The Chinese government-controlled English language newspaper, China Daily, in 2020 paid a variety of US media outlets nearly $2 million for publishing propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to a disclosure that China Daily filed in late November with the US Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), according to Daily Caller.
China Daily has reportedly been registered as a foreign agent under FARA since 1983, which means it is required to report its activities and financial transactions to the Justice Department.
In June, China Daily filed a disclosure with the Justice Department showing that, since November 2016, it had paid $19 million to U.S. media outlets, including $12 million to newspapers such as the Washington Post and New York Times. Other newspapers included the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Seattle Times, Houston Chronicle and Foreign Policy.
China Daily‘s ads come in the form of advertising supplements, inserts called «China Watch,» in a strategy known as «borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean.» According to Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, Freedom House, in 2017 testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission:
«This phrase refers to disseminating Chinese state-media content via the pages, frequencies, or screen-time of privately owned media outlets that have developed their own local audiences… In recent years, its robust expansion to English-language media has garnered much attention and public debate. One of the most prominent examples has been the emergence of China Watch — a paid insert sponsored by the state-run China Daily — that has appeared both in print and online in prominent U.S. papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.»
This form of advertising is sometimes also known as advertorials, or native advertising: the stories are camouflaged to look like the other news content of the media outlets in which they appear.
The Wall Street Journal’s «China Watch» website, for example, has published a number of articles promoting China’s handling of the pandemic, including articles with titles such as, «Apple CEO: China Getting Outbreak Under Control«, «US Sister Cities Get Help From Chinese Friends in Virus Fight», «WHO Chief Highlights China-Africa Cooperation on COVID-19 Fight«, and a number of articles criticizing the US for its questioning of China’s handling of the pandemic, such as «Washington’s Wuhan Travel Claim Rebutted» and «Trump’s China Remark Rebuked«.
China is not the only foreign government paying to advertise its national propaganda in the US. In 2007, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a Russian government newspaper, began to publish its advertorials, «Russia Beyond the Headlines,» in The Washington Post, although the ads reportedly disappeared from the newspaper in 2015. In the past, Rossiyskaya Gazeta reportedly also published Russia Beyond the Headlines supplements in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
«China needs to strengthen media coverage…and use innovative outreach methods…to tell a good Chinese story and promote China’s views internationally», Xi Jinping said at the National Meeting on Propaganda and Thought Work in August 2013. Since then, he has regularly repeated this message. «To present good images,» Xi told an August 2018 National Meeting on Ideology and Propaganda, «we should improve our international communication capability, tell China’s stories well, disseminate China’s voice, show an authentic and comprehensive China to the world, and raise the country’s soft power and the influence of Chinese culture».
As pointed out by James Fallows in The Atlantic back in 2010, when The Washington Post was already publishing China Watch, it is one thing when such a supplement is clearly labeled as a paid advertisement, but quite different when such ads are published online and made to look similar to the outlet’s other news articles, that only «the tiny words ‘A Paid Supplement to the Washington Post’ in the upper right hand corner distinguish them from the rest of the content».
«Those who engage in this form of propaganda hope to exploit the higher credibility of the hosting media site to enhance the persuasiveness of their message», wrote researchers Yaoyao Dai and Luwei Luqiu, who did an online survey on the effect of China Daily’s ads on American and British readers of The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph. Their findings showed that readers actually struggled «to distinguish political advertisements from standard news stories regardless of their level of education and media literacy».
China does not lack for English language media giants of its own to disseminate the Chinese Communist Party narrative about China across the world. According to Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a fellow at the Wilson Center:
«In early 2009, Beijing announced that it would invest ¥45 billion (roughly US$7.25 billion) into its main media outlets in order to strengthen its international news coverage and global presence. As part of this campaign, known as ‘big propaganda’ (da waixuan), Xinhua News Service increased its number of overseas bureaus from 100 to 186. That same year, the Global Times (a popular tabloid with an international focus owned by People’s Daily) launched an English-language edition. CCTV International also began broadcasting in Arabic and Russian, and in 2010 rebranded itself as CCTV News. China’s massive investment in these media attracted considerable international interest and debate».
In a December 2018 report, «Assessment on US Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access,» the Pentagon assessed China’s media expansion:
«Xinhua News Agency, China’s official state-run news agency, launched 40 new foreign bureaus and doubled the number of overseas correspondents between 2009 and 2011. Xinhua counted 162 total foreign bureaus in 2017 and aims to have 200 by 2020. China’s expanding official media presence reflects a concerted effort on the part of its leadership to shape opinions about the country and promote China’s view on key topics. President Xi Jinping urged China Global Television Network, Xinhua’s international media service, to ‘tell the China story well’ and «spread China’s voice… a 2015 Reuters report revealed that China Radio International (CRI), a Chinese state-owned entity, was using subsidiaries to mask its control over 33 radio stations in 14 countries, including the United States. These radio stations broadcast pro-China content but have not registered as agents of a foreign government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)».
The reason China did not rely solely on its own state media, according to Brady, was because the strategy of using state media was «widely regarded by Chinese mass-communication experts as a failure. If foreign audiences know that a piece of information comes from an official Chinese media source, they are likely to interpret it as ‘propaganda’ rather than ‘news.'»
With «social justice» having become something of a mantra across the Western mainstream media landscape, the promotion of Chinese regime propaganda to unsuspecting Americans constitutes an oddly incongruent and unethical business practice that the media industry does not appear to have reflected upon publicly, if at all. While several newspapers no longer engage in the practice – The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and New York Times among them – the practice does not seem to have caused any sort of actual uproar in those media circles that engage in it, such as the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, the UK-based Financial Times, Chicago Tribune and Seattle Times. This reticence is odd, not so much because those newspapers want and need revenues, which is understandable, but because so many journalists and editors consider themselves as standing up against racism, ethnic and religious discrimination, and human rights abuses. Taking money from the Chinese Communist regime in exchange for spreading its propaganda would seem to indicate that this stance is simply empty posturing.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.