5 Jun 2016

Media deals to boost China's voice

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 5 June 2016

Why have supplements endorsed by the Chinese government been appearing in New Zealand and Australian newspapers? And is there cause for concern?

The China Watch supplement

China Watch, which featured Chinese Communist Party publicity chief Liu Qibao on the cover.  Photo: RNZ / Mediawatch

A supplement distributed in The Dominion Post and several Australian newspapers last week was the result of a series of deals which an academic says are "a victory for Chinese propaganda".

The eight-page supplement called China Watch appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the Fairfax Media-owned Dominion Post and, a few days later, in Fairfax’s Australian papers. It was prepared by China Daily, a state-run English language newspaper in the People’s Republic of China.

China Watch, which featured head of the Communist Party of China’s central publicity department Liu Qibao on the cover, took the Chinese government’s stance in an article strongly criticising the Philippines over a long-standing dispute with China over the South China Sea.

It’s no coincidence that Chinese state-owned media companies and Australian outlets, including Fairfax, had just signed agreements in Sydney. 

Mr Qibao was at the signing, and also visited New Zealand, meeting Prime Minister John Key.

Prof. John Fitzgerald from Melbourne’s Swinburne University researches territorial government and civil society in China and was director of The Ford Foundation’s operations in Beijing from 2008 to 2013. In April, he discovered that a news website for China set up by Australia's public broadcaster the ABC was censoring stories to avoid offending the government there. 

The ABC acknowledged "failures in our editorial processes" and Prof Fitzgerald said :"The national broadcaster's dealings with China signal to the world that our commitment to values and core interests is negotiable."

He says these new Sino-Australian media agreements are "a victory for Chinese propaganda".  

"China has every right - just like the US, Australia, France or Britain - to promote its vision of the world globally," he told Mediawatch. "But the national media arms of these countries compete with each other in an open media environment".

A strange silence

Strangely, the “media co-operation projects” signed in Sydney weren’t reported at all across the Tasman until this week and, until now, haven’t been reported here at all.  

Chinese media, however, trumpeted the agreements.

China Daily shows its deputy editor Kang Bing shaking hands with Fairfax’s Australian managing director  Allen Williams. Liu Qibao and Gary Quinlan, acting secretary in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, smiling and applauding as they look on.

So what did the deals involve?

Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Financial Review newspapers will all issue China Watch once a month. Mediawatch asked Fairfax New Zealand if it too would be issuing China Watch monthly but has yet to receive a response.

Other deals between state-run media and Australian outlets are also in the pipeline.

China’s President Xi Jinping visited all three main state-run news organisations in February and instructed them to “properly tell the China story" and build “flagship external propaganda media that have rather strong reputations internationally".

Is there cause for concern?

While China is currently ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, opinion is divided on whether the deals between the republic's media outlets and Australian-owned ones are cause for concern.

Fairfax's managing director of Australian publishing Allen Williams says the China Daily deal is just "a commercial printing arrangement" and China Watch is also printed in newspapers overseas, including in the US and Europe.

But The Sydney Morning Herald's Beijing correspondent Philip Wen saw the deals differently:

"Individually, the deals offer compelling commercial opportunities. But viewed collectively, they underline the coordinated nature in which China's propaganda arms are seeking to influence how the Communist Party is portrayed overseas."

Swinburne University's John Fitzgerald says the deals are part of a larger strategy called "Going Abroad" which was launched in China in 2008 "to ensure that more Chinese news items find their way into global news". 

The Chinese state media outlets "monopolise the space they occupy. That's what concerns me most about this," he says.

"For the moment it might seem like just a number of separate deals, but in time there's a risk that dependence of Australian media firms on Chinese income could compromise their editorial integrity. That's not a small risk given the commercial vulnerability of Australia's media today."

John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald Photo: supplied

Mr Fitzgerald says the mere presence of the China Daily stories in Australia and New Zealand will be regarded as a success in Beijing, whether or not the material is actually influential.

But he believes it could be counterproductive: "The general Australian attitude to China now is very favourable," he says. 

"If China wants to get its story out, [it could] invite journalists to come [to China] - not just in official parties but give them visas to report everyday life in China. It's extremely difficult for the foreign press to work in China at the present time." 

"China doesn't understand how the world works if it thinks it has to tell a story [itself] to make it persuasive".