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Thursday, November 11, 2010

A question of influence

As Beijing ramps up attempts to use Chinese-Canadian media to promote its own propaganda, new questions arise about just how free the press really is by Charlie Gillis on Thursday, July 8, 2010 - Maybe Crescent Chau thought the case was a slam dunk. The Montreal newspaperman had sued for defamation two years ago after a rival paper, the Epoch Times, described him in print as an “agent” of the People’s Republic of China. Few libel claims prove worth the time and money they take to get to trial. But Chau, who publishes the Chinese-language weekly La Presse Chinoise, followed this one through to its bitter end. The decision, when it finally landed in April, cannot have pleased him.

Far from admonishing the Epoch Times for its characterization of Chau as a stooge for Beijing, Justice Catherine Mandeville of the Quebec Superior Court all but confirmed the thesis, highlighting Chau’s close ties with Beijing’s propaganda apparatus, along with evidence suggesting his paper had gotten money from the Chinese government.

Chau’s self-stated belief that the overseas Chinese press is duty-bound to “maintain a positive image of the motherland”—part of a impassioned speech he delivered at a state-sponsored media conference in Shanghai—didn’t help. The Epoch Times story, wrote Mandeville, “constitutes an opinion which is drawn from a factual premise.”

The ruling was an unqualified win for the Epoch Times, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement with which the paper is closely allied. But it has also lent weight to fears about Beijing’s growing involvement in Chinese-language media in North America, which seem increasingly willing to wage battles on the mother country’s behalf. The offending story was prompted by a series of four “special sections” Chau had published in early 2002 that parroted the Chinese Communist party’s talking points on Falun Gong, accusing practitioners of bestiality, vampirism and a wide variety of crimes. Over the course of two months, Chau distributed some 100,000 copies of each issue across Canada, while People’s Daily, the official state organ, picked them up to be run in mainland China. All of it raised questions as to who had funded the screeds. Tartly noting that La Presse Chinoise normally circulates 4,000 copies in Montreal only—and that the sections ran without advertising—Justice Mandeville described Chau’s financial backing as “nebulous at best.”

Is Beijing turning the Chinese-Canadian media into a platform for its own demagoguery and propaganda?
The greater surprise would be if it was not. Dissident groups have been warning for years about the Middle Kingdom extending its reach into North America’s Chinese media, noting ownership changes that placed international news organizations in the hands of Communist party members back in China. It’s part of a larger plan to expand influence that CSIS director Richard Fadden referenced last week with his remarks about provincial politicians falling under Beijing’s sway: in addition to buying up media properties, China has been actively cultivating allies in overseas newsrooms, while applying pressure to journalists it deems uncooperative. (Last week, for instance, Beijing successfully lobbied the Prime Minister’s Office to block Ottawa-based reporters with the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty television—both frequent critics of China—from covering President Hu Jintao’s public appearances in the capital.) “It’s pervasive, and it’s something we’re very concerned about,” says Cheuk Kwan, chairman of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, who has extensive contacts in Ontario’s Chinese press.
“When you start interfering with the media in the land of the free, I have a problem with that.”

If the trend took time to register, it might be because much of the overseas Chinese-language media until recently lay at arm’s length from all-controlling Beijing. Up until the late 1990s, Hong Kong-based newspapers like Sing Tao and Ming Pao appeared to be flag-bearers for press liberties that set them apart from their mainland counterparts, as did Taiwan-based Fairchild TV, the pre-eminent Chinese-language broadcaster in many North American cities. But the idea they would continue unchanged was naive, says Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS bureau chief for Asia. Two years after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, he notes, the parent company of Sing Tao came under the control of Charles Ho, a Chinese tobacco magnate and high-ranking member of the Communist party. While the Canadian edition of the paper is half-owned by the Toronto Star (Sing Tao runs translated versions of Star stories), its editorial buck still stops with executives who answer to Ho.

Other media took notice of the enormous financial opportunity in mainland China if they made nice with Beijing’s Department of Propaganda. Knowing the government could block their access to Chinese advertisers, they appear to be practising self-censorship: downplaying or adopting Beijing’s official language on issues such as Tibetan resistance, the Uighur independence movement and the persecution of Falun Gong, says Li Ding, editor-in-chief of Chinascope, a Washington-based organization that monitors Chinese media reports around the globe. They also rely on content provided by state-controlled news services like Xinhua, says Li, where dissenting voices are, at best, limited. “We’re seeing more and more evidence of the mainland’s leverage on these media.”

All this comes as Beijing steps up ground-level efforts to acquire direct influence over media headquartered in countries like Australia, Canada and the United States. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a government body that monitors the national security implications of trade with China, Communist party leaders are arming for what they see as a “global war for public opinion,” in which they need the support of the 40-million strong Chinese diaspora. To get it, says the commission in its 2009 annual report, Beijing is “expanding the creation of facade ‘independent’ new outlets in which the Chinese government or state-owned firms exercise influence behind the scenes.” In some cases, it bankrolls media through advertising and direct payments, the commission says. In others, it dispatches consular officials to provide a helping hand. In 2006, Chen Yonglin, a diplomat who defected from China’s consulate in Sydney, leaked documents outlining a concerted campaign to place whole articles the government wished to see printed in the local press.

Not everybody buys into the sinister interpretation of China’s media experiment. Henry Yu, a professor of Asian-Canadian history at the University of British Columbia, dismisses U.S. warnings as “flouride-in-the-water stuff,” fuelled by deep-seated prejudice. “This idea that Beijing is creating some sort of fifth column of overseas Chinese through the use of the media is idiotic,” he says. “It was idiotic in the McCarthy era and it’s even more idiotic now.” Canadian-based executives at Sing Tao and Ming Pao, meanwhile, have repeatedly denied government influence, or direction from their superiors in Hong Kong to suppress certain stories. “We are impartial,” Sing Tao editor Wilson Chan told a reporter in 2008. “As far as editorial policy is concerned I don’t see much difference between us and our competitors.”

But those working in Canada’s independent Chinese media will tell you the scheme is working—and that they’ve felt the wrath of the “fifth column” Yu says doesn’t exist. Jack Jia, publisher of the Chinese News, a thrice-weekly paper based in Scarborough, Ont., became the target of a coordinated attack in 2006 when he published a series of editorials about the introduction of China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state broadcaster, to the Canadian cable market. The pieces mildly chided a group of Chinese-language media in Canada for lobbying regulators to approve the channels. That was enough to trigger a tsunami of invective against Jia on a popular Chinese website, including threats to ruin his business and, in one case, to castrate him. Flyers calling for an advertising boycott against Jia’s paper began circulating in Toronto’s Chinatown, along with pamphlets urging people to grab copies of it off newsstands and throw them in the trash.

Jia firmly believes operatives at Toronto’s Chinese consulate instigated the campaign—as per Chen Yonglin’s account of Beijing’s strategy. “We have tried to be independent, to take a balanced approach,” he says, “and we have paid a price.” (Calls to press officers at China’s Toronto consulate, as well as to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, went unanswered.) Human-rights activists, meanwhile, say they’re having more and more trouble getting their message across in Canada’s Chinese media. Kwan, the democracy advocate, says editors and reporters routinely advise him to drop words like “massacre” from interviews about the 1989 assault on Tiananmen Square if he wants his quotes to see the light of day. Two years ago, a Toronto Life magazine story detailed how Sing Tao’s translation of a Star article on Olympic torch protests was cut and rewritten with a pro-Beijing slant, inserting the phrase “so-called” in front of “human-rights abuses” and changing “Tibetans” to “Tibetan separatists.”

If there’s a gap in Beijing’s media master plan, it’s the non-Chinese media, where the country takes lumps daily over human-rights abuses, safety hazards in its products and the government’s support of anti-democratic regimes outside its borders. Yet this too will change, predicts the U.S. commission report, as Beijing has earmarked a reported $6.6 billion to foreign-language news coverage, including a 24-hour English-language TV channel based on CNN or Al Jazeera. In 2002, it launched CCTV-9, an English version of its state broadcaster, which is now available throughout North America.

The move, says the commission, is born partly of a genuine belief within the Communist party hierarchy that the Western media consistently provides a distorted view of their country—that the situation calls for some fresh approach to winning hearts and minds. On the last point, at least, they are right: if Beijing is going to change prevailing views of China outside the country’s borders, it’s going to need somebody a whole lot more subtle than Crescent Chau.

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