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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machine has had a busy year. Two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin proclaimed a “boundless” friendship between their countries, according to an opinion piece written by Seth D. Kaplan, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
Since then, Chinese state media have been working overtime to repeat the Kremlin’s lies about the conflict. Less well known – but of particular concern – is the extent to which they have been successful in spreading their disinformation in the US.
Thanks to the CCP’s decade-long efforts, millions of Chinese-speaking Americans rely on Beijing’s megaphones as their primary source of news.
Thus, SinoVision, a Chinese-language television station, and Qiaobao, one of the largest Chinese-language newspapers in the US, are subsidiaries of the Asian Culture and Media Group, an arm of the Chinese government. The staff of both media outlets is trained at China News Service [agenție de presă a statului chinez specializată pe diaspora, a doua că mărime după Xinhua – n.trad.] , from where it is frequently sent to the USA for propaganda purposes. Once there, most of the articles they publish on China, Sino-US relations, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other related topics are taken from state media such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily.
In addition, other media outlets – such as the Sing Tao Newspaper Group and the Duowei news site – are controlled by businessmen with close ties to the CCP and its influence organization, the United Front. The World Journal, once the leading Chinese newspaper in the US, has taken a more pro-Beijing stance under financial incentives and pressures. Cable television, a primary source of information for Chinese-American families, is no more objective, with its market dominated by China Central Television and Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, a pro-Beijing channel.
Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has also had the effect of cementing its control over information. The territory once had a vibrant media landscape with many foreign consumers – particularly Cantonese speakers – but independent voices such as Apple Daily have either been shut down or compromised. Searches took place in newsrooms, and some journalists were arrested or forced to stop practicing.
Deep ties to the CCP cause Chinese-language publications to reiterate the Kremlin’s arguments regarding the war in Ukraine. Qiaobao headlines are often taken verbatim from Xinhua, such as labeling the war as the “Russia-Ukraine situation”. At the beginning of the war the same newspaper trumpeted the false Kremlin theory that the US had funded biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.
No doubt these lies also spread because of WeChat, a China-based social network and messaging service that has 19 million daily users in the US. Its popularity and functionality—users can also make purchases, read news, or make phone calls from it—make it invaluable to the CCP’s efforts to influence American politics. The US Commerce Department cited national security concerns in 2020 when it tried to get the app banned from online software stores in the US, but the move was blocked by a federal judge. The Biden administration later lifted the ban and ordered a security review of the app, but the review appears to be more about protecting the personal data of American users and less about curbing Beijing’s propaganda and censorship.
In Australia, Beijing has restricted users’ access to news stories unfavorable to the CCP — particularly news about Australia’s recent actions to curb Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands.
In Canada, Kenny Chiu, an opponent of Beijing, was targeted by disinformation campaigns on WeChat during his 2021 re-election campaign after he proposed a public registry to monitor foreign influence. Many of the attacks came from HuayiNet, a company with close ties to the Chinese government that provides daily news summaries targeting the Chinese diaspora. In the weeks leading up to the election, among those news stories were articles claiming that Chiu’s proposal would lead to widespread oppression and surveillance of the Chinese community. And in that election in which the national voting trends remained almost unchanged, Chiu lost the re-election, with a difference of more than 15% compared to the previous elections.
Although there are a few publications that remain outside the CCP’s control, such as the Epoch Times, Hope Radio, and New Tang Dynasty TV, their audiences do not even compare to those of larger news sources. Other small, independent publications, such as HongKonger Station, operate with limited resources.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times also have Chinese-language sites, but access to their content is limited and paid for. But the CCP tries to influence them too, albeit indirectly. There have been several cases of Beijing arresting relatives of journalists from publications critical of the CCP.
In this regard, Washington must take steps to ensure that Chinese-speaking Americans have access to a free press during the upcoming general election and beyond. The U.S. government should require entities to disclose their true owners and financial relationships with any organization linked to China or the United Front—and insist that those under CCP influence be either sold or disbanded.
The US should also subsidize independent alternatives and content taken from publications such as Radio Free Asia, China Digital Times and BBC Chinese.
The Department of Homeland Security needs to publicly expose the risks of social networks like WeChat being used to spread malign influence. The Department should propose and then implement legislative measures to compel them to comply with US free speech and privacy standards. And if they won’t comply, the government should ban them from the American market.
Even though the Biden administration has established a set of rules to ensure that information and communication products like WeChat do not pose security risks, it is unclear whether or not an investigation has been launched to evaluate them.
The CCP influences the information consumed by millions of Chinese-speaking Americans. If Beijing’s propaganda campaign continues unabated, all Americans will suffer, writes the Wall Street Journal.