The soft side of Chinese power
China’s growing media presence in Australia and around the world

What is motivating the Chinese government to step up its efforts in public diplomacy, cultural outreach and opinion-shaping abroad? One simple reason is because it can. With its spectacular economic growth, China has greater and greater resources to invest in soft power. With the explosion in digital technologies over the past two decades and the globalisation of news and information, Beijing has been able to take advantage of these platforms to get its message to an expanding overseas audience. The burgeoning population of Chinese abroad – students, workers, businesspeople, tourists and permanent émigrés – has also opened new opportunities for Beijing’s soft power messaging.


In May 2016, Liu Qibao, director of the Communist Party of China (CPC) propaganda department, arrived in Sydney to take part in signing several agreements between Chinese and Australian media outlets. On the Chinese side were arrayed some of the powerhouses of its state-run media: Xinhua (China’s official state news agency), China Daily, CRI (China Radio International), People’s Daily Online and Qingdao Publishing Group. The Australian organisations were Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia, Global China-Australia Media Group, Weldon International and the Australia–China Relations Institute (ACRI) of the University of Technology Sydney.

Under the arrangement with Fairfax, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review agreed to distribute within their regular paper a monthly supplement called ‘China Watch’, published by China Daily – the English-language mouthpiece of the CPC. That agreement, along with the others signed that day, raises many questions. Why were Australian media and academic organisations willing to publish content that conforms to the views of the CPC propaganda department? What role is Chinese media playing globally, and in Australian society in particular? Does Chinese media have an unwelcome influence in national debates?

Australians are not alone in asking these questions. Over the past decade, China’s major media groups have all launched expansive global initiatives intended to generate greater market share and profits while also burnishing China’s image abroad.

The Xinhua state news agency now has some 170 foreign bureaus and in 2010 established a 24-hour news channel in English known as CNC World, which broadcasts around the world via satellite, cable and online channels. Similarly, China Central Television (CCTV) acquired studio and production facilities in Washington, DC, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 2012, with the aim of producing content from the Americas and Africa and broadcasting into these markets and elsewhere around the world in support of CCTV programming. CCTV America employs more than 160 people and claims that CCTV English-language content reaches 30 million households in the United States through cable and satellite.

CRI broadcasts in more than 60 languages, has some 70 overseas affiliate radio stations and 18 online radio programs; its English-language programming alone broadcasts more than 600 hours of news, information and entertainment around the world every day. A Reuters investigation in 2015 identified CRI as the primary backer of at least 33 radio stations in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, all providing Chinese state-sanctioned programming in Chinese and local languages. In Australia, those CRI-affiliated stations are 1341 AM (Melbourne), 88.0 FM (Canberra), 104.9 FM (Perth) and 90.5 FM (Perth). CRI also leases airtime from radio stations around the world to broadcast news and other programming, which can be very appealing to struggling community radio and smaller-market stations.

These ambitious initiatives are driven by an official Chinese view that the global media – and hence global culture – are dominated by a “Western” perspective. In this view, if the CPC and state are to succeed in projecting a more positive image of China, they need to compete in the international media marketplace and get the attention of more readers, viewers and listeners.

As China’s president Xi Jinping said in 2016, the CPC and Chinese media “must strengthen the building of our international communication capacity, increasing our international discourse power and focusing the proper telling of China’s story … working to build flagship external propaganda media that have rather strong reputations internationally”.

One of the most important developments for the growth in Chinese state media has been the boom in digital dissemination. Chinese state media has moved well beyond traditional print and broadcast platforms and actively employs online and mobile channels to convey news, information and other content to hundreds of millions of users worldwide. In Australia, there are some 1.2 million accounts on WeChat, the instant messaging service popular with Chinese users, which is widely used to re-post content to users’ networks, further extending the reach of Chinese media.

Wanning Sun, a professor of Chinese media and cultural studies at the University of Technology Sydney, points out that relatively new social media platforms – such as WeChat, Weibo and Tencent QQ – are increasingly important channels for news and information for Chinese-language users in Australia and around the world. Chinese authorities control and censor the content on these platforms. Professor Sun also flags the emergence of online media outlets operated by Chinese students in Australia, which likewise stay well within prescribed boundaries in the information they convey to Chinese-language audiences.

Many analysts have noted that over the past decade or two the tone and substance of Chinese-language media coverage on China in Australia have softened and become more favourable to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This trend in part reflects a demographic shift. In decades past, Chinese-language media in Australia catered principally to an audience that would tend to have a less-favourable view of the PRC: those who fled mainland China in the 1950s and 1960s, persons from Hong Kong or Taiwan, and those from the “Tiananmen generation” who left China following the violent suppression of protesters in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989.

In contrast, today’s Australian Chinese media largely targets much more recent arrivals from the PRC, many of whom retain positive connections with China. They would include many of the 150,000 Chinese students in Australia, the more than 1 million Chinese tourists coming each year, and many of the younger Australians who were born in mainland China. The nature of Chinese media in Australia today reflects this demographic shift: according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, about 95% of the Chinese-language newspapers in Australia are controlled by PRC state-owned media companies.

A good example is found in the Sydney-based Chinese-language Australian New Express Daily, which is owned by Chinese real estate tycoon Chau Chak Wing, owner of Kingold Group and a high-profile political donor and philanthropist in Australia. Chau, who is controlling owner of Guangzhou’s New Express Daily, is also a member of the Guangdong province Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a CPC-controlled advisory body. In a 2009 interview with the Age, Chau proudly claimed that the Chinese government “found this newspaper very commendable because we never have any negative reporting”. His Sydney newspaper, edited by his Australian-educated daughter Winky Chau, runs on similar principles, avoiding critical commentary on China.

Hollywood executives have come to understand the power of the Chinese market: if they expect their blockbusters to play on silver screens across China – soon to be the biggest market for movies in the world – they need to soften how the PRC and the Chinese are portrayed. It appears that traditional Australian media outlets are following suit. Fairfax correspondent Philip Wen described the decision to publish the ‘China Watch’ supplement as a matter of “compelling commercial opportunities”. Fairfax is not alone in this decision. Other papers, such as the Washington Post and New Zealand’s Dominion Post made similar deals with China Daily.

More problematic are the attempts by Australian government-backed media groups to deliver content to Chinese audiences in China. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Chinese-language edition of its Australia Plus website exemplifies the potential pitfalls of these kinds of partnerships. Launched in China in 2015, Australia Plus aims to share “stories that reveal the culture, life and society of Australia to inform, inspire and include the diverse audiences of Australia and our region”. However, to deliver this content in Chinese and unblocked by the Great Firewall of China, the ABC contracted with a state-owned media group to translate and post its content on the website.

Not long after, Australian academic John Fitzgerald revealed that this content was entirely devoid of any stories even vaguely critical of China. Investigating the situation in May 2016, the ABC program Media Watch found that content had been removed from the Chinese-translated versions of articles written for ABC Online regarding the South China Sea. Reporting on the discussions about human rights between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Xi were removed from the Chinese version, as were mentions about CPC control over Chinese courts. An ABC spokesperson denied that its Chinese partners had any scope to edit or change politically sensitive news reporting and put it down to “failures in our editorial processes”.

In the wake of these controversies, the ABC has redirected funding to develop its own Chinese-language web content from an “.au” portal, which will provide a full news service in Mandarin. While this content may be blocked in China, it nevertheless can reach other Chinese-language consumers in Australia and around the world, and do so uncensored. This dual strategy of delivering less-sensitive content inside China while also disseminating a full news service in Mandarin outside of China is similar to what other national broadcasters, such as the BBC, are doing.

In another example, Foxtel, the Australian media firm co-owned by News Corp and Telstra, agreed to broadcast a documentary produced by CCTV and an Australian partner, WildBear Entertainment, which depicts a PRC-approved version of China’s “War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” during World War Two and how it led to the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Partnerships with Chinese media groups even extend to markets in the United States, Europe and Australia that increasingly utilise Chinese state-approved content off the shelf as a cost-effective way to fill the gaps in programming they cannot afford to fill themselves.

In some cases, the Chinese state overtly intervenes in the marketplace to prevent critical Chinese-language media from appearing in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in mid 2016 that the PRC consulate in Sydney contacted the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth hotel and prevailed upon the management to remove an independent Chinese-language newspaper from its lobby. That newspaper had previously published reports that were critical of the Chinese government. The same article notes that Chinese government authorities have pressured Chinese companies to only place advertising in PRC-backed Chinese-language media in Australia.

As a result of these trends, according to Professor Sun, there is a “discernible shift in Chinese language migrant media from a mostly critical to a mostly supportive stance in their coverage of China, the Chinese government, and issues and topics that are considered to be politically sensitive in China”. This trend looks likely to increase as the technologies allow, as traditional media seek new streams of investment and advertising revenue, and as the overseas community from the PRC continues to grow around the world.

 

This is an edited extract of China Matters: Getting it Right for Australia by Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson, published by Black Inc.

Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson

Bates Gill is Professor of Asia-Pacific Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. Linda Jakobson is an award-winning, internationally recognised author of six books on China.

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