How Beijing Grooms Journalists Globally To Do The Chinese Communist Party’s Work For Them
China is infamous for its rose-tinted self-portrayals in state-run media. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on the press to the fore, with reports ranging from dubious to seemingly delusional as it struggles to burnish its image amid embarrassment on the global stage.
In recent months, Chinese state English-language media has sought to drown out international criticism by amplifying narratives of western incompetence. The efforts even included a brazen conspiracy theory that coronavirus had American origins and was brought to China by a U.S. military athlete.
But China is also influencing media production abroad and spends lavishly to achieve this end. The vectors for the CCP’s global project often include foreign journalists and vulnerable western news outlets suffering from budget cuts.
Beijing spares no expense to influence global perception — all-expenses paid travels and free graduate degrees in “communications” are worth the investment if the return is thousands of mouthpieces for the Chinese government who work for them beyond the nation’s borders.
China began its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, a transcontinental long-term policy intended to connect China with Asia, Europe and Africa. The China-Africa Press Center and China-Asia Pacific Press Center subsequently launched in 2014 and 2016.
Journalists who participate in the centers get the red-carpet treatment while working at a two-month internship in different state-run media, such as Xinhua News Agency and China Daily — both of which the State Department designated as operatives of the Chinese state.
Party operatives take the selected journalists on extravagant tours of the country. And there is only one rule: Reporters can’t undertake individual reporting trips unaccompanied. So sensitive subjects like the human rights violations in Tibet or China’s Muslim concentration camps go untouched, according to The Epoch Times.
They must also tiptoe around the South China Sea dispute. These specially selected journalists can only report on such subjects if the effort is primarily to proliferate Chinese foreign ministry talking points.
The Chinese government has put more than 3,400 media workers from at least 146 countries through this training program. The purpose, according to an expert interviewed by Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), is “control of the narrative and legitimization of the [Communist] Party’s power and governance.”
Filipino journalist Greggy Eugenio was taking classes at Beijing’s Renmin University in pursuit of a master’s degree when he participated in a media fellowship. He later gushed to the Guardian that he “learned that a state-owned government media is one of the most effective means of journalism. The media in China is still working well and people here appreciate their work.”
“Others praised China for lifting over 700 million of its people out of poverty and its miraculous rise as the world’s second largest economy in a span of only three decades,” another program participant said, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency. (RELATED: Here’s How The Media Is Pushing Chinese Propaganda And Talking Points)
Journalists traveling from Africa, however, found the propaganda charade quite transparent. Bonface Otieno, a journalist at a newspaper in Kenya, said that every week he’d be given a copy of the China Daily on his desk.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single negative story in that crazy paper,” he told CJR. He added that while in China, African journalists would ask critical questions and were given less speaking time during discussions in response.
“What kind of journalism is this?” he told CJR about his experience working with state media.
A Liberian journalist said that while media in his home country report freely, in China “the state controls what the media say, and there is not a space to express grievance with policies.”
China even exports these efforts for top dollar with supplements that appear in dozens of respected international publications like the Washington Post. The offers of free communication degrees and paid trips to work at Chinese media outlets serve a singular goal: nudging foreign governments toward policies favorable for the Chinese Communist Party.
After the 2008 Olympics when China was inundated with critical reporting about its human rights infractions, China spent $6.6 billion to bolster its global media presence. Xinhua, China’s newswire services, aimed to build 200 bureaus by 2020 and state-run CGTN, a rebranding of CCTV for international audiences is hiring globally, according to CJR.
Chinese interests also influence media by acquiring shares in foreign media companies or purchasing them outright. Oftentimes, Beijing-sponsored media based outside China attract foreign journalists with larger audiences and pay.
CCTV, China’s predominant state-owned television network, launched their Washington headquarters in 2012. A handful of former or current BBC correspondents based in Latin America were hired.
An Australian former employee of Xinhua’s Sydney office told the Guardian that “their objectives were loud and clear, to push a distinctly Chinese agenda.”
Referencing the chaotic nature of Australian politics at the time, the former employee said the Chinese government would try to sow discord by identifying “cracks in a system and exploit them … Part of my brief was to find ways to exert that influence.”
Over the last several months, the U.S. has cracked down on institutions where Beijing’s influence poses a national security hazard and aims to nefariously sanitize China’s image. American colleges, and most recently the University of Texas, were investigated by the Education Department for failing to report gifts and funding from China. Universities came forward as of February to report over $6.5 billion in foreign funding they had initially not reported.
Through Confucius Institutes, American colleges expose students to pro-China propaganda under the guise of learning about Chinese culture and language, mirroring the tactics that Beijing uses when enticing journalists to take part in state-subsidized programs.