Chapter 03

Covid cover: National security and news media in China

Dr Louisa Lim, Julia Bergin and Kate Wong
September 2021

As Beijing tightens its grip on media narratives about the pandemic and Hong Kong, there is growing awareness of the challenge this poses to audiences internationally.

Cover Image
Markus Winkler
Covid cover: National security and news media in China

Key Insights

  1. Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan and unrest in Hong Kong, Beijing has sought to silence and reverse unfavourable narratives regarding China using disinformation and misinformation campaigns internationally.

  2. Domestically, the government has used – and in Hong Kong crafted – national security legislation to control local coverage; internationally, Beijing has replaced foreign correspondents with sophisticated social media strategies that speak directly to foreign audiences.

  3. International pushback against Beijing’s initiatives has grown but is most evident in societies with robust information infrastructures; countries with fewer democratic safeguards are more vulnerable to China’s efforts.

In the name of national security

Stake out the location, be as unobtrusive as possible, know how you will get in and how you will make it out safely. In the words of New York Times China correspondent Chris Buckley, ‘Reporting in China today can feel like planning a bank robbery.’ His metaphor aptly reflects a year in which China’s Communist Party used national security as a pretext for an offensive on the Fourth Estate, attacking journalists – and the type of watchdog journalism at the heart of the Fourth Estate – and launching what is arguably its first truly global propaganda campaign.

2020 was the most dismal year for press freedom in China in decades. Beijing jailed 47 journalists – more than any other country 1 – and effectively expelled at least 18 foreign journalists, 2 the most since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square killings three decades ago. But the abiding image of the year was the appearance in court on national security charges of a handcuffed and chained Jimmy Lai, the 73-year-old Hong Kong publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. That moment encapsulated the plight of Hong Kong’s once relatively free press and the state of journalism in China, now muzzled in the name of national security.

TimelineJournalist expulsions from China

2019202020216 October 2018

Financial Times Asia news editor and then vice-president of Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club Victor Mallet denied work visa, after FCC held an event with HK independence activist Andy Chan.

30 August 2019

China rejected renewal of credentials for Wall Street Journal journalist Chun Han Wong (Singaporean national).

19 February 2020

China revoked the press credentials of Wall Street Journal journalists Josh Chin (US national), Chao Deng (US national) and Philip Wen (Australian national).

17 March 2020

China announced it would expel American journalists from New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, affecting a dozen journalists.

May 2020

China refused to renew press credentials for New York Times’ Chris Buckley (Australian national)

15 July 2020

Hong Kong denied work permit to Chris Buckley.

15 August 2020

Hong Kong denied work visa for Hong Kong Free Press’ incoming editor Aaron Mc Nicholas.

Late August

CGTN’s Australian anchor Cheng Lei detained.

7 September 2020

China refused to renew expiring journalist credentials for reporters at US outlets including Bloomberg, CNN, Wall Street Journal and Getty Images. At least five journalists were affected, including Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page (British national), CNN’s David Culver (US national) and two non-American journalists at Bloomberg.

8 September 2020

Two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review, were forced to leave China.

October 2020

China imposed limits on another six US news organisation, including American Broadcasting Corporation, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Minnesota Public Radio, the Bureau of National Affairs and Feature Story News. The outlets were asked to submit details on their staffing, finances and China-based real estate.

7 December 2020

Bloomberg business journalist Haze Han (Chinese national) detained.

16 December 2020

Independent reporter and former New York Times photographer Du Bin (Chinese national) detained.

The foregrounding of national security in Chinese journalism was made clear by recent revisions to the professional code of ethics for Chinese journalists, who since 2013 have been required to pass an exam on Marxist journalism. The new code, introduced in December 2019, requires journalists to safeguard the country’s political and cultural security, as well as its social stability, in their reporting. 3 In December 2020, when the state-run broadcaster launched its graduate recruitment program, its main prerequisites were that candidates believe in Xi Jinping Thought, possess good morals, and have a university degree. 4 The key qualification has become ideological rectitude; journalism experience did not even garner a mention in the job description.

‘Xi Jinping’s control over information today is much stronger than we’ve seen at perhaps any point in the reform era,’ David Bandurski, co-editor of China Media Project, told the authors of this chapter. ‘But that does not mean absolute control. The information environment is more unpredictable than that.’

Reshaping the Covid-19 narrative

The challenges posed by the Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan drove the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for whom national security is synonymous with regime stability, to assert new levels of control over the information landscape both domestically and internationally. Beijing has used various tools to try to reshape the narrative of its handling of the virus from a tale of delay, obfuscation and cover-up to one of sacrifice and triumph. Its strategy — combining punitive measures, paid trolls and disinformation propagated by high-level government spokespeople — illustrates just how effectively Beijing has updated and expanded its information control toolkit for the social media era.

CGTN / YouTube
CGTN reports that China warned the world about COVID‑19.

When the novel coronavirus initially broke out in Wuhan, Beijing’s instinctive response was to attempt to shut down information leaks by detaining citizen journalists and doctors who shared news of the rapid spread of the new virus, and thus exposed the official cover-up. The Chinese authorities used Covid-19 as a pretext to further restrict journalism, harnessing new surveillance systems and controls on movement to limit foreign journalists. 5 But these moves unleashed a groundswell of domestic anger, which took the form of emojis, barcodes, Morse code and even Klingon on Chinese social media as internet users found creative ways of bypassing state censorship. 6

Timing was also key. The uptick in cases in late January allowed bolder domestic news outlets the wiggle room to write reports criticising the government’s handling of the public health crisis. ‘The outbreak coincided with the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year vacation,’ said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and formerly an influential investigative journalist at the outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper, in an interview for this chapter. ‘I have journalist friends who told me that the censorship orders dramatically increased after the Chinese New Year vacation after all those propaganda officials went back to work.’

Even then propaganda officials struggled to gain control over the information environment. A key moment was the February 2020 death from the coronavirus of Dr Li Wenliang, one of eight medical workers arrested for spreading rumours after he warned other medical staff about the dangers of this new virus in social media posts. The national outpouring of grief and anger after his death ultimately shaped Beijing’s hardline response in the months to come.

At the start of February, President Xi Jinping gave three-stage instructions for public opinion guidance in a speech to the CCP Politburo. 7 The aim was to ensure social stability. The first stage demanded that reporting be refocused on the steps taken by the government to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, using positive propaganda to ‘incorporate more warm colour to current public opinion’. The second stage called for the monitoring of online discourse to be strengthened so that ‘positive energy fills cyberspace’. The final stage required proactive steps to influence international public opinion by spreading positive stories about China’s fight against the virus. These moves followed a decade in which Beijing has methodically built its ‘discourse power’ around the world through the international expansion of its state-run news outlets, global media acquisitions, content-sharing agreements and educational schemes for journalists. 8 Now all these levers could be activated in the interests of rewriting the history of the present.

Sophisticated disinformation campaigns

Secret directives obtained by ProPublica and The New York Times showed that trolls were employed to implement the second stage of the government strategy by posting thousands of comments boasting of the government’s efficient response, both to prevent grassroots panic and to downplay the severity of the virus. 9

The contours of the third stage of the strategy emerged in March, when foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted a conspiracy theory suggesting that the coronavirus had not emerged in Wuhan but had been imported to China by United States Army personnel. Zhao’s tweets were amplified by numerous Chinese ambassadors and foreign ministry spokespeople on Twitter, a platform that is, ironically, still banned in China.

Global TimesXinhua / YouTube
Global Times’ investigation into the origin of Covid-19, with findings that the virus came from other countries. (Dec 7, 2020, online report came out Dec 6, 2020)

This assertive and proactive approach, nicknamed ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, signals a shift in China’s external propaganda strategy, according to CUHK’s Fang Kecheng. ‘Previously, China’s so-called external propaganda focused on telling what is good about China. But apparently, this year, we see a lot of attacks on Western countries. So it’s not only about what’s good about China, but also about what’s bad about the [United States].’ Though the campaign played out on global platforms, these nationalistic messages were aimed ultimately at a domestic audience, serving as the equivalent of social media–era loyalty oaths to the central leadership in Beijing.

Hu Xijin tweet comparing Chinese police officer with George Floyd
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted a video of CDC director Dr Robert Redfield being questioned on early cases of Covid-19 in the US. He cited it as evidence that coronavirus was imported to China by US Army personnel. Original tweet

Another prominent example was a video shared by two foreign ministry spokespeople that purportedly showed Italians on their balconies chanting ‘Thank you, China!’ to applaud its medical aid as the Chinese anthem rung out over Italian streets. 10 The video was doctored, overlaying a fake soundtrack with footage of Italians clapping their own medical workers.

Xinhua / YouTube
Doctored footage of Italians chanting ‘Thank you, China!’ and singing the Chinese national anthem. Broadcast by New China TV (operated by Xinhua).

Despite its conspicuous inauthenticity, it continued to be circulated on social media by prominent Chinese figures and was even broadcast on China’s overseas broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN). 11 This incident set a pattern whereby ‘wolf warriors’ seed conspiracy theories on social media, where they are shared by prominent figures, Chinese state media 12 and fake Twitter accounts. 13

To information warfare experts, Beijing’s moves outplay even those used by Moscow. ‘All the China pieces are much more complicated, multidimensional and coordinated than Russia,’ said Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore when interviewed by the authors. To Raska, 2020 marked a shift in China’s information and political influence strategies, which were channelled toward rewriting the history of Covid-19 using a combination of conspiracies and misinformation. ‘China is prioritising everybody and everything. It is targeting politicians, journalists, business leaders, going through multiple channels in different ways all at the same time. China has a much larger toolkit but is more selective in which narratives it wants to change.’

The ultimate aim is political: to increase Beijing’s influence on the regional and global stage. As the coronavirus spread, China’s propaganda machine swung into motion showcasing its actions to bring the Wuhan outbreak under control and its donations of N95 masks, respirators and vaccines to developing and developed countries alike. The overall narrative emphasised China’s sacrifices in imposing hard lockdowns to contain the outbreak, with the aim of portraying Beijing as a responsible stakeholder who bought time for the world with its tackling of the virus. 14 Faced with international accusations that Beijing delayed its actions while covering up the outbreak, thus allowing the coronavirus to spread internationally, Chinese diplomats simply denied the allegations. 15

CGTN / YouTube
CGTN’s timeline on how Xi Jinping led the global battle against Covid-19. (June 10, 2020)

This strategy appears to be paying off, particularly in developing countries that have been targeted by Beijing. In one study by the Institute for European Affairs, as many as 40% of Serbian citizens believe the country’s largest donor of coronavirus aid is China, while 17% believe it is the European Union. 16 In reality, more than 75% of Serbia’s coronavirus assistance comes from the European Union.

Beijing’s careful amplification of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s desperate appeals for Chinese help has reaped propaganda dividends, as has China’s high-profile dispatch of medical experts and test kits. 17 A video of President Vučić kissing the Chinese national flag while welcoming a team of Chinese health workers to Belgrade received more than 600 million views and 117,000 comments on Weibo. 18 In the centre of Belgrade, a billboard of Chinese President Xi Jinping was even erected bearing the words ‘Thank you brother Xi.’ 19 Back in China, Chinese internet users discussing the bilateral friendship kept the news current, heightening the impression of Beijing’s generosity to its Balkan ally. 20

All the while, Chinese state-run media has continued to actively propagate disinformation, such as stories suggesting that Covid-19 came through frozen food products exported from countries including Australia, Chile and Germany. In an interview with Sarah Cook from Freedom House, Cook explained videos sharing such disinformation were sometimes made in local languages such as Italian, Thai or Serbian, suggesting the extent to which Beijing has targeted particular media markets, even relatively minor ones.

Cutting out the foreign press middle man

Such campaigns spoke directly to foreign audiences, cutting out any China-literate journalists who might have added their skeptical expertise to any reporting. China’s cost-benefit analysis regarding the utility of the foreign media appeared to be tilting: instead of working to co-opt resident foreign correspondents, Beijing used intimidation and expulsions to silence their reporting.

‘It appears China is investing more in online campaigns than communicating via a foreign press,’ said Chris Buckley in an interview for this chapter. Buckley was one of at least 18 journalists, mainly working for US publications, forced to leave China after their visas were not renewed. The impact of those expulsions has been wide-ranging, contributing to the loss of expertise in the China press corps and to a reduction in reporting from within China since Beijing has effectively frozen numbers by refusing to issue new journalist visas. 21 However, the relocation of many Mandarin-speaking, China-literate correspondents outside China’s borders has led to more scrutiny of Beijing’s actions overseas.

Those expulsions were a retaliatory move after a number of Chinese journalists were forced to leave the United States, but they also represented the climax of a process of weaponising journalist visas. Initially Beijing issued resident correspondents one-year visas. But in 2020, one in six foreign journalists in China reported being issued visas of between one and three months. 22 This limited their reporting capacity by requiring them to stay in the Chinese capital to regularly renew their credentials, reducing their opportunities to investigate sensitive stories such as Covid-19 or the ongoing internment of at least 1 million members of the ethnic Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

In September 2020, Australia’s accredited media presence in China came to an end as the two remaining China correspondents, Bill Birtles from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review, became diplomatic pawns amid worsening bilateral ties. The pair left hastily after receiving midnight visits from security officers, which left them fearing for their own safety after the detention on national security charges of another Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, who had been working for CGTN. Another journalist, Bloomberg’s Haze Fan, was detained in December 2020 on suspicion of committing national security offences. 23 The message was very clear: working for a foreign media organisation no longer offered any degree of protection.

By the time I left, it was very rare to get a Chinese professor or expert willing to talk to you on the record, even when that person could basically be reading a Xinhua story to you.

Anna Fifield

For resident correspondents in China, working conditions have deteriorated markedly. A March 2020 report by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that 82% of respondents had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting. 24 More than half of the respondents had been obstructed at least once by police or other officials. Political sensitivities were so heightened that stories once considered benign or even positive, such as the coverage of new year celebrations, were suddenly off limits. The red lines were proliferating and correspondents suddenly found that almost no topic could be considered safe.

‘By the time I left, it was very rare to get a Chinese professor or expert willing to talk to you on the record, even when that person could basically be reading a Xinhua story to you,’ said Anna Fifield, the former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, who left in September 2020. ‘It’s very dangerous for them to be associated with foreign media, and especially American media in any way, so people are just declining.’

In an interview for this chapter, Fifield recalled one incident when she was chased in Beijing’s narrow alleyways in early 2020 while covering a story regarding childhood education. ‘It was a very innocuous story about how Chinese kids were the first in the world to go to online learning,’ she remembered. ‘And these goons called the police on me. They obstructed me and physically held me so I couldn’t get on the subway and get away from them.’

To Fifield, whose previous posting required repeated trips to North Korea, the intensifying levels of surveillance recalled her treatment in Pyongyang. Speaking just after her departure from China, she said, ‘I just got back from a trip to Xinjiang, and it increasingly made me feel like I was back in North Korea again. I went on a reporting trip and I did not interview a single person. I almost actively tried not to talk to people because I knew that I was just going to put them in danger if they were seen to be talking to me. And we were tailed and watched at all times, so there was no chance to have a private conversation.’

Lukas Bergstrom
Many of the visiting journalists subsequently wrote stories in their own media reciting Beijing’s talking points and rebutting international accusations of involuntary detention, forced labour and the destruction of mosques.

State-sponsored press junkets

In 2020, Covid-era travel restrictions put an end to Beijing’s tested strategy of gaining positive coverage by taking foreign journalists on organised tours. The scope of such junkets is only just becoming clear: a 2020 report for the International Federation of Journalists found that journalists from half of the 58 countries surveyed had participated in such exchanges or training schemes, while one-third of the unions surveyed had been approached by Chinese entities seeking memoranda of understanding. 25

One example was a series of ‘Silk Road Celebrity China Tours’ organised by the state-run China Media Group, which has hosted 80 journalists from countries including Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan along the Silk Road since 2016. In recent years, these tours have specifically brought groups of Muslim journalists to Xinjiang, even visiting the political education camps for members of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. 26 Journalists on these tours were told they were visiting vocational training centres. They watched classes where detainees were taught how to use sewing machines and they were entertained with cultural performances.

An Egyptian photojournalist who went on one such tour, Sheriff Sonbol, told The Guardian the tour had persuaded him of the efficacy of China’s tactics in dealing with Islamic extremism. ‘I keep hearing people saying the education centres were where they torture people,’ he said, explaining that the group dances at the centres had convinced him otherwise. ‘Look at their faces! You know these are very happy people.’ 27

Many of the visiting journalists subsequently wrote stories in their own media reciting Beijing’s talking points and rebutting international accusations of involuntary detention, forced labour and the destruction of mosques. Crucially, the reporters themselves also featured in news reports on Chinese outlets, praising Beijing’s handling of Islamic extremism. These reports ran on domestic state-run media and on CGTN, turning the journalists into tools of Chinese propaganda whose support legitimised Beijing’s policies and countered international allegations of human rights abuses.

‘It’s far more extensive than we probably ever imagined,’ said James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at LaTrobe University in Australia interviewed for this chapter. Leibold that the strategic intent of such tours was to influence public opinion in those countries in order to win support for China – and to dodge opprobrium – at international bodies like the United Nations. ‘Certainly if you look at the elite level, the leaders of those countries have made statements supportive of China’s policies. So at the elite level, I’m convinced that they’re succeeding.’ One measure of Beijing’s success occurred at the 2020 United Nations General Assembly when 45 countries lined up to support China’s handling of Xinjiang. 28 Not a single Muslim-majority country was among the 39 countries calling on China to respect human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.

After the national security legislation, the operation of the free press is not just difficult but dangerous, but we have no choice but to fight on. We just have to carry on what we are doing.

Jimmy Lai

Case study: A new reality in Hong Kong

Nowhere have China’s tightening controls over the media been more obvious than in Hong Kong, whose once relatively free press has been muzzled by the national security legislation that was imposed in June 2020. 29 This law criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. However, its vagueness and wide application have had a chilling effect, both in Hong Kong and far beyond its borders.

Even before the law was passed, the publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai, predicted it would be used to limit Hong Kong’s media, which still enjoyed certain freedoms not available to mainland China press outlets. He told the Little Red Podcast, ‘After the national security legislation, the operation of the free press is not just difficult but dangerous, but we have no choice but to fight on. We just have to carry on what we are doing. If we let the fear frighten us, we won’t be able to do anything.’ 30 Just one month later, he was detained while more than 200 policemen raided the Apple Daily headquarters. He was charged under the security law, with his tweets and editorials cited as evidence of foreign collusion. In June 2021, the twenty-six-year-old newspaper was forced to shut down after the authorities froze its accounts. At least eight senior staff members, including an editorial writer, have been arrested. The newspaper subsequently removed its entire archive from the internet.

cattan2011
Beijing is asserting its control over the once-freewheeling Hong Kong media while making clear that investigative journalism, political reporting and commentary all carry a degree of risk.

Hong Kong police also arrested Bao Choy, an award-winning journalist who produced a television documentary investigating the police’s excessive use of force and their possible collusion with local gangs during the 2019 protests. The reason given for her arrest was using a motorcycle license database for dishonest purposes, even though the database was publicly accessible at the time. In another sign of the deteriorating press environment, at the end of 2020, 40 staff of i-Cable TV quit in protest over the firing of 40 people, including the entire award-winning investigative team. 31 At the official broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the leadership was changed, with the new boss vowing a more interventionist approach even as he pulled programs containing content criticising the government and sacked certain outspoken staff members. 32

The national security law has even been used to outlaw some of the most popular protest slogans, such as ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’. Certain words and phrases have effectively been criminalised, driving up the cost of dissent. Even actions once considered unremarkable, such as lobbying Western countries for action on Hong Kong, can fall within the remit of the national security legislation.

‘This kind of law, which is very vague and broad, can create a chilling effect for journalists, because no one knows where the red line is, so there’s a possibility of self-censorship in newsrooms,’ said CUHK’s Fang. ‘That’s a major impact. It will be a very bad thing, because it will be more difficult for those sensitive stories to be heard by people all around the world.’ In the immediate aftermath, RTHK’s popular satirical show ‘Headliner’ was cancelled, while a number of well-known journalists and cartoonists stopped publishing due to fears their work could contravene the laws. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing newspapers have reinforced the law’s implementation, in one case accusing the renowned sociologist Ching-Kwan Lee of violating the national security legislation by stating, ‘Hong Kong belongs to the world.’

Another move to bring the Hong Kong press under control was the decision to allow the police to define who qualifies as a ‘media representative’, limiting it to government-registered journalists working for well-known international outlets. This move brings the media under the ambit of public security agencies, while disenfranchising bloggers, livestreamers and online news outlets that can no longer attend government events.

With these moves, Beijing is asserting its control over the once-freewheeling Hong Kong media while making clear that investigative journalism, political reporting and commentary all carry a degree of risk. The safest course of action is silence. Library books have been pulled from the shelves. For Hong Kong author Kent Ewing, the advent of the security law meant that his publisher could not find a designer willing to design his book about Hong Kong’s political transition, a printer willing to print it or a bookshop to stock it. ‘My book was dead on arrival in a city that may also be dying,’ he wrote in the Hong Kong Free Press. 33

CGTN was established as a platform through which Xi could influence the world. By undermining the organisation’s right to exist in a foreign country, Xi’s entire propaganda structure is subverted.

Peter Humphrey

International pushback

And yet, 2020 was also the year when China’s attempts to build its ‘discourse power’ overseas hit major roadblocks. In 2016, President Xi Jinping had set the tone for China’s global media expansion, stating, ‘Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their new tentacles.’ 34 This led to the rapid expansion of the state-run media apparatus overseas, the proliferation of new digital delivery systems, and the production of new youth-friendly propaganda content to be shared on these social media platforms.

The state-run broadcaster CGTN was at the heart of Beijing’s global media expansion strategy, and in 2018 it opened its third overseas hub in a state-of-the-art European headquarters in London. However, in May 2020, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the British broadcast regulator, found the station had breached British broadcast regulations with its biased coverage of the protests in Hong Kong. 35 Two months later, Ofcom again censured the station for broadcasting forced confessions from detainees in custody, including a statement under duress made by the British fraud investigator Peter Humphrey, who had spent two years in a Shanghai prison for charges of unlawful acquisition of personal information. In February 2021, Ofcom revoked CGTN’s broadcast licence in Britain in a massive, and pricey, blow for China’s international propaganda strategy.

‘CGTN was established as a platform through which Xi could influence the world. By undermining the organisation’s right to exist in a foreign country, Xi’s entire propaganda structure is subverted,’ said Humphrey. ‘This is not simply a case of one man against one broadcaster. This is a case of one man using legal means to attack Xi Jinping’s propaganda strategy.’ 36

A tweet on the benefits of eradicating extremism in Xinjiang
The Chinese Embassy in Washington has their Twitter account suspended following a post on the benefits of eradicating extremism in Xinjiang.

Elsewhere, China is facing an international backlash over its increasing influence in the information sphere. Social media companies like Twitter and YouTube have introduced new labels that designate the accounts of prominent Chinese journalists or news outlets as ‘Chinese state-affiliated media’.

Meanwhile, some countries are looking more closely at the behaviour of Chinese-owned social media platforms and digital television providers who often censor or manipulate content to feature pro-Beijing narratives and expunge any critical reports. 37

China Daily / YouTube
A China Daily documentary on Western media’s ‘disinformation campaign’ in Xinjiang, including claims the BBC falsified reports of mass incarceration of Uighurs.

In 2020, India banned more than 200 apps, most of them Chinese, including TikTok and the Alibaba-owned news aggregator Unified Communications News Magazine (known as UC News), which distributed news content to more than 50 million Indian users in 15 regional Indian languages. 38 Such platforms censor information. In one example, UC News did not publish any articles about the Sino–Indian border dispute at a time when tensions were making international headlines. Attempts by the Trump administration to outlaw Tiktok were stalled due to legal actions, but regulators in Japan and Korea have been mulling a Tiktok ban.

International news organisations have also halted content-sharing deals to carry Chinese propaganda inserts. In 2020, The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom and the Nine Entertainment Company’s stable of newspapers in Australia pulled out of such arrangements. While carrying Chinese propaganda inserts was once standard among the world’s top papers, the coronavirus pandemic has ratcheted up awareness of the moral hazards. One example was an article carried by The Daily Telegraph praising China’s Covid-19 response as ‘the most comprehensive and rigorous containment and migration measures’. 39 It also emerged that China had paid USD 19 million to American newspapers since 2016 for carrying such inserts, with the Wall Street Journal alone receiving USD 6 million. 40

To China, Covid-19 is a national security threat

The time of the pandemic has been the time in which national security dominated all acts of journalism in China. The slim possibility of any independent watchdog-style reporting by the Chinese media is closing rapidly, while new barriers, including the risk of detention, are drastically narrowing the breathing space for Hong Kong’s press. Furthermore, the national security legislation’s global remit means that any reporting on China could theoretically violate the law, allowing Beijing to extend its reach into foreign media outlets, publishing houses and classrooms around the world.

China’s dramatic expansion of its media influence on the world stage is presenting a major challenge to freedom of speech, media freedom and national sovereignty. The 2020 International Federation of Journalists’ report found those most susceptible to Beijing’s agenda were developing countries with ineffective or repressive governments. These nations are also the most likely to be in need of Covid-19 aid and vaccines. Through economic sweeteners and educational opportunities, Beijing has slowly but steadily been co-opting international media outlets and journalists while using disinformation and misinformation to reshape the information environment in its favour. This reduces audiences’ access to unbiased information about China, as well as eroding trust in the Fourth Estate.

Yet 2020 also marked a growing backlash against China’s global media ambitions. The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the unbridgeable contradiction between China’s state-run propaganda outlets and a global free press. The main function of the former is to protect regime stability. This could well be threatened by any proper investigation into how the initial coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic, as demanded by the latter. At a time when the global Fourth Estate is already enfeebled by decades of falling revenues and digital competition, it may struggle to counter – or even survive – China’s sophisticated information warfare techniques.

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    Jeff Kao and Mia Shuang Li, ‘How China built a Twitter propaganda machine then let it loose on coronavirus’, ProPublica, 26 March 2020, https://​www.​propublica.​org/​article/​how-​china-​built-​a-​twitter-​propaganda-​machine-​then-​let-​it-​loose-​on-​coronavirus.

  14. 14

    Zeng Rong, ‘Letter: China’s stance on Covid bought time for the world,’ Financial Times, 5 November 2020, https://​www.​ft.​com/​content/​690f0b75-​b354-​4368-​8543-​c6e6ccdca8c8.

  15. 15

    Ibid.

  16. 16

    ‘Russia is still Serbia’s biggest friend, thanks to Vučić, and China is the biggest donor (Rusija i dalje najveći prijatelj Srbije, zahvaljujući Vučiću, a Kina najveći donator)’, Danas, 21 May 2020, https://​www.​danas.​rs/​drustvo/​rusija-​i-​dalje-​najveci-​prijatelj-​srbije-​zahvaljujuci-​vucicu-​a-​kina-​najveci-​donator/​.

  17. 17

    ‘China sends first batch of medical aid to Serbia to help fight Covid-19’, Xinhuanet, 18 March 2020, http://​www.​xinhuanet.​com/​english/​2020-​03/​18/​c_​138892278.​htm.

  18. 18

    Yuwei Hu, ‘Serbia attracts Chinese online fans as joint fight on virus enhances ties’, Global Times, 25 March 2020, https://​www.​globaltimes.​cn/​content/​1183654.​shtml.

  19. 19

    ‘Serbia sets the stage for Beijing’s mask diplomacy’, Euractiv, 2 April 2020, https://​www.​euractiv.​com/​section/​china/​news/​serbia-​sets-​the-​stage-​for-​beijings-​mask-​diplomacy/​.

  20. 20

    Yuwei Hu, ‘Serbia attracts Chinese online fans as joint fight on virus enhances ties’.

  21. 21

    Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, ‘Track, trace, expel’.

  22. 22

    Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, ‘“Control, halt, delete: Reporting in China under threat of expulsion,”: An in-depth examination of media freedoms in China in 2019’, 2 March 2020, https://​fccchina.​org/​2020/​03/​02/​control-​halt-​delete-​reporting-​in-​china-​under-​threat-​of-​expulsion-​an-​in-​depth-​examination-​of-​media-​freedoms-​in-​china-​in-​2019/​.

  23. 23

    ‘China detains Bloomberg News staffer Haze Fan on suspicion of “national security”offences’, Hong Kong Free Press, 11 December 2020, https://​hongkongfp.​com/​2020/​12/​11/​china-​detains-​bloomberg-​news-​staffer-​haze-​fan-​on-​suspicion-​of-​national-​security-​offences/​.

  24. 24

    “‘Control, halt, delete: Reporting in China under threat of expulsion.”‘

  25. 25

    Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin, ‘The China story; Reshaping the world’s media’, International Federation of Journalists, June 2020, https://​www.​ifj.​org/​media-​centre/​reports/​detail/​ifj-​report-​the-​china-​story-​reshaping-​the-​worlds-​media/​category/​publications.​html.

  26. 26

    Kate Wong and David Bogi, ‘How China uses Muslim press trips to counter claims of Uighur abuse’, The Observer, 23 August 2020, https://​www.​theguardian.​com/​world/​2020/​aug/​23/​how-​china-​uses-​muslim-​press-​trips-​to-​counter-​claims-​of-​uighur-​abuse.

  27. 27

    Ibid.

  28. 28

    Catherine Putz, ‘2020 edition: Which countries are for or against China’s Xinjiang policies?’ The Diplomat, 9 October 2020, https://​thediplomat.​com/​2020/​10/​2020-​edition-​which-​countries-​are-​for-​or-​against-​chinas-​xinjiang-​policies/​.

  29. 29

    Louisa Lim and Graeme Smith ‘Hong Kong: Anything we say could be a crime’, The Little Red Podcast, 4 June 2020, https://​omny.​fm/​shows/​the-​little-​red-​podcast/​hong-​kong-​anything-​we-​say-​could-​be-​a-​crime.

  30. 30

    Ibid.

  31. 31

    Mak Hoi-Yen 麥凱茵, Cheng Chau-Ling 鄭秋玲, Leung Ho-Yin 梁昊賢 and Wong Wing-yu 黃詠榆, ‘i-Cable News fired 40 people, including the whole News Lancet team 有線新聞部今裁40人,新聞刺針全組「起身」,’ HK01, 1 December 2020, https://​www.​hk01.​com/​社會新聞/​555873/​有線大裁員-​消息-​有線新聞部今裁40人-​新聞刺針-​全組遭解僱.

  32. 32

    Ng Kang-chung, ‘New boss at Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK confirms he pulled plug on several episodes of shows and vows to take more visible management approach’, South China Morning Post, 16 March 2021.

  33. 33

    Kent Ewing, ‘Kent Ewing: My ill-fated book deal reveals Hong Kong self-censorship under the security law,’ Hong Kong Free Press, 15 December 2020, https://​hongkongfp.​com/​2020/​12/​15/​kent-​ewing-​my-​ill-​fated-​book-​deal-​reveals-​hong-​kong-​self-​censorship-​under-​the-​security-​law/​.

  34. 34

    Sarah Cook, ‘Beijing’s global megaphone: The expansion of Chinese Communist Party media influence since 2017, ‘Freedom House, 30 January 2020, https://​freedomhouse.​org/​report/​special-​report/​2020/​beijings-​global-​megaphone.

  35. 35

    Jim Waterson, ‘Chinese state TV broke Ofcom rules with biased Hong Kong coverage’, The Guardian, 26 May 2020, https://​www.​theguardian.​com/​media/​2020/​may/​26/​chinese-​state-​tv-​broke-​ofcom-​rules-​with-​biased-​hong-​kong-​coverage-​cgtn.

  36. 36

    Louisa Lim and Graeme Smith ‘See the difference? CGTN in the dock’, The Little Red Podcast, 7 October 2020, https://​omny.​fm/​shows/​the-​little-​red-​podcast/​see-​the-​difference-​cgtn-​in-​the-​dock.

  37. 37

    Sarah Cook, ‘Beijing’s global megaphone’.

  38. 38

    ‘India bans 43 more mobile apps as it takes on China,’ Reuters, 25 November 2020, https://​www.​reuters.​com/​article/​india-​china-​apps-​idINKBN2850I2.

  39. 39

    Amanda Meade, ‘Nine Entertainment newspapers quit carrying China Watch supplement’, The Guardian, 9 December 2020, https://​www.​theguardian.​com/​media/​2020/​dec/​09/​nine-​entertainment-​newspapers-​quit-​carrying-​china-​watch-​supplement.

  40. 40

    Mo Yu, ‘US spending report sheds light on China’s global propaganda campaign’, VOA, 26 June 2020, https://​www.​voanews.​com/​east-​asia-​pacific/​voa-​news-​china/​us-​spending-​report-​sheds-​light-​chinas-​global-​propaganda-​campaign.

Image of the author Dr Louisa Lim

Dr Louisa Lim is the Acting Co-Director for the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is an award-winning journalist who spent a decade as a foreign correspondent in China for the BBC and NPR. She is a co-host of the Little Red Podcast, which won the news and current affairs category at the Australian Podcast Awards in 2018.

Image of the author Julia Bergin

Julia Bergin is a journalist, researcher and producer currently working for the ABC. For the past three years, Julia has investigated Beijing’s global media strategy and sphere of influence in an ongoing collaboration with the International Federation of Journalists. She has penned articles and serviced sound waves for The Guardian, The Conversation, The Japan Times, Disruptive Asia, The Little Red Podcast and most recently Memorandum of Understanding. She is also part of JNI’s Asian Stories project.

Kate Wong is a Melbourne-based journalist specialising in China’s media politics. For safety reasons Wong uses a pseudonym.

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