Written by Jichang Lulu.

“Foreign shill,” muttered someone, while an Australian reporter addressed the head of the People’s Bank at a press conference. The Melbourne-based “fake foreign media” organisation she worked for had already made news two years before, when their correspondent at the 18th Party Congress got multiple chances to ask exquisitely phrased innocuous questions at choreographed press events, earning the Internet nickname ‘Question Sister’ (提问姐). A Finnish media outfit had a similar experience at the ‘Two Sessions’ press conferences that year. At home, a Helsinki newspaper would later call it “China’s propaganda central” for the West. Talking to Der Spiegel, the company’s Finnish vice-president would add: “With clumsy propaganda we would achieve nothing.” As Xiaoling Zhang told Danish daily Information while discussing the Finland-based organisation, “the Chinese government is perfectly aware that, if people know that content is coming straight from the government no one will bother to listen.” Hence the desire to hide behind a Western-based organisation. Media content produced by the Nordic outlet keeps being perceived as government-friendly, hidden or not. Last month, a journalist from Stundin wrote about how one of their staff “translates Chinese propaganda for Icelanders.” Whatever one prefers to call their output, the Australian and Finnish entities are part of the efforts of state broadcaster China Radio International to outsource the delivery of “soft power” to overseas outfits better suited to appealing to a foreign audience.

CRI president Wang Gengnian 王庚年 has referred to the broadcaster’s use of local media to tailor its message to foreign audiences as “borrowing a boat to go out to sea (借船出海)”. In a 2009 article in Chinese Journalist (中国记者), later reproduced on the website of the Party theory magazine Qiushi 求是, Wang described the need for China’s foreign-targeting media to “compete to lead international public opinion” and “set the agenda” on the world media stage, in order to promote the country’s “soft power” and “influence international mainstream society and mainstream media.” This requires localising the message, matching “what we would like to broadcast” with “what overseas audiences care about.” Wang’s chosen example of an early borrowed-boat success story is CRI’s partnership with Turkish FM station Yön Radyo to present the official narrative in the aftermath of the 2009 Ürümqi riots, “countering distorting attacks” directed at China “by foreign hostile forces and Western media.” Positive feedback from Turkish listeners shows, according to Wang, the benefits of “effective international broadcasting targeted at a specific group.”

The nautical simile was again used to describe CRI’s global outreach by CRI editor Zhang Hui 张晖 in an account of the broadcaster’s multilingual coverage of the 2014 CPPCC-NPC (‘Two Sessions’) meeting delivered at the All-China Journalists Association. Going over the efforts taken by CRI to “broadcast the Two Sessions to the world“, Zhang tells how CRI’s partners overseas produced and relayed content in multiple languages, and even dispatched foreign staff to cover the event live from Beijing. The ‘partners’ to whom this soft-power effort has been partially subcontracted include the ones in Finland and Australia. They share enough traits to be seen as aspects of one consistent initiative.

CRI’s borrowed fleet

The most ambitious of these partners is GB Times (环球时代), a company that maintains a news site and produces radio content from Tampere, Finland. (The name would perhaps have been Global Times had a separate state-media outlet not rushed to take it first.) The project began some seven years ago, with a different name and more of a focus on radio, as a partnership between CRI and a company led by Zhao Yinong 赵亦农, a Chinese entrepreneur settled in Finland. The GB Times news site currently has versions in twelve languages, including English, Russian, French and the major languages of the Nordic and Baltic states. Some of these include substantial original content, while others consist mostly of translations from the English. The company’s relationships with partner radio stations throughout Europe goes from providing content (as in the case of Klasszik Rádió in Hungary or, previously, BFM in France) to owning a controlling stake in the partner station (Radio Globale in Italy). In at least some of the cases where the partner station is an independent entity, GB Times have been known to actually pay to have their content broadcast. A lack of openness about the nature of this relationship led Denmark’s Culture Agency (Kulturstyrelsen) to label the airing of GB Times’ programme “Kina Ekspressen” on two popular Danish stations as ‘illegal sponsoring‘. The show stopped airing soon afterwards. GB Times and Zhao Yinong also cooperate with the UK-based Propeller TV, bought in 2009 by Xiking Group (西京集团), as well as with Hanban in Finland.

In a 2012 interview with CRI, Zhao Yinong referred to how the different ways Chinese and Western media work have made Chinese ventures abroad suffer from media “speculation.” The Zhao-CRI partnership’s goal of “reporting on China’s economic, trade and social development” and disseminating its culture is thus best served by catering to the “thinking, listening and watching habits” of foreign audiences. Consistently with this approach, GB Times cultivates an independent profile. The news site includes no clear statement of the partnership with Chinese state media. A large fraction of its China-related content is not political, the bulk of it authored by non-Chinese staff. Amid a wealth of predictably government-aligned material (official talking points on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea; Xi Jinping’s China Dream, ‘Simple, powerful, popular’; ‘Top legislator pledges better legislation as China deepens reform‘; a video segment on the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, with no mention of the protests), there are surprises. A story on Human Rights Watch’s latest annual report used the wording ‘plight of China’s Uighurs‘, and posted a picture of Cao Shunli 曹顺利, an activist who died in March 2014 after almost six months in detention. Mainstream media in China had largely ignored Cao’s death; a UN statement on the incident was dutifully censored, and the English-language China Daily quoted an official statement denying she had been denied medical attention. The French version of GB Times illustrated a story on 8th century Tibet with a map clearly showing separate Chinese and Tibetan empires, against the current trend to project Chinese claims back to pre-Tang times. Danish media reported hearing a “mention” of the Tiananmen massacre on “Kina Ekspressen”. GB Times Russia recently talked about musicians from “China and Taiwan.” Such slips show that, despite a visibly state-aligned overall editorial policy, oversight in the GB Times newsroom is looser than in the traditional foreign-language state media.

CRI’s global network of ‘borrowed boats’ includes companies in several countries. Each of them has  ‘global’ (环球) in its Chinese name and functions as a partnership, typically not openly stated, between CRI and a local Chinese-owned company. The companies differ in their ‘mainstreamness’: while GB Times targets a general European audience using only Western languages, CAMG (环球凯歌国际传媒集团), the Melbourne employer of ‘Question Sister’ and ‘Foreign Shill’, focuses on Chinese-language radio content. Rádio Íris, a Lisbon FM station, sold a stake to Chinese businessman Zhang Liang 詹亮, owner of Pu hua bao 葡华报, a newspaper targeting the local Chinese community, around the time it began airing Portuguese-language CRI content. The station would eventually become part of Iberia Universal (‘global‘ rather than ‘universal’ in Chinese, 环球伊比利亚传媒集团), a company led by Zhang and also active in Spain. In California, CRI’s outreach drive is embodied in G&E Television (‘G’ is for ‘global‘: 环球东方广播电视有限公司), headed by James Su (苏彦韬), a Shanghai native whose company EDI Media owns Chinese-language radio stations and printed media.

Purveyors of shills to the Party

CRI’s borrow-a-boat strategy doesn’t seem to have had much more success with Western audiences than the traditional, straight-from-the-Party’s-mouth media outlets. To judge by the coverage afforded them by mainstream European media, GB Times’ discreetness about their state affiliation has failed to deliver a convincing image as an independent news source. That image has been better conveyed to the constituency with likely the biggest say over funding for the borrowed boats, namely the state’s media bureaucracy; success-story reports addressed at precisely such an audience at least do suggest so. ‘Safe‘ questions from foreign reporters supplied by CRI’s affiliates have become a staple act at staged press conferences. Some of their views on Chinese affairs have been in turn safely released to domestic audiences.

In the 2009 article quoted above, CRI head Wang Gengnian bragged about how during the previous year the state broadcaster had “received more than 2.7 million letters and emails from listeners in 161 countries and regions.” At least for those countries and regions served through the Finland-based affiliate, that figure might not be entirely reliable: a Danish former employee wrote that, short of the reader reactions CRI demanded to see about their 2008 ‘Two Sessions’ coverage, the outfit’s staff simply penned a few themselves and submitted them to Beijing.

Jichang Lulu is an independent researcher with a focus on China and the Arctic. Image Credit: CC by Philip McMaster/Flickr.