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CommentInsight & Opinion

China extends its censorship reach

Paul Letters says China is expanding its influence in the developing world through a network of state-sponsored media that is giving global reach to communist party censorship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 3:21am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 3:21am

A recent report entitled "The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship" criticised the growing global reach of China's censorship and its unrestrained investment aimed at spreading state-sponsored media abroad.

The report, by the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, asserts that China's "efforts to influence reporting by foreign and overseas Chinese news outlets have intensified and expanded over the past five years", and points to a set of targets internally labelled "the five poisonous groups": Tibetans, Uygurs, the Falun Gong, Chinese democracy activists, and Taiwanese separatists.

Foreign correspondents' attempts to scrutinise issues such as party leaders' finances, Aids compensation, land disputes and environmental pollution have also encountered well-documented interference, from visa denials to cyberattacks against Western news organisations. China's array of economic carrots and political sticks, utilised across the globe, have now been exposed under one light.

Chinese authorities offer free editorial content to any cash-strapped news organisations

In recent years, the state-owned China Daily has paid for news pages - faintly labelled "advertisement" - within publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. It has launched a US edition (2009), a European weekly (2010) and an African edition (2012). But in Europe and North America, China Daily - and the new CCTV bureau in Washington - will not sway the mainstream news conversation. In the developed world, China has never looked like superseding American soft power. However, in vast tracts of the developing world China is making its mark. Media organisations there rely on foreign sources, so why not China, the world's leading developing nation?

Chinese authorities offer free editorial content to any cash-strapped news organisations seeking to avoid the cost of stationing correspondents in China and even fly their journalists to Beijing for all-expenses-paid training. In parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, China has invested heavily in various economic sectors and is now buying shares in the media.

In South Africa, Beijing has bought major stakes in satellite television provider TopTV, and in Independent News and Media, a powerful newspaper group.

A show of goodwill often helps. In Zimbabwe earlier this year, CCTV provided President Robert Mugabe's state-monopoly television ZBC with new equipment - including giant city-centre screens - to broadcast his election campaign rallies. In return, ZBC has agreed to air CCTV news bulletins. In Cuba - China's biggest trading partner in the Caribbean and a leader in presenting an alternative world view to that of the US - Chinese companies have modernised Soviet-era infrastructure, and CCTV is replacing Russia's long-standing dominance in television programming.

Western media companies blanket the globe with a Western news agenda and often project an anti-China bias. The 2012 opening of CCTV's Africa centre in Nairobi is both an arm of China's broader expansion of influence in Africa and a step towards confronting Western outlets on the world stage. CCTV news scripts are skewed to adulate China's aid and trade in Africa and to avoid critical reporting of Chinese affairs. Reports of Zambian mine workers rallying against unfair treatment from their Chinese bosses is a story you won't see on CCTV. Another is the illegal slaughter of African elephants, driven by Chinese demand for ivory.

To accuse CNN or the BBC of a broad cultural bias towards Western concerns and viewpoints is to call a cat a cat. But they exist in the climate of freedom that pluralist democracies encourage. CCTV adheres to a one state, one party and one blinkered narrative of the China story.

The "Long Shadow" report highlights Chinese officials, particularly within Asia, who curtail reporting considered damaging to China's reputation. In Cambodia, one researcher suggested that because his country receives considerable aid from China, and most Cambodian media are state-owned, they rarely criticise Beijing. Similarly in Nepal, self-censorship by journalists is common because of a fear of punishment by their own government for unfavourable coverage of China.

In 2011, a court in Hanoi sentenced two Vietnamese citizens to prison for transmitting radio broadcasts to listeners in China. Chinese-language transmissions included content that originated from a US Falun Gong radio station and which criticised human rights abuses in China.

A leaked letter in 2007, from the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta to the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, revealed that ensuing legal proceedings against a local radio station associated with the Falun Gong was due to Chinese pressure.

In 2009, similar pressures apparently convinced Maori TV in New Zealand to broadcast a Chinese-government film maligning Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, following a documentary about her activism.

But occasionally such tactics blow up in Beijing's face. Media pressure against pro-independence groups in Taiwan has produced negative publicity, counterproductive for Beijing's long-term goal of unification. The Taiwanese have observed the deterioration in media freedom in Hong Kong, particularly over the last five years. It was in 2008 that US-based Freedom House - whose analyst Sarah Cook authored the "Long Shadow" report - downgraded its assessment of Hong Kong's press from "free" to "partly free". Hence, in Taiwan, readership numbers for papers critical of Beijing are high.

Elsewhere, power and money can't always buy love - but they often help.

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer of a forthcoming second world war novel, Providence. See paulletters.com


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This article is now closed to comments

Before people get bent out of shape about media "bias", they should really make a distinction of what exactly they're talking about. Are they talking about "news", or are they merely talking about "opinion"? Obviously, when you're referring to the talking heads of American media, you are going to detect bias...after all, these people are waxing on about their opinion, and there should be no expectation of objectivity. It just so happens that Fox has people whose opinions all blow in one direction, while MSNBC has folks who go the other way. And CNN is just confused at times. That being said, it's pointless and redundant to whine about biased opinions, for there really isn't any other kind.
On the other hand, there is "news", and this is where objectivity can and should be expected. I don't think the 24/7 news channels do too badly here, in general. And this is where the true distinction with CHina lies. You can't watch CCTV and expect the get the straight goods when it comes to news, particularly in reference to certain topics. And this is the part where the CCP typically shoots itself in the foot, in this instance trying to peddle her "soft power". Everyone knows to take the CCP-sanctioned opinions/propaganda with a large grain of salt. But even the news and facts that she espouses can't always be believed. So you arrive at the default position of doubting everything the CCP government and her state-controlled media say.
"CCTV adheres to a one state, one party and one blinkered narrative of the China story."
Paul, you don't read any Chinese do you? Neither do you understand Putonghua. If you had any Chinese skills and actually watched CCTV or read any major China news outlets, you would not have hesitated to say that. Unless of course if you are an incorrigible product of what Noam Chomsky would have called manufactured consensus by western media. And your article, though assured of willing ears because of a general climate of China-bashing prevalent in the self-proclaimed (and -deluded) "free" world, would have done far better had you not relied on a report funded by the US government. I find western-media reports are often actually far more predictable than the CCTV.
Dear Shouken,
I don't normally get involved in these comments because people tend to want to vent unhindered. But as you addressed me directly, I guess you'd like a reply.
My opinion piece was about the PRC's media outside China - i.e. CCTV in English, e.g. in Africa (and yes, I have watched it and it's appalling, at times). That said, can you honestly tell me CCTV inside China is a beacon of truth?
I acknowledged that CNN. BBC etc. are biased and that "Western media companies blanket the globe with a Western news agenda and often project an anti-China bias". I'd happily write a whole piece about the BBC, CNN and their bias - but it would have less relevance to HK readers and so I doubt the SCMP would buy it from me. Also, China's media is state-owned and run and moderated by one party. With US TV, if you want Republican views you can watch Fox, for Democrat views, watch CNN.
Finally, look at my body of work before judging if I'm focused on bashing China and praising the West. My previous article (among others) heavily criticises the US: ****www.scmp.com/author/paul-letters
But to never criticise aspects of China's one-party state - particularly when living in Hong Kong - would be as ridiculous as to never criticise the US.
Best wishes,
It may not be news to Mainland citizens that their State media is full of lies and nonsense, but the rest of the world has yet to wake up to the creeping, insidious evil of racial and cultural propaganda the CCP is bribing and bullying others to disseminate.
That the CCP is trying to buy her way into people's good graces is neither surprising nor news-worthy. It's been going on for a long time. It's predictable that such efforts would be met with scorn and ridicule in the western world, but it's also to be expected that such overtures would be better-received in emerging countries. After all, as they say, money talks.
The question, of course, is how deeply this newly-acquired affection truly runs. And my guess is "not very". I mean, even PRC citizens have long clued into Chinese state media's BS. Imagine the effect on those in other countries who didn't necessarily grow up on state propaganda. And as they also say, money can't buy love.
SCMP is dipping into bottom of the barrel for op-eds. Surprise! The imported frothy scum from the bottom is no better than the ones on top.
But, seriously, is it any surprise?
"Imported frothy scum" huh? Thanks for sharing that, it's the most hilarious thing I've heard all day


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