Tea Leaf Nation

Mr. Xi Goes to Washington, and Brings His State Media Apparatus

With China’s president in town to talk nuclear security, students handed out Beijing-backed China Daily.


Several dozen Chinese students have fanned out across Washington, DC and its suburbs as part of a social media-powered outreach campaign on behalf of China Daily, a state media outlet funded by Beijing that aims to engage an international audience. The effort coincides with the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, a high-level annual forum held this year in Washington, DC. World leaders have converged in the U.S. capital, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose arrival has turned out throngs of pro-China demonstrators, some in red vests.

On March 31 and April 1, China Daily appears to have organized a group of Chinese students from universities in the Washington area to pass out copies of the newspaper, which is largely funded from Beijing and espouses views and analysis in close keeping with the Chinese Communist Party line.

The students formed a group called “China Daily Greater Washington Back-up Group,” using WeChat, a popular Chinese mobile messaging app also available in the United States, to help coordinate the newspaper’s distribution. The group has 69 members, using online handles identifying them as students at schools in or near Washington, including George Mason University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland. One student who stood in front of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, which is hosting Xi, granted access to the WeChat group to a Foreign Policy reporter. China Daily‘s U.S. operations have not responded to several phone messages and an email seeking immediate comment.

The student outside of Xi’s hotel told FP that China Daily had organized students in the area to help distribute the newspaper. China Daily had instructed the students to ask those who accepted a paper to pose with it for a photograph; participants have then posted those photos to their WeChat group. On the afternoon of April 1, they shared with one another more than a dozen photos of people on streets in and around Washington, DC holding copies of the China Daily print edition.

Throughout the day on April 1, members also texted each other to ask questions, seek help, share photos, and share tips about where to distribute papers. “It’s really hard to pass these out today,” wrote one user. “Yeah,” concurred another. “There aren’t as many people. For classmates who haven’t yet handed out all the papers, you can try asking bus drivers. They usually take some to put in the bus for passengers to read.”

“I’m where all the museums are,” wrote another. “There are lots of tourists here.”

Although the student who spoke with FP identified herself as volunteer, at least one post in the WeChat group suggested that the students received cash in exchange for their work. “I hired a person to help me pass out newspapers,” wrote one student. “He’s homeless. I said, ‘you can’t get something without working, if you help me pass out newspapers I’ll divide my salary with you.’ He was really happy.” The user then posted a photo of the homeless man carrying a stack of China Daily copies.

Forty-five minutes later, the user reported that the newspapers had all been handed out. “It was a whim, but what a great result! Half an hour, 150 copies. This black dude is a true sales champion.”

Another student suggested that participants go into metro stations to pass out the papers. But another replied that wouldn’t work. “Yesterday when I was distributing, police kicked me out.”

China Daily is a significant part of China’s efforts to project influence abroad. It boasts 13 publications in English alone, and its U.S. edition has become a regular and visible presence for many residents of Washington, DC; on-street news boxes selling the papers are easy to spot downtown. But it’s rare to see individuals handing out copies.

According to its website, China Daily seeks “to provide a unique window into China by giving the Chinese perspective on the major financial, political and social issues that affect China and the United States today.” In 1983, China Daily Distribution Corporation, funded by China Daily of Beijing, registered as a foreign agent in the United States. Its latest statement filed with the Department of Justice, from November 2015, stated that China Daily’s U.S. operations has spent over $6.5 million over the six months prior to filing. Most of its money over that period came from its controlling entity in Beijing, which sent funds approximately each month for printing expenses.

Image credit: WeChat/Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.