When Liu Qibao, China’s propaganda minister, visited Sydney last month and signed a raft of deals with Australia’s top media companies, few paid much attention.

But the fruits of that trip — a supplement produced by China Daily, the Communist party’s English-language mouthpiece, appearing in such bastions of free speech as the Sydney Morning Herald — lay bare the growing reach of China’s multibillion-dollar propaganda machine as it seeks to win hearts and minds across the globe.

China’s “soft power” strategy has for years funded Chinese language lessons in schools and supported local think-tanks. But now, as Beijing is raising hackles over territorial claims at sea, it is extending its propaganda tentacles into independent media.

The Australian deals — which follow similar pacts with Washington Post, the UK’s Daily Telegraph and Le Figaro in France — illustrate that reach. China Watch, the new monthly pullout in Fairfax Media newspapers, marked its inaugural issue with favourable coverage of China, including an article backing Beijing in its stand-off over contested waters in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s bid to burnish its image as a global power is finding a receptive audience among cash-strapped western media — even if they do not always realise the nature of the deal being struck.

“The Australians had no idea they were making big news in China’s official media — that’s how we learnt about it back in Australia — or that the party would trumpet the deal as a victory for its overseas propaganda,” says John Fitzgerald, professor at Swinburne University of Technology.

All big powers engage in public relations but, says David Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University, the scale of Beijing’s push is unprecedented. He estimates that China spends $10bn a year on external propaganda — vastly more than the US, which he says spent just $666m on public diplomacy in 2014. 

That money funds Chinese language and culture lessons in school and university classrooms worldwide through Confucius Centres. Beijing is also investing tens of billions of dollars in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide soft loans to developing countries, stepping up regional aid programmes and building a global radio and television news network.

A Reuters investigation last year identified an international network of 33 radio stations with a complex ownership structure obscuring its majority shareholder: state-run China Radio International. The network stretches from the US to Australia and broadcasts content created or supplied by CRI or media companies it controls.

“Beijing feels its international reputation does not match up with the greater economic power it now has,” says Wanning Sun, professor at University Technology Sydney. “It feels western media is biased and is doing everything it can to address the issue.”

Ms Sun says Beijing has already had some success changing the focus of ethnic Chinese media in Australia and in other countries with large Chinese diasporas by providing cash injections, free content, technology and even training for journalists.

“It will view its recent deals with mainstream Australian media as a way to reach out to the wider public,” she says.

Despite the investment, many Sinologists doubt the effectiveness of Beijing’s soft power push. “Everyone seems highly aware of their objective,” says Kerry Brown, professor at King's College London. “The result has been more, not less, suspicion.”

Controversy stoked in Australia by Beijing’s deals with Fairfax, Sky News Australia and several other local companies proves the point.

Critics point to the harder edge of Beijing’s propaganda machine, with journalists imprisoned and many foreign media websites blocked at home. Some warn that publishing Chinese propaganda alongside other news could undermine their newspapers and hand Beijing commercial influence over the way Australian journalists report on China.

Others question whether it is sufficiently clear to readers that the content is subjective.

Fairfax dismisses these concerns, saying China Watch is clearly labelled and no different to other advertising content. “Our commitment to providing independent, quality journalism — including on matters relating to China — remains absolute and unchanged,” it said.

But sensitivities with regard to Sino-Australian media joint ventures have intensified following an admission last month by state broadcaster ABC of “failures in its editorial processes” regarding its flagship Australia Plus Chinese language website.

In 2014 ABC signed an exclusive deal with China’s Shanghai Media Group, which it boasted gave it the most extensive access to Chinese audiences by any western broadcaster. A recent investigation by ABC programme Media Watch found some Chinese-related news content on controversial topics was edited and removed from the Chinese-language website.

“Our review is still under way,” ABC told the FT. “ABC International has not and would not enter into any agreement to censor content.”

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