Chinese Media Targeted in Foreign Agent Crackdown

CCTV’s U.S. arm agrees to register as an agent of the Chinese government.

Heavy pollution surrounds the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters building in Beijing on Jan. 18, 2012. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Heavy pollution surrounds the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters building in Beijing on Jan. 18, 2012. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

In the coming weeks, American viewers of CGTN, the slick global news network, will begin seeing a notice on the network’s broadcasts: The channel is a registered foreign agent of the Chinese government.

The notice is the culmination of an extended legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department, which has accused the channel of engaging in political activity on behalf of China and pressed for it to comply with a World War II-era law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

In a filing with the Justice Department this week, the network—the U.S. arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV—maintained that it exercises editorial independence. But it agreed to register under FARA “out of an abundance of caution and in the spirit of cooperation with U.S. authorities.”

The case targeting the English-language network could signal the beginning of a broader crackdown. Many other outlets likely under the control of Beijing, particularly Chinese-language outlets, continue to operate in the United States without having registered as foreign agents, analysts and experts said.

It’s important to also recognize the Chinese Communist Party has far more substantial control of Chinese-language media in the United States, and to make sure outlets targeting the Chinese community are scrutinized and registered if they are being directed by the Chinese government,” said Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who has written widely about Chinese influence efforts.

The filing represents a victory for the Justice Department, which has in recent years stepped up efforts to enforce FARA. The law was first passed to counter Nazi propaganda efforts in the United States in the run-up to World War II and has taken on new relevance amid efforts by Beijing and Moscow to win influence in the United States.

Historically, the Justice Department has not prosecuted violators of FARA but has urged them to come into compliance with the law, which requires the individuals or organizations to submit extensive paperwork documenting their activities.

For decades, high-profile Washington operatives viewed the law as a measure to be skirted. But special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election sent a chill through Washington’s lobbyist community—especially after the indictment of President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his deputy, Rick Gates, on charges of violating FARA.

Registrations under the act have since surged—from 69 in 2016 to 102 in 2017. Observers of Washington’s influence industry say Mueller’s investigation is scaring lobbyists into compliance.

While the Trump administration has been loath to acknowledge Russian meddling, it has been quick to seize on reports of Chinese influence in the United States, with Vice President Mike Pence declaring (misleadingly, analysts said) in a high-profile speech last year that Beijing is interfering in U.S. politics much as Moscow is.

Through indictments and sanctions, the Trump administration has also increased pressure on Beijing for what the United States says is an ongoing Chinese effort to steal American intellectual property and recruit operatives inside the country.

The indictments have antagonized China and drawn much media attention, but the impact of the FARA registration might be no less significant.

“In a digital age where news organizations can reach tens of millions of people and influence public opinion powerfully, there is a need to ensure that American consumers of information have the ability to make an informed assessment of the sources of information they are getting,” said David Laufman, who oversaw the increased enforcement of FARA while serving as head of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the Justice Department.

“Where there is reason to believe that there is foreign government involvement, that is especially important.”

Beijing and Moscow have both been putting significant resources into their broadcasting operations, drawing the attention of the U.S. Justice Department.

The Russian broadcaster RT reluctantly registered under FARA in 2017 after the U.S. intelligence community identified it as a tool in Moscow’s 2016 campaign to meddle in that year’s U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Sputnik, the upstart online news outlet, also registered under FARA.

Press freedom activists have criticized FARA as an inappropriate use of government power to determine what is and what isn’t propaganda. And yet, the Justice Department is bringing pressure to bear on other media organizations, including Xinhua, the Chinese state news outlet.

After Foreign Policy first revealed in 2017 that CGTN had not registered under FARA, Sens. Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy wrote to the Justice Department urging it to step up enforcement against Chinese media organizations. Prominent examples of Chinese-language outlets that haven’t registered under FARA include Qiao Bao, a Chinese-language newspaper distributed in the United States, and China Radio International.

“There are many more media outlets that are either officially or covertly run by the Chinese Communist Party and should register as foreign agents,” Joske said.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll