Tuesday, February 7, 2017

China's propaganda arms push soft power in Australian media deals


China's propaganda arms push soft power in Australian media deals

President Xi Jinping's February 

tour of the headquarters of the three main state-run

news organisations was unusual.


The highly stage-managed visits hammered home Mr Xi's demands. The media must pledge fealty to the Communist Party, and it exists, first and foremost, as a propaganda tool for the state. So too, must Chinese media find ways to more effectively to broadcast the party's voice to the world, or in his words: "properly tell the China story".
"[We] must strengthen the building of our international communication capacity, increasing our international discourse power and focussing the proper telling of China's story … working to build flagship external propaganda media that have rather strong reputations internationally," he said.
In Australia, China's propaganda machine may have identified a beachhead in its pursuit to alter global - and especially Western - perceptions.


Timed for the official visit of Liu Qibao, the head of the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department, a string of 'cooperation agreements' and memorandums of understanding were signed between Australian and Chinese media outlets in Sydney on Friday, with senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials in attendance.
Fairfax Media, the publisher of this website, will run China Watch, an eight-page lift-out prepared by the Communist Party's official English-language China Daily, monthly in The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age and Australian Financial Review.The first instalment was inserted into Friday's newspapers, marked with the disclaimer that the supplement "did not involve the news or editorial departments" of the respective Australian newspapers.
Among the stories in Friday's China Watch were full-page articles outlining how "benefits are already flowing" from the China-Australia free trade agreement, and how "Manila has no leg to stand on" in its attempt to seek international court arbitration of its South China Sea territorial disputes with Beijing.


China Daily's deputy editor-in-chief Kang Bing said Fairfax Media's presence in both Australia and New Zealand "means the influence of China Daily will be spread to cover the two most important countries in Oceania", adding that China's "soft power could drive the wheel of its friendship with Australia and New Zealand", according to quotes carried by the Chinese newspaper.
Sky News signed a memorandum of understanding with the online arm of the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, with a view to sharing video and online news content, mostly around business and economy stories.


The official Xinhua news agency also sealed an agreement enabling "greater information exchange" with the University of Technology Sydney's Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), helmed by former foreign minister Bob Carr.
An ACRI spokesperson said the immediate areas of cooperation would involve expanding journalists' tours of China and securing more "specialist visitors" from China for the institute's events.


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 – the potential pitfalls of which were highlighted when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was caught self-censoring news reports on its Australia Plus website.
John Fitzgerald, a leading China expert at Swinburne University, questioned DFAT's role in inviting and hosting China's chief propagandist and "all the Communist Party and [DFAT] palaver" surrounding the announcements.


It was "frankly alarming", he said, if it amounted to an endorsement which "officially welcomed foreign political party propaganda placements in Australian media".  
"High-level bilateral visits are a key avenue for promoting understanding and cooperation between Australia and China," a DFAT spokesperson said. "Australia is an open society with a free press and media organisations make their own decisions, and their readers exercise their judgement about material that is published."
Beijing's push for increasing soft power is particularly pronounced in Africa, Latin America and parts of the Asia Pacific region where countries are increasingly reliant on Chinese trade and investment. And Beijing - long frustrated by the dominance of American and Western media - is making up for lost time in trying to achieve a level of global soft power and influence commensurate with its economic and political heft.
Wanning Sun, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney who tracks Chinese and diaspora media, says Beijing has become increasingly flexible and adept at finding ways to push its content in different countries, "whether it's a liberal democratic country or a former communist bloc [one]".
"The Chinese propaganda [push] has been quite aggressive and quite concerted and they have a lot of money to spend," she said. "They're not worried about budgets and they're leaving no stones unturned."
Professor Sun said China was mainly motivated by a "strong sense of injustice, because they have felt for decades the West has represented China in a very unfair and biased kind of way".
"They are actually motivated by a historical memory of being invaded by the Western imperialists and they see this current situation as a continuation of the Western imperialistic discourse over China."
Media freedoms in mainland China have long been among the worst in the world – the country is ranked 176th out of 180 countries surveyed by the Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, but have tightened further since Xi Jinping's February edict.
"Naturally we are very attuned to any issues that may well be perceived or real and … editorial integrity, that's the key for us," said Angelos Frangopoulos, chief executive of Australian News Channel, parent company of Sky News Australia.
Mr Frangopoulos said Sky already had existing understandings with state broadcaster CCTV and Shanghai Media Group.
"We see it more quite frankly as a relationship-building thing," he told Fairfax Media. "We like to get to the point where we can do exchanges and so on with journalists as well, so that they have an understanding as to how we work with journos and how our newsrooms operate."
Allen Williams, the managing director of Australian Publishing Media at Fairfax Media, said the China Daily deal was a commercial printing arrangement and noted that China Watch was printed in newspapers overseas, including in the US and Europe.
Asked if the same decision to run the supplement would have been made, say, a decade ago, when print advertising revenues were considerably stronger, he said: "Look, the reality today is that it's not being driven by our financial position, this is an opportunity that has come along where we're getting revenue from a printing job, and the margins in it are like any normal printing job we would do."
Laurie Pearcey, the executive director of the University of New South Wales' international arm who also heads up the university's Confucius Institute, was one of 10 representatives from Australian academia invited by the Chinese embassy in Canberra to participate in a roundtable discussion with Mr Liu.
"That it wants people to develop a far more sophisticated understanding of how China works, of course a lot of that is driven by the state and actors that are related directly or indirectly to the state – that's just part and parcel of working with China," Mr Pearcey said.