Beijing tries to woo Taiwan hearts and minds with ‘paid’ news
- At least five Taiwanese media groups have been paid by mainland authorities for positive coverage
Mainland authorities have paid at least five Taiwanese media groups for coverage in various publications and on television, in an effort to win hearts and minds on the self-ruled island as part of Beijing’s reunification agenda.
While the articles in one Taipei-based newspaper were presented as straight news, they were actually paid for by the Chinese government, according to a person with direct knowledge of the arrangement, and internal documents from the publication.
The Taiwan Affairs Office, which oversees Beijing’s policies towards Taiwan, paid 30,000 yuan (US$4,250) for two feature stories about the mainland’s efforts to attract Taiwan businesspeople.“It felt like I was running propaganda and working for the Chinese government,” the person said.
The articles were even edited by the Taiwan Affairs Office before they were sent to the newspaper’s newsroom in Taipei for publication, the person said, adding that the people interviewed in the reports had been picked by an official from the Communist Party’s Publicity Department.
“Readers were unable to tell the stories were paid for,” the person said. “All they could see was positive coverage of the mainland.”
Reuters is withholding the names of the media groups at the request of the former and current employees who provided documents – including contracts signed by the Taiwan Affairs Office – and who also did not wish to be named.
The arrangements have been going on since the mainland and Taiwan deepened their economic collaboration nearly a decade ago, but details like the financial arrangements of such partnerships had not previously been reported.
The placement of news stories by companies and special interests is common in Taiwan. However, the commissioning of such stories by the Chinese government is potentially explosive in Taiwan, which has been increasingly sensitive about mainland efforts to sway popular sentiment amid rising tensions across the strait.
China views Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under its control, by force if necessary.
While the Taiwan Affairs Office paid for most of the stories, other Chinese government bodies also commissioned articles, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter. One of the contracts was signed by a municipal government in southern China.
One senior news manager said he handled stories paid for by the Chinese government at a major newspaper for several years. He left the publication in 2016 and now works for a news organisation affiliated with the Taiwan government.
“The money was mostly paid via the Taiwan Affairs Office,” said the person, adding that provincial or municipal governments across China also sponsored coverage.
The Taiwanese government said it was aware of Beijing’s efforts and that such partnerships were subject to a fine of up to T$500,000 (US$16,000) for violating regulations on Chinese advertisements.
“It is using our press freedom to harm press freedom,” Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister for Taiwan’s Ministry of Mainland Affairs, said. “This is part of the mainland’s media war against Taiwan,” he said, vowing to strengthen laws to close what he called “loopholes” in Taiwan’s national security.
“It’s spreading messages of Chinese ideology, harming our free speech and democracy.”
The Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Employees from the media companies said Beijing’s efforts to sway the public’s perception of China was undermining Taiwan’s media.
“When funding from the Chinese government becomes a big part of your revenue, it’s impossible not to exercise self-censorship,” said a reporter, who said she was involved in several stories commissioned by the Chinese government in 2017-2018 for a newspaper based in southern Taiwan.
“It gives China space to manipulate politics and influence public opinion in Taiwan.”
Several reporters and newsroom managers said that some media organizations were engaging in self-censorship as stories placed by Beijing had become increasingly important sources of income.
Issues seen as “sensitive” by Beijing, such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, were no longer being covered by their news outlets, they said.
Beijing’s campaign comes at a time of growing concern over Chinese infiltration in Taiwan. In June, tens of thousands of people rallied to call for the regulation of “red media” – outlets that they claimed ran favourable coverage of a China-friendly presidential candidate ahead of key elections in January.
Two officials working at a Taiwanese state security agency, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said Chinese infiltration of Taiwan’s media posed “threats” to the island’s security.
“Their ultimate goal is unification,” said one of the sources, who oversees Chinese activities on the island. “They think it is better to win the hearts of the people than to start a war.”
The Taiwan Affairs Office has set up companies that carry out the story placement campaign. The companies liaise with news organizations’ sales representatives, ordering up topics and lengths for stories, five people with direct knowledge of the arrangements said.
Such firms include Beijing-based Jiuzhou Culture Communication Centre, as well as Publishing Exchange Centre Across the Taiwan Strait in Guangzhou, according to a contract signed by the Taiwan Affairs Office unit and the Taipei newspaper, as well as the person familiar with the arrangement.
Liu Tan, a representative from the Beijing company, ended a phone call with Reuters after a reporter identified himself. The Guangzhou company did not respond to requests for comment.
In one deal, signed in early 2017, the Beijing company paid the publication 120,300 yuan in exchange for 10 full-page, colour-print stories to promote investments and tourism for an eastern Chinese province.