Report

Beijing Builds Its Influence in the American Media

How one of America's biggest Chinese-language newspapers amplifies China’s message.

Courtesy The China Press
Courtesy The China Press

During China’s 19th Party Congress, held in Beijing from Oct. 18 to 24, the country’s state-controlled domestic media dutifully gave the dry, jargon-filled proceedings wall-to-wall front-page coverage. Beneath headlines trumpeting the party’s accomplishments, countless photographs showed Chinese President Xi Jinping presiding over long tables in cavernous meeting halls.

If you’d have opened Qiao Bao during this period, you’d have found much the same thing. Each day during the congress, which China holds every five years, the Chinese-language newspaper’s top story featured the conference and an accompanying photo, often of Xi.

What made that coverage somewhat surprising — especially given how opaque, and frankly tedious, the congresses tend to be — is where Qiao Bao is based: Alhambra, California.

The American daily serves up mostly Beijing-friendly news to more than 100,000 Chinese readers in at least 15 major cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Houston, Boston, and Washington.

The enthusiastic coverage of official Beijing is no accident. In recent years, and especially since Xi became president in 2012, the Chinese government has sought various ways to increase its influence over China’s 40 million-strong diaspora. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, a ministry specifically dedicated to the task, works to extend the party’s reach, and the push has seen increasing success in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, where local ethnic Chinese organizations have begun to vocally push for pro-Beijing policies.

The campaign is an important part of Beijing’s long-term “strategy to create favorable public opinion globally for [the party’s] agenda,” says Bill Bishop, the author of Sinocism, a newsletter widely read by China experts and journalists.

When Chinese leaders talk about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” — a reference to China’s global rise after several centuries of weakness and decline — “it very specifically includes the Chinese diaspora,” he says.

Publications like Qiao Bao have become a natural target; they’re much easier to influence because, unlike media published in local languages, most local governments “don’t really pay attention to the Chinese-language media,” Bishop says.

Qiao Bao (the name means “overseas Chinese newspaper”) is about 28 years old and is owned by a U.S. company, Rhythm Media Group, which is incorporated in California and also maintains an office in Beijing. Rhythm Media also owns Chinese-language radio stations in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington.

The newspaper’s founder and chairman, Xie Yining, moved to the United States in 1990 after working as a journalist for the state-run China News Service.

While Qiao Bao’s coverage of local news is typically straightforward, its take on China-related topics often closely echoes that found in China’s own heavily regulated and censored newspapers.

The relationship seems to run both ways; Qiao Bao content often shows up on mainland Chinese news sites, whose syndication relationships are tightly controlled by the government. In July 2016, for instance, the online news platform Sina reposted a Qiao Bao article titled “Overseas Chinese in Seattle support China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.” And this October, a Shanxi province government-run website posted, “America’s ‘Qiao Bao’ exposes the hypocrisy of Western human rights defenders.”

According to the Qiao Bao website, one of its partner publications is the English-language website of the Global Times, a strongly nationalist paper published on the mainland and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Qiao Bao even looks different than other U.S.-based Chinese-language media. Take Ming Pao, whose owners are based in Hong Kong, or the World Journal, whose owners are based in Taiwan. Such newspapers are printed with traditional Chinese characters, the script used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and historic overseas Chinese communities. Qiao Bao, by contrast, uses simplified characters — just like mainland China.

Also like China-based newspapers, Qiao Bao often avoids major topics that might offend Beijing. For example, a search of Qiao Bao’s website reveals only a handful of mentions of the Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose death this year made headlines around the world. (A search for Liu’s name on the World Journal website, by contrast, reveals hundreds of results.)

In an emailed statement to Foreign Policy, Qiao Bao Editor in Chief I-Der Jeng acknowledged that his newspaper hadn’t covered Liu’s death but insisted it was because there were conflicting reports on the topic.

“Rather than providing readers with unverified information (negative or positive), the editorial board decided not to report it when sources at hand were not reliable and conclusive,” he wrote.

And he denied that the newspaper avoids sensitive political topics or parrots Beijing’s line. Jeng insisted that the 11 consecutive days of front-page treatment given to the party congress was a decision made by the editorial staff, which concluded that “this event had huge news value and reports on it would be well-received by our readers.”

In his email, Jeng also wrote that the newspaper does not communicate with any Chinese government department or party organization regarding its editorial content and that Qiao Bao does not receive funding from any government or party source. The paper sells advertisements to buyers in mainland China and the United States.

The publication “holds accuracy, objectivity, truthfulness, impartiality, and public responsibility as its journalistic standards,” he said.

But the newspaper and its leadership do appear to engage frequently with top Chinese — and American — officials.

In a January 2015 photo, Ren Hongyu, the general manager of Rhythm Media, is seen cutting a cake together with San Francisco Chinese Consul General Luo Linquan to celebrate the launch of the group’s Seattle radio station.

And the paper pays inordinate attention to the dictates coming out of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, though Jeng said Qiao Bao is not under the supervision of that office.

The newspaper’s former editorial board director, Fan Dongsheng, who served from 1999 to 2006, came to Qiao Bao after serving as the editor in chief of a Chinese publication that was officially affiliated with the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

In April and November 2016, Xie attended Overseas Chinese Affairs Office events in Jiangsu province, according to reports posted to government websites, and Qiao Bao frequently provides coverage of the office, including hundreds of pieces referring to speeches and comments by Qiu Yuanping, the director of the office.

On Oct. 23, near the end of the big party congress, Qiao Bao’s front page featured a large photo of Qiu, with her most recent directive as the top headline: “Write good overseas Chinese articles.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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