is known as ‘borrowing a boat to reach the ocean,’” the report said.
One example is Beijing’s attempt to push back against western narratives of human rights abuses in the political indoctrination camps in China’s far western Xinjiang, where Beijing is holding up to 1 million members of the Uighur minority, according to UN estimates.
Beijing has taken several groups of journalists from Muslim countries to the camps to win international support for its hardline strategy of combating what it says is religious extremism.
China is not the only country that seeks to influence foreign journalists. Many others, including the US and Israel, run government-sponsored journalistic study tours of their countries, seeking to promote their positions and global points of view.
Global arms of state-funded media organizations or national broadcasters — such as Voice of America or the BBC World Service — are seen as effective instruments of “soft power” and influence.
Report author Louisa Lim (林慕蓮) told the Guardian that China’s efforts were often more comprehensive and were specifically targeted to each country, in particular, toward small and developing nations.
“It’s true other countries have done this every effectively. One difference, I would say, is the way journalists who go on these tours are being used domestically by, for instance, going on tours of Xinjiang, that is used try and show international support for China’s policies,” Lim said.
“Also journalists are sometimes asked to sign agreements before they leave and told not to write critical stories. There is also an element of monitoring, with officials, translators always present,” she added.
At a roundtable of nine Burmese journalists conducted for their research, every single journalist had been offered sponsored trips to China at least twice and had accepted every single offer. One journalist had been to China nine times.
“The message is not ‘don’t go on these tours,’ but ‘know what they are.’ If you have an opportunity to meet senior officials, use them to hold to account,” Lim said.
The Guardian has sought comment from the Chinese embassy in Australia, sending a detailed list of questions. It has not received a response.
Media control and influence has become a critical diplomatic controversy between, in particular, the US and China.
Last week, the US Department of State announced that Chinese state-run media organizations China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily and the Global Times would be designated in the US as foreign missions.
In response, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) said the US decision was “proof of blatant political oppression by the US on Chinese media.”
“We strongly urge the US to reject the Cold War mindset and ideological bias, and to immediately stop and redress such wrongdoing that hurts others and itself,“ Zhao said.
China has also been refusing to renew the visas of US journalists working in the country.
The research found Beijing has prioritized journalists from countries involved in its massive infrastructural project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
A number of Filipino journalists received training in China after the Filipino Presidential Communications Operation Office signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s National Radio and Television Administration.
One of the journalists — who asked to remain anonymous — noted the subsequent impact on their news output.
“The way they write their stories now, they reflect the way Xinhua — or the state media in China — is writing their stories. It’s normally propaganda,” the journalist said.
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