Chinese Propaganda Finds a Thai Audience
Popular newspapers are running copy straight from Beijing’s state media.
On Aug. 16, readers of Thailand’s Khaosod newspaper found a little something extra courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party. While the online world marveled at the protests of 1.7 million Hong Kongers after weeks of police clashes and violence, Khaosod English ran news wire copy from China’s propaganda flagship, Xinhua.
Khaosod, meaning “fresh news,” is a staple of Thai current affairs with a moderate-to-liberal bent and an approximate daily circulation of 900,000 along with 13 million Facebook followers. While Khaosod is aimed at middle- and working-class readers in the outer provinces, Khaosod English, one of the first real English-language news portals in the country, is more niche, with around 200,000 readers a month. Its willing reproduction of Chinese propaganda is a sign of how Beijing’s influence on its smaller neighbors, and its ability to push its message abroad, is growing quickly.
Xinhua, the Chinese government’s official news service, is one of the most tightly controlled media sources in Asia. Xinhua reporters both overseas and at home often act as de facto agents of Chinese intelligence, producing secret reports for the leadership and propaganda for a general audience. None of this deterred Khaosod. The following days would see a steady flow of state media propaganda run through Khaosod, from the conspiracy theory that the West caused and inflamed the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests to claims about the safety of the people of Xinjiang, where an estimated more than 1 million ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps.
International journalists and readers criticized the move on social media. The Scottish journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall tweeted, “In the last few years, @KhaosodEnglish became the best English-language media website covering Thailand. Don’t ruin it by publishing anti-democracy propaganda, please!”
For critics, the move is a sign of growing Chinese influence in a country that was once a solid U.S. ally. Now that China is Thailand’s biggest trading partner, the country finds itself inexorably linked to infrastructure projects such as the high-speed rail from Bangkok to Nong Khai and a roller coaster of much-needed tourist dollars.
The Thai military junta welcomed Beijing’s backing, especially as it came without the democratic urgings of the United States. With its own tumultuous history of revolutionary change and protest—as well as fierce crackdowns—conservative Thais often instinctively distrust protesters elsewhere. Referring to the protesters’ violence and waving foreign flags, Warong Dechgitvigrom of the Democrat Party said, while taking a crack at the Future Forward Party on Facebook on Aug. 19, “If this happens in Thailand, I will considered this to be ‘despising the country.’”
“We’re kind of surprised,” said Teeranai Charuvastra, Khaosod English’s news chief and a staff reporter. “I really didn’t think anyone would really care so much.”
Khaosod published an editorial defending its partnership and stating it is not receiving any payment for any of the news wire copy it uses from Xinhua. “Neither Khaosod nor Xinhua receive payment from each other. Khaosod is not being paid by anyone to republish news content from Xinhua,” the editorial stated. “Since signing the agreement, Xinhua has never made any attempt to interfere with Khaosod’s internal operations.”
In July, Matichon Group, Khaosod’s parent company, inked an agreement for the whole of the Matichon Group to use Xinhua news, a move orchestrated by Teeranai, according to the announcement.
Confirming that Xinhua had offered its news materials for free, Teeranai laughed and said, “I know it’s hard to believe. … I understand in our current times. People are rightly suspicious.” He said he was well aware of the problems with freedom of the press in China.
“I wouldn’t rely only on Xinhua for informed news about Hong Kong because, as everyone knows, it is a government mouthpiece. They say it right there in the introduction,” Teeranai said. Khaosod was syndicating Xinhua content before Khaosod English, but due to the Hong Kong unrest, the dual-language came at a time when China’s agitprop is on full display.
Khaosod is benefiting from its new relationship in the form of backup from the state media attack organs. The ultra-nationalist Global Times published a news item on Wednesday defending Xinhua’s involvement in Khaosod, calling out foreign journalists for their criticism. The piece quoted Teeranai as saying, “Westerners always criticize Chinese people for being ‘close-minded’ and listening to only one side of the story, yet they are now attacking my news agency for trying to bring different sides of the story to the audience and asking them to be open-minded.”
Xinhua was recently part of a massive online campaign to spread disinformation in Hong Kong during the recent protests on Twitter, despite Western social media being banned in mainland China. Since then Twitter has banned advertisers from Chinese state media. As U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration clashes with media in the West, China’s mouthpieces have not been idle to fill the post-truth vacuum.
Chinese state media is desperate for legitimacy. Spurious Xinhua comparisons have been made to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, but for the Chinese the opinion of Chinese state media is not marginal or even optional: State media lacks any real competition, news sites like the New York Times are blocked in China, and the insular Chinese internet is one of the most censored on the planet.
“In absolutely no way whatsoever can the work of Xinhua be said to be journalism,” a former foreign editor at Xinhua requesting anonymity told Foreign Policy. The editor said quotes were routinely made up and propaganda was routine.
Khaosod uses two wire services: The Associated Press, which it pays for, and Xinhua. “I don’t believe Xinhua is equivalent to AP because AP has a very, very stellar reputation, and even in the office we have two copies of the AP Stylebook,” Teeranai said. “We’re not trying to say those are the only two sides to the story. Xinhua is just one of many possible angles of what is going on in China, so I don’t like to make a [false equivalence].”
China is not just a source of news and foreign investment. Thailand wants Chinese visitors, too. A much-maligned proposal for visa-free entry for Chinese citizens into Thailand was tentatively struck down; a slew of accidents—including one that claimed the lives of 47 Chinese nationals a year ago last month—and a number of other factors have caused Chinese tourist numbers in Thailand to plummet. In Phuket alone, Chinese visitors make up 2 million of the 7 million foreign visitors to the island.
The slowing economy in China and the current trends do not bode well for 2020. The news world in Thailand is also suffering. The Nation, one of Thailand’s most notable newspapers, ran its last print edition in June after 48 years, and 2016 saw the fall of the 44-year-old Baan Muang. Free news, especially that which can assuage the ego of the nation’s largest investor, is a boon.
When it comes to the extremely low bar set for press freedom in Southeast Asia, Thailand still comes above many of its neighbors, including Vietnam. Khaosod is not alone in Southeast Asia when it comes to using Xinhua’s news wire service. The Vientiane Times in Laos and the Khmer Times and Cambodia Daily also use Xinhua copy—both countries have strong government ties to Beijing. In the Philippines on Friday, Xinhua ran a massive full-page editorial in the Manila Bulletin against the Hong Kong anti-extradition protesters.
“I believe in the judgment of our readers,” Teeranai said. On Tuesday, Khaosod published an article titled “Die-Hard Hong Kong Protesters Defend Tactics as Unity Cracks.” The first two commenters on Khaosod English’s Facebook page decried this as Chinese propaganda from Xinhua. It was from AP.