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November 21st 2017 print

David Archibald

China Ink

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission produces voluminous annual reports, the latest of which turns its attention to Beijing's growing influence in both Australia's ethnic media and the mainstream press. The picture it paints is by no means reassuring

china troopsWhat is good in the United States can be very, very good, and while the quality of public administration took a dive under the Obama administration some institutions weren’t degraded*. One such is the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created through a congressional mandate in 2000 with the responsibility to monitor and investigate national security and trade issues between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. This year’s edition also looks across the Pacific to examine Chinese influence in Australia, of which more below.

The Commission’s 2017 report, all 657 pages of it, was released a couple of days ago. The growing concern about China is reflected in the graphic below, which charts how the size of the volume has grown in step with concerns about Beijing’s policies, actions and ambitions.

china chart

One recommendation in the report:

Congress require the executive branch to develop a whole-of-government strategy for countering Chinese coercion activities in the Indo-Pacific coordinated through the National Security Council that utilizes diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal instruments of national power.

This is what the report had to say on the subject of Chinese coercion in our little bit of the Indo-Pacific (emphasis added):

Newspapers viewed by Chinese officials as “anti-China” have been pressured to drop negative stories “through a combination of direct action, economic pressure to induce self-censorship by international media owners, indirect pressure applied via proxies such as advertisers, and cyber attacks and physical assaults.

Australia has been a major target of these operations. John Garnaut, a former adviser to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, wrote in August 2017 that the All-China Journalists Association—which he said is “directly subordinate to [the] United Front Work Department1 with intimate ties to the [CCP] Propaganda [Department]”—had become the “key gateway to China for Australian journalists.”

Ms. Kalathil testified to the Commission that local analysts in Australia have reported that “the formerly lively, independent Chinese language media space [in Australia] now hews largely to the pro-China line, in part because pro-China media groups now control much of the Chinese language media sector.”2

For example, Yan Xia, editor-in-chief of the independent Chinese-language Australian newspaper Vision China Times, wrote in September 2016 that a Beijing-based immigration agency felt compelled to stop placing ads in Mr. Yan’s paper as a result of harassment from Chinese immigration officials.

Mr. Yan wrote that Chinese-language media in Australia are “under pressure to support President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s foreign policy,” and he fears this influence will be more easily wielded in the future as “increasing numbers of Australian politicians, Chinese community groups, and Chinese media companies are becoming more reliant on commercial and political ties with China.” In addition to exerting pressure through and on members of the Chinese community in Australia, the Chinese government has pursued more traditional forms of cooperation with Australian media.

In May 2016, six major agreements were signed between Chinese and Australian media organizations, which were “a victory for Chinese propaganda” according to John Fitzgerald, director of the Center for Social Impact Swinburne’s Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne University, and Wanning Sun, professor of media and communication studies at the University of Technology Sydney.

Radio National, part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said the agreement meant “China’s colossal [public relations] machine [would] have a say in what news [Australians] get from China.” Liu Qibao, head of the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP, personally attended the signing of the agreements, suggesting the significance of the deal for the Chinese government. Under the arrangement, the Australian company Fairfax Media will distribute the monthly China Daily supplement China Watch in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and the Australian Financial Review, and Fairfax will have no editorial control over the content. China Watch has also been distributed by newspapers in the United States.

  1. In addition to having broad responsibility for domestic Chinese policies, the United Front Work Department under the CCP Central Committee is responsible for building and managing relationships with actors overseas to expand China’s soft power and further the CCP’s political agenda. United Front Work Department personnel are often “dual-hatted” officials working in more than one role…
  1. According to an editor at a pro-Beijing publication in Australia cited by the Sydney Morning Herald, “Nearly 95 percent of the Australian Chinese newspapers have been brought in by the Chinese government to some degree.” Australian National University professor Bates Gill and independent researcher Linda Jakobson cited the Australian New Express Daily—which is owned by Chau Chak Wing, a Chinese real estate tycoon and member of a CCP advisory body in Guangdong Province who praised the paper for “never hav[ing] any negative reporting [about China]”—as a particularly striking example. For a list of the major Chinese-language print publications in Australia, including their circulation numbers, see Wanning Sun, “Chinese-Language Media in Australia: Development, Challenges and Opportunities,” Australia-China Relations Institute, 2016, 67–69.
  1. The agreements were between Xinhua, China Daily, China Radio International, People’s Daily, and Qingdao Publishing Group (all of which are state-run) on the Chinese side and Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia, the Global China-Australia Media Group, Weldon International, and the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology, Sydney, on the Australian side. John Fitzgerald and Wanning Sun, “Australian Media Deals Are a Victory for Chinese Propaganda,” Lowy Institute, May 31, 2016.

Sooner or later, conflict with China is inevitable. When tensions rise it will be well to remember the influence Beijing has brought to bear and the propaganda outlets it has fostered and influenced.

* NOTE: Nevertheless the Commission does make mistakes. A small one is on page 207 where the new seaplane China has developed, the AG-600, is said to boast a maximum payload of 60 tonnes. In fact the plane has a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tonnes with a maximum payload of perhaps 12 tonnes.

David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare