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Chinese whispers: How China is using the media as a form of soft power in Australia

After a year dominated by controversy over China’s soft power forays into Australian politics, experts are warning the emerging superpower is using Australian media to exert political influence with implications for press freedom.

A recent report commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, argues this “major blind spot in Australia’s… understanding of Chinese-language media” could become “a trigger for social disharmony”.”

An Amnesty International member covers her mouth during an event in Sydney on July 30, 2008 as part of a campaign to end internet censorship in China. Photo: AFP/Greg Wood.

An Amnesty International member covers her mouth during an event in Sydney on July 30, 2008 as part of a campaign to end internet censorship in China. Photo: AFP/Greg Wood.

The report (PDF) by Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Communication Studies, says there “has been a discernible shift from a mostly critical coverage of China to a mostly supportive stance.”

She says the ‘going global’ initiative of the Chinese state media has become integrated with Chinese media in Australia.

“But they have also fanned Chinese nationalist sentiments, mostly siding with China if there is a potential clash between the two nations on matters of national pride, sovereignty and territoriality,” she says in the report.

Cash for comment

The report comes after a tumultuous year for Chinese soft power in Australia – which triggered a national conversation about China’s soft power push into politics and the media.

xi turnbull

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping (R) before the G20 leaders’ family photo in Hangzhou on September 4, 2016. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker.

The most high profile of these cases involved Senator Sam Dastyari, once seen as a rising star in the Australian Labor Party, who was unceremoniously forced to resign after a serious of controversies that all had a common denominator: links to Beijing.

One such case involved a $5,000 (HK$27,822) payment from China-based Yuhu Group, which has lobbied against the recognition of Taiwan, to settle a legal dispute. To make matters worse, the group’s chairman Huang Xiangmo had recently written in a Chinese newspaper that donors needed to learn how to have, “a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations”.

“The Australian Chinese community is inexperienced in using political donations to satisfy political requests,” Huang wrote in the Global Times.

But this wasn’t his only connection to Beijing. Senator Dastyari was also caught pledging to respect China’s position on the South China Sea, putting him at odds with official Labor policy on China and the South China Sea.

sam dastyari

Australian Labor Party’s Senator Sam Dastyari fronts the media in Sydney on September 6, 2016, to make a public apology after asking a company with links to the Chinese Government to pay a 1,273 USD bill incurred by his office. Photo: AFP/William West.

This led many to question what China might be expecting in return.

Growing influence

Published in Sydney Today (今日悉尼), a growing online Chinese-language news outlet, Senator Dastyari’s controversial comments highlight the growing influence of the vibrant Australian-Chinese media landscape that has emerged.

The site, which reportedly enjoys five million page views a month on its website and another three million via its WeChat account, is a prime example of why both major parties are keen to court Chinese-language media in their search for votes.

Yet Dr Sun’s report notes “there is little clear evidence that such ‘localised’ propaganda has a direct impact on Chinese-speaking audiences”.

But others aren’t so sure. Peter Cai, a research fellow at international policy think-tank the Lowy Institute, said such influence is “a hidden disease, largely invisible to the Australian public and English-speaking population”.

 Sydney Today

Sydney Today.

“It does have impact on a sizeable and growing Chinese-Australian community and especially new migrants and students from mainland China,” he recently wrote.

Despite this influence into Chinese-Australian media, Mr Cai said the most pressing issue is Beijing’s ability to control popular social media platforms like WeChat.

“Like people everywhere, China’s population has increasingly turned to social media platforms as a preferred source of reading about news and commentary on current affairs,” he said. “This means the ruling Communist party can extend its censorship tentacles into Australia without the need to own any publications.”

None of this should come as a surprise. It was China’s president Xi Jinping who said in 2014 China “should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world”.

CCTV headquarters (left) and Beijing World Trade Center (right)

CCTV headquarters (left). Photo: Wikicommons.

And those behind this “good Chinese narrative” have the cash to splash. The Chinese government is reportedly spending US$10 billion each year to fund state-owned media outlets like CCTV and China Radio International as it seeks to wins hearts and minds across the globe.

(In)dependent media

Speaking at a conference held last month by the Australian-China Relations Institute entitled “Chinese media in Australia”, Professor John Fitzgerald, Director of the CSI Swinburne Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy, said he was most concerned about the lack of political reporting in Chinese-Australian media.

“The whole point is to exclude politics,” he said,  “and that’s just as alarming…  The [Chinese] Government doesn’t need to directly dictate what to cover. They have set the lines around permissible conduct, limiting what can be said.”

The effect of this is that politically sensitive or critical coverage of China has largely disappeared from Chinese-Australian media.

But it isn’t only Chinese-language media that is coming under Beijing’s sphere influence.

china watch

Fairfax, one of Australia’s largest media companies, came under fire this year from critics when it started publishing paid lift-outs spreading pro-Beijing’s views.

The ‘China Daily’ inserts, or advertorials, follow similar agreements with the Washington Post and the UK’s Daily Telegraph.

In Australia, the inaugural issue in July included plenty of flattering coverage of China, including an article that said “China will not sit by idly” in the South China Sea dispute.

Professor Fitzgerald said that taken together these deals suggest a landmark victory for the Chinese Communist Party.

“China’s media experts have done their homework on the Australian media and found opportunities to exploit the financial vulnerability of the mainstream private media market,” he wrote this year.

“Under the new agreements, many ‘myths will be dispelled,’ possibly including myths of the independence and integrity of Australia’s mainstream news media.”

wechat

Wechat. File photo: AFP/Peter Parks.

Mr Cai said the bigger risk to press freedom comes from Beijing’s control over key information portals used by Australia’s mainland Chinese migrant community like WeChat.

“Imagine for a second, that Beijing can exercise complete editorial control over channels like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and consider what kind of damage that control can do to press freedom,” he said.

Follow Andrew Barclay on Twitter @andrewreporting.

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Chinese whispers: How China is using the media as a form of soft power in Australia