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China, daily, everywhere

Chinese propaganda is coming to you this summer

I didn’t expect to find the China Daily in a beach town on the Algarve but then maybe that’s a logical place to find it, given the large population of expats and holidaying bureaucrats there.

The same newspaper (its European edition) is also available for free in the very busy transfer lounges of Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports. And there are suggestions of a distribution deal through western outlets of international coffee chains: you can already pick the China Daily up for free in Chinese outlets of Costa Coffee and Starbucks.

It’s unfair that China avails of western free markets to distribute propaganda (the China Daily and other English-language titles like Global Times are stateowned and supervised by the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while the websites of every major western media outlet are blocked in China. You can forget seeking to purchase any major news magazine or newspaper at a news kiosk in Beijing (although some publications are available in international hotel chains).

Meanwhile, in late May China vetoed an application from the Committee to Protect Journalists for special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN. Even while it has no intention of opening up its own media market – the opposite in fact has been the case in the past year in particular – China has been taking advantage of the precarious financial condition of western media to force a diet of propaganda and its version of events.

A bunch of English language newspapers and magazines published in Beijing for global audiences are produced with no profit criteria. The China Daily and the Global Times are published with little or no advertising but lots of content disparaging enemies like the Dalai Lama and Taiwan independence campaigners.

Anyone who’s watched China Central TV, also known as CCTV, will wait for several minutes before realising it’s not CNN – the set livery and the use of western anchors makes it look like an American production, clearly inspired by western television news channels. That’s no coincidence given CCTV has hired a lot of talent from down-sizing western media outlets and also broadcasts from American studios.

Unsurprisingly, the production value and design of Chinese state media are increasingly sophisticated and -like CCTV – are free. And if it’s the only English-language media outlet –and it is in many places, including Beijing (online and in print) and many Asian and African capitals – you find yourself, over time, believing (or at least not questioning) its content. That at least was my experience recently when travelling from western China through central Asia with the China Daily the only reliable, or at least reliably available, source of news.

Lately the China Daily has started showing up inside, as well as alongside, mainstream western media. As well as distributing the papers free in China and around the world, the Chinese Propaganda ministry is also paying respected western media to insert the paper into their own pages. And many publications, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Australia’s Fairfax titles, distribute the China Daily as an insert because they’re paid to do so.

While piggy-backing on respected but hardup western titles, China is also barracking western media that do not pursue its line. Chinese embassies have been instructed to pursue stories in foreign media that displease Beijing. Particular targets include coverage of Tibet, Taiwan and China’s current construction of artificial islands in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Getting freesheets into the hands of readers around the world is one arm of China’s propaganda strategy. Another arm is the country’s diplomatic corps. The head of the foreign ministry set the tone recently at a press conference in Ottawa where he berated a Canadian reporter for asking him about human rights. Foreign Minister Wang Yi found the question “full of prejudice against China” and “irresponsible” and declined to answer.

Rather relations between Canada and China had entered a “new golden age” – a stock phrase used to describe relations with lots of western governments which, keen on Chinese investment, have become increasingly less strident critics of the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather than rebutting coverage through discussion and debate, the Chinese foreign ministry and the Central Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have also taken to hounding and courting western media headquarters. Paid-for trips to Tibet, chaperoned by officials, have taken the place of access to the region for China-based reporters, who remain barred from the region.

A long-favourite tactic, regularly practised by Chinese authorities, is threatening the visas of reporters based in China. These have to be renewed annually, at the pleasure of Beijing authorities who late last year declined to renew the visa of a long-term French correspondent in Beijing because of articles critical of China’s management of its Uyghur muslim community.

China ranked 176th out of 180 countries surveyed by the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, but have tightened further since Xi Jinping started to remind the Chinese media that their role is not to break news stories but to spread the word of the Communist Party.

While Beijing is now putting its views into western media through insert deals for the China Daily, it isn’t reciprocal to printing alternative views. I offered several times to pen a response to opinion pieces by Chinese academics on several topics but was declined with polite silence.

American diplomats visiting Beijing regularly bring up the harassment of foreign reporters with their Chinese counterparts – the issue has become important for Secretary of State John Kerry. Elsewhere US trade officials have warned China that blocking US news websites breaches China’s WTO membership commitments.

While the US has long run its own propaganda operations like the Voice of America (it has a bureau in Beijing but its broadcasts are jammed in China) it has allowed free reporting access to Chinese journalists –and it has allowed CCTV to broadcast globally from its own US studios, something that’s unthinkable for a US broadcaster in mainland China.

But US legislators have taken notice: the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 was introduced in the Senate on March 16 and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations by Republican senator Rob Portman and Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat. The bill points to “foreign propaganda and disinformation operations” by both China and Russia.

This all has echoes of the Cold War propaganda games. Except this time the traditional media is vulnerable and receptive to handouts from Beijing, which has effectively become a major advertising client to some big-name newspaper groups. Expect to find the China Daily in a newspaper or on a coffee table near you this summer.

By Mark Godfrey