August 7, 2014 12:00 am JST

James To: Beijing muzzling Chinese media abroad

In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government was eager to change its image from one of a brutal dictator to a softer, responsible, international power. China's state-controlled media were told to expand overseas and to set up more foreign partnerships and joint ventures. While their influence in English-language media remains marginal, it's a whole different story when it comes to the Chinese-language press.

     For decades, Beijing has sought to develop links with the Chinese diaspora, an emerging cohort of new Chinese migrant communities and the rapidly increasing number of Chinese students abroad. Its objective is to gain their support for opposing anti-Chinese Communist Party movements, encouraging reunification with Taiwan and stoking nationalist pride.  A core strategy to achieve these goals is influencing Chinese-language media. As independent voices are squeezed out by advertorial papers and subscription-based broadsheets supporting Beijing, the Chinese government is exerting real influence over public discussion around the world.

Fit to print?

This trend is apparent in North America, where according to census statistics, the ethnic Chinese population is estimated to be around 5.3 million. In addition to using state mouthpieces such as the China Daily (U.S. edition launched in 2009) and The Voice of Chinese, Beijing has also successfully targeted established overseas Chinese media companies to carry its messages abroad.

     The largest overseas Chinese newspaper is the World Journal, which claims a total daily circulation of 350,000 in North American cities where large Chinese populations reside. Sing Tao Daily's U.S. and Canadian editions are among 16 overseas editions published by Hong Kong-based Sing Tao News Corporation, and the publication boasts a readership of more than 250,000 on the East Coast of the U.S. alone. Similarly, the North American editions of Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper attract a weekly readership of 227,000. And then there is China Press, established in New York in 1990 and distributed in major U.S. cities. This paper claims a total circulation of 120,000.

     World Journal, which originally had pro-democracy inclinations and was sympathetic to an independent Taiwan, has in recent years taken an anti-independence stance to cater to its many readers who hail from mainland China. As for the other three newspapers, the Jamestown Foundation found that as early as 2001, Beijing was already influencing their editorial content.

     The period since the Tiananmen massacre has coincided with a jump in the number of mainland Chinese immigrants and students living abroad. These groups are less acclimatized to their new homes and tend to be more receptive to nationalist propaganda and ethnic chauvinism than more established Chinese communities. Catering to these immigrants and students are small, pro-Beijing advertorial papers, mostly set up by new arrivals. These free sheets are a major source of news and community information for overseas Chinese communities in large cities.

Getting the message

Beijing has partnered with these papers to disseminate state-approved content abroad and keep them from delivering stories deemed undesirable. Newspaper owners receive incentives from Beijing, such as paid advertising and access to free content. Chinese diplomats also add a personal touch by visiting newsrooms, posing for photographs with editors and praising them for their work.

     To remain economically viable and to gain access to the domestic Chinese market, Chinese-language papers are under pressure to prioritize good relations with Chinese state-controlled companies over editorial quality. That may explain why the overseas editions of Ming Pao, for example, are a lot tamer than their Hong Kong parent, which has a reputation for high-quality commentary and investigative journalism.

     Media companies that publish material Beijing disapproves of become targets for elimination or control; blacklisted publications such as Epoch Times, a newspaper backed by Falun Gong, a religious group that Beijing calls a cult, are shut out from reporting on Chinese diplomatic functions abroad.

     Epoch Times has accused the CCP of ordering thugs to attack their staff and destroy equipment. Chinese diplomats deny using violence and intimidation against the Chinese-language press, but internal memorandums obtained by analysts suggest the use of "intense pressure" is key to stifling media that are unwilling to respond to Beijing's cues.

     The CCP also seeks to control newsgathering by the overseas Chinese press by inviting them to participate in international conferences and subsidized tours that showcase the historical grandeur and economic progress of post-revolutionary "New China."

     Does the lack of alternative, independent sources of Chinese-language information have any effect on readers? After many years of patriotic education at home, reinforced externally by a heavily filtered Chinese-language media overseas, studies have shown that mainland Chinese students returning from abroad are no more critical of their government and its brand of patriotism than those who have never left China.

James To is a lecturer at International Pacific College in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Parts of this commentary have been adapted from the author's latest publication, "Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese" (Brill, 2014).