• Alison Kartevold

Media's Role in the "Chinese Dream"

The tactics may vary, but the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) desire to control both domestic and foreign information is vital in achieving Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream." Now COVID-19 threatens to disrupt its citizen's views at home as well as years of propaganda groundwork laid abroad. Gist Say'n explains.

In part one of examining how the "Chinese Dream" might fair in the age of COVID-19, Gist Say'n discussed how China has been utilizing economic means to elevate its prominence by promoting initiatives to purchase foreign companies and develop international infrastructures. It has also invested heavily in various media outlets in an effort to influence the world's flow of information, so this article looks at China's use of the media, both domestic and foreign.

When Xi Jinping became the Chinese Communist Party leader, he began speaking of his "Chinese Dream."

"We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," he said.

China's Marxist Journalism

Visitors attend, The Power of Truth: An Exhibition Marking the Bicentenary of the Birth of Karl Marx at the National Museum of China. Photo: IC
Exhibition Mark Bicentennial of Marx's Birth in China

The first thing to understand is that China is not the United States. Its leaders, its culture, its perspectives are not interchangeable. Even the notion that society builds off the framework constructed in a constitution is different—words that rule as law in the United States, ring hollow in the People's Republic of China.

Article 35 of China's constitution states: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."

Yet, in practice, the Chinese people do not enjoy these rights, and the press is not free. According to research done by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at the end of 2019, China had 48 journalists in prison. This number is higher than any other nation. It's research also shows that China has faced a progressively more restrictive media environment since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.

After he came to power, Chinese journalists had to pass a new ideology exam to keep their press cards. As mandated, at least 18 hours of training on topics such as Marxist news values and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics were required.

In Marxist theory, the mass media forms an arena where ideological battles are broached, but ultimately, views of the ruling class always reign supreme. Media professionals consider themselves autonomous, but their opinions reflect those of a controlling elite which determines not just what stories are covered, but also the perspective from which media debates are framed. In Marxist journalism systems, audiences also lack access to outlets that show alternative views.

Xi reinforced his expectations for media standards during visits to the country's three leading media providers in 2016.

"All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party's will and its propositions and protect the Party's authority and unity," Xi told media workers during the tour.

Marxist journalistic education must also be promoted among journalists, Xi added, so that they are "disseminators of the Party's policies and propositions, recorders of the time, promoters of social advancement and watchers of equality and justice."

China even has a program that pays for members of the foreign press, especially from underdeveloped nations, to come to China free of charge to learn "Marxist Journalism."

Any Chinese journalists that do not adhere to Xi's guidelines risk harsh consequences. Imprisonment is routine for those whose work does not conform, and the use of intimidation and violence is on the table to keep them in line during this era. Some journalists now describe it as "total censorship."

Doctors who tried to sound an alarm and citizen reporters alike that were threatened, arrested, or went missing during the COVID-19 crisis in Wuhan are just the latest example that China does not follow its constitution. This time, the world was watching and saw that when speech and press reports were suppressed, the consequences reached far outside of China's borders.

Leaders of the People's Republic do not like to conduct operations in an uncontrolled environment. That which it can not control it seeks to manipulate or eliminate.

In December of 2019, the CPJ issued a report describing how China tries to influence the media at home and abroad.

The report states that while China increases its global economic power and military reach, it is simultaneously trying to use the media to sway the global public. The goal is public acceptance and support for China's growing role in the world.

The COVID-19 crisis is the most recent example of the type of criticism China seeks to sway. The CPJ says, China's incentive to influence editorial content overseas is far-ranging as a matter of both pride and agenda.

International resistance to equipment sales from Chinese telecom giant Huawei is another example, as is waning public opinion concerning its "Belt-and-Road" infrastructure program, or fear of the spread of Chinese military installations aimed at securing shipping routes. China's leadership cares about the nation's image and will not sit idle while it is tarnished.

"The effort is far from straightforward given the many channels that China uses to make its influence felt, some open and perfectly legal, others hidden and suspect," the CPJ says.

French-based, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), published an investigative report called "China's Pursuit of a New World Media Order" in 2018. The 52-page document details how, for the past decade, the communist nation has quietly sown the seeds and engaged surrogates to cultivate communist propaganda as journalism in countries around the world.

"China has been going to great lengths for the last decade to establish a 'new world media order' under its control, with the aim of deterring and preventing any criticism of itself. Less well known than the Belt and Road Initiative but just as ambitious, this project poses a threat to press freedom throughout the world," the RSF report says.

In 2011, Li Congjun, the former President of China's Xinhua News Agency, wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal with a headline that read, "New World Media Order: We need a mechanism to coordinate the global communications industry, something like a 'media UN.'"

"The world established a new international order after World War II with the founding of the United Nations. For over six decades, the international community has endeavored to create a more balanced, just and rational political and economic order," Li wrote. "Unfortunately, the rules governing the international media order lag behind the times, especially compared to changes in politics and economics. The gap is seen, first and foremost, in the extremely uneven pattern of international communication."

Reporters Without Borders believes that the role of journalists is essential to maintain a valid rule of law. It feels Li's "new world media order" abolishes the media's watchdog role and treats it as an industry meant to exercise influence on the state's behalf.

"In the spirit of the Beijing regime, journalists are not intended to be a counter-power but rather to serve the propaganda of states," says Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of RSF. "If democracies do not resist, Beijing will impose his view and his propaganda, which is a threat for journalism and democracy."

In democracies, the ability of a press free to investigate independently, question, and critique is vital to guaranteeing proper respect for individual freedoms, plus civil and human rights. China does not adhere to this primus.

Strategies used by the communist state to achieve its goals sited in the RSF's report, include modernizing its international TV broadcasting capabilities, buying large advertising inserts in global newspapers, infiltrating foreign press outlets, as well as employing blackmail, intimidation and harassment.

On the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, China ranked 177th out of 180 countries. It is a ranking earned in part to the regime's efforts to deter criticism of itself, obscure unfavorable history, and holding dozens of journalists and bloggers in prison for collecting or circulating information censored by the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. State Department agrees.

"Xi Jinping's got a number of quotes on this score," said a Senior Official. "One of them is that, 'Managing China's media messaging is crucial for the future and fate of the Chinese Communist Party and the state.' There are many others of a similar ilk that demonstrate exactly how much of a function of the state Xi Jinping considers the media to be."

Over the last decade, China has invested billions in developing media capable of reaching an international public. In 2018 it announced a massive merger that brought its largest state-owned television and radio stations onto one broadcasting platform.

The China Global Television Network (CGTN) broadcasts TV programs in 140 countries and China Radio International broadcasts in 65 languages. An official announcement stated that the group answers to the Publicity Department, otherwise translated as the CCP's propaganda department, and is "tasked with better telling the country's stories to the world."

The U.S. State Department says these outlets are all organs of the People's Republic of China's one-party state propaganda apparatus.

Included in this merger were the six international language channels launched by China Central TV (CCTV) on December 31st, 2016. One of those channels operates from Washington D.C. and covers the White House.

CGTN America broadcasts have high production values produced in part by American employees for an English speaking audience. Its material is polished and professional-looking, in the same vein as CNN.

The format is one that China uses throughout its other state-owned foreign media outlets as well. Including in the 35 cities across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, where CGTN has bureaus outside of China. Where daily, it uses local talent to present polished stories in native languages that position China's interests in a favorable light.

In contrast, NBC is said to have about 20 bureaus left foreign nations, but these do not produce local programming. U.S. networks (which are not owned by the government) closed most of their foreign bureaus over the last two decades. NBC, ABC, and CBS now pool most of their international resources in London and deploy them to support their American broadcasts as needed.

CGTN's presentation is so good here in the U.S., the White House News Photographers Association awarded CGTN America's photojournalists, editors and digital producers 27 awards for outstanding work in its 2019 "Eyes of History" contest.

"We aim to produce the highest-quality video journalism for audiences around the world," said Ma Jing, CGTN America's Director-General. "These results demonstrate that commitment. We couldn't be prouder of our videographers, video editors and digital producers."

Twenty-seven were the most awards given to any network that covers the White House in that contest. The next closet network, which was CNN, won 18.

News stories always carry at least some bias based on the views of those doing the report. Unbiased journalists acknowledge this and work to put aside personal opinions to focus on informing rather than influencing. However, when company or state policy supersedes this, the process is corrupted. Highlighting the positive and steering away from the negative is then no longer a puff piece, but instead sponsored soft propaganda.

Given that the Chinese Communist Party owns CGTN America, its coverage should be viewed as such.

When a report intentionally mispresents facts to support its owner's narrative, then it crosses the line from soft to hardcore propaganda.

CGTN America reports on COVID-19

Not surprisingly, the network's reports regarding the COVID-19 pandemic contain a heavy theme of defending China's response and pointing out the U.S's flaws. It is also critical of President Trump's attacks on China and reflects the CCP's concern that the pandemic is hurting China's popularity, which equates to its credibility and influence.

"It doesn't take a memo to notice that attacking China has become the way out of COVID-19 for the current U.S. administration. President Donald Trump, his current and former officials and the Republican Party at large have been unloading their criticism against China since the virus outbreak has spread beyond their control on U.S. soil." Huang Jiyuan wrote on April 25th for CGTN's First Voice. A daily column, the network describes as offering a Chinese perspective on the latest global events.

The article goes on to say, "A recent opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 66 percent of the U.S. general public view China unfavorably with 62 percent believing that China is a major threat to the U.S. And as rare as bipartisanship is, China's unfavorability has risen in both political parties. It is said that this is China's highest unfavorability in the U.S. since the Pew Research Center started surveying China's favorability 15 years ago."

When looking at soft propaganda, often, the problem isn't what is said. The problem is what is omitted from the story, as well as a lack of agenda transparency. Nowhere on CGTN's about us page, is the network's actual ownership mentioned. Even though in mid-February, the U.S. State Department categorized CGTV and four other Chinese media outlets as Foreign Missions, meaning they are either substantially owned or effectively controlled by a foreign government.

"We're making this designation based on the very indisputable fact that all five of these are subject to the control of the Chinese Government," said a senior State Department Official during a special briefing in D.C. in February. "Obviously, the Chinese Communist Party has always had a pretty tight rein on media in general and state-run media in particular, but that has only further tightened since Xi Jinping took over. Since he became general secretary, China's Communist Party has reorganized China's state news agencies and asserted even more direct control over them, both in terms of content, editorial, et cetera, et cetera."

Bejing's official response was to expel more than a dozen reporters that work for three U.S. publications in China. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are publications affected.

As discussed in part one, China also wishes to exert influence by buying already established international companies.

Steve Forbes with a Chinese edition of Forbes Magazine at a news briefing in Shanghai. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV
Steve Forbes with a Chinese edition of Forbes

In 2015 Forbes Media was sold to a Hong Kong-based investment group called Integrated Whale Media. The sale ignited a fear of Chinese influence on one of the United States' best-known media brands. Since then, companies with direct ties to Chinese leadership have sought to buy Forbes.

Even without that sale, by 2017 an opinion piece in the Washington Post pointed out instances where editorial writers critical of China were dropped from the site and editors, had to "contend with the possibility that officials in Beijing actively expect them to steer away from controversial China subjects."

The Great Firewall of China

At the same time that it reaches deeper into the media of other countries to influence consumers, China continues to restrict access to its own further. Beijing limits the rebroadcast of foreign news by restricting the use of satellite receivers and jamming shortwave frequencies.

In mainland China, the state blocks foreign-based Chinese-language news outlets that are not state-owned. And while some international English language websites are available, content that is contrary to Communist Party rhetoric is always filtered. At times of tension, their websites can be blocked entirely.

The "Great Firewall of China" is an extensive web security system that uses URL filtering and keyword censoring to block tens of thousands of sites. China also employs thousands of individuals as cyber-police to watch the web and filter material deemed politically and socially sensitive. Among others, China blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and human rights sites.

Chinese Internet police monitoring Internet activities. (Epoch Times)
Chinese cyber police monitor internet.

Tools used to circumvent this policing, including virtual private networks (VPNs), became less effective when China strengthened its firewall to intercept data traffic to and from individual IP addresses. The "Great Fire Cannon," came online in 2015, and unapproved VPN's are now banned.

China is not just the largest global media market; it has the world's biggest online population. In 2019 the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) served 829 million users.

Tight Communist Party control that dictates editorial content exerts incredible influence on American companies that seek to reach China's vast customer base. The message is clear, comply, or be denied access. The NBA and Nike are not the only U.S. corporations that fear being "canceled" by Bejing.

This week, state-run media reported that China is considering backing out of the trade deal it just signed with the United States in January. A story in the Global Times says, "Inside China, dissatisfaction with the phase one agreement has been growing because China has made compromises for the deal to press ahead." Now, however, there is sentiment that Washington can not afford to restart the trade war.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and China's damaged popularity, there is lots of talk that the United States should decouple. Given the communist nation's economic entwinement in the U.S. and its global propaganda ability, it would be challenging to achieve this, especially since China is sure to do everything in its power to prevent it.

You can agree or disagree, it's okay, I'm gist say'n.