A Reuters report on China Radio International’s “covert radio network” has suddenly put the state broadcaster’s little-known affiliates in the news and triggered an official investigation in the US. A response from Chinese state media has already come out in the form of an angry Global Times editorial. Meanwhile in Beijing, a CRI meeting yielded a decision to deepen cooperation with ‘partner stations’ abroad.
The network began to take shape around 2009, as a novel approach to soft power involving a certain degree of ‘outsourcing’ of both the production and the delivery of media content for foreign audiences. This is what CRI president Wang Gengnian 王庚年 has called “borrowing a boat to go out to sea (借船出海)”. CRI (国际台) is older than the PRC itself and has been broadcasting in several languages for decades, but before the ‘borrowed boat’ network its radio and web content used traditional formats that clearly identified it as coming from the Chinese state. In the new strategy, content is produced closer to the audience, in tandem with non-CRI staff, at a number of companies (Wang’s ‘borrowed boats’, or the ‘covert network’ of the Reuters report) where the state broadcaster’s role is hardly mentioned. Such content is then delivered through media platforms where the connection to a Chinese state entity is further obscured.
The theoretical basis underlying the ‘borrowed boat’ strategy has been laid out in Chinese publications and media interviews by CRI officials, as I took the trouble to quote in a post last July on the University of Nottingham’s CPI blog (‘China’s state media and the outsourcing of soft power‘). In a nutshell, the intention is to present the views of the Chinese government to a worldwide audience (“compete to lead international opinion”) while crafting a delivery suitable to the “thinking, listening and watching habits of Western audiences”.
In a separate blog post from early July, I gave striking examples of how far this ‘localisation’ of the message could go: the motto of one of the affiliates used to refer to a “third angle” on China-related news, and while the overall line is clearly aligned with official views, occasional stories have referred to the “plight of China’s Uighurs” and to the 8th century Tibetan empire as an entity disjoint from China. Surely a first for Chinese state media.
The actual ‘borrowed boats’ are a handful of companies (three in the Reuters article, four or five by my count) based in Europe, Australia and the US. Each existed as an independent business of some sort before partnering with CRI, and each is led by a Chinese businessman. In at least some of them, the partnership with CRI eventually grew to become the company’s main visible activity, with CRI becoming a shareholder, in some cases with a majority stake. Crucially, the companies aren’t particularly loud about clarifying this ownership or partnership status, and, as we shall see, the recent response from Chinese state media explicitly denies it, even when the companies have admitted to it. In short, CRI owns at least some of the companies, but we aren’t supposed to know.
Time to list the companies. GB Times (环球时代), based in Tampere, Finland, produces radio and web content in several European languages. GB Times was the focus of my Nottingham post, whither I refer you for the details. The Reuters story focuses especially on G&E (环球东方), that marshals a dozen of radio stations in the US and Canada. My post only mentioned G&E in passing; the Reuters analysis is a must-read. CAMG (环球凯歌国际传媒集团), mentioned by both Reuters and me, is based in Melbourne and covers mostly Australia, but also Thailand and Nepal.
To add something to what’s already been made widely known by the Reuters report, I’ll mention CAMG’s radio station in Mongolia: Evseg Mongol Эвсэг Монгол radio (91.7 FM, Ulaanbaatar). Here again, the station’s affiliation with CRI isn’t evident from looking at their website, but a partnership with CAMG is mentioned in a post about a visit from a CAMG representative, and the CEO of the local company that owns the station also describes herself as “CEO of Global CAMG Group in Mongolia”. The station began broadcasting in January this year. Both Mongolian and Chinese sources (an account of a Beijing trip by two Mongolian journalists, who visited CRI’s Mongolian-language section as part of an exchange connected to the WW2 armistice commemorations; Chinese state-owned Mongolian-language news portal Solongo; CRI-connected portal china.com; CAMG themselves) talk about the Ulaanbaatar station broadcasting up to 18 hours a day of CRI content in Mongolian, but a quick look at the schedule for today doesn’t really suggest an obvious Chinese theme, at least judging from the names of the programmes.
Besides G&E, GB Times and CAMG, the three companies covered in the Reuters report, there are another two broadcasting CRI content in Europe, which, at least originally, existed independently of GB Times: Rádio Íris (91.4 FM, Lisbon) and Propeller TV in the UK. Details about ownership in the CPI blog piece.
The ‘borrowed boat’ strategy has had mixed success. While the radio and web content has indeed reached an audience beyond whatever CRI’s traditional listeners used to be (at one point GB Times content was aired on such mainstream commercial stations as BFM in France or Nova in Denmark), its visibility is surely well below that of the more traditional Chinese media outlets. The most comparable attempt to get state-aligned views into the Western mainstream would probably Russia’s Sputnik news or Russia Today, and those have arguably had managed successes Chinese media can still only dream of. The attempt to obscure a connection to the Chinese state to avoid the ‘propaganda’ label has failed rather spectacularly: whenever GB Times attracted mainstream media attention in Europe, they were called just that; CAMG’s reporters were chided for asking innocuous questions at staged official press conferences; and now the whole enterprise is described under ‘covert network’ headlines. The legality of the tactic has even attracted regulatory attention: GB Times’ Danish programmes went off air in 2013 after a government body found they were being ‘illegally sponsored’ by not disclosing they were being broadcast on paid airtime; and the Reuters story has prompted the US Federal Communications Commission to investigate whetheer G&E’s connection to the Chinese government violate regulations on state ownership of radio licenses.
For the time being, CRI seems undeterred. Chinese media report on a recent CRI meeting on measures to “optimise existing overseas projects” with one of the basic principles being the development of overseas business “through partner stations abroad”. The information is too laconic to derive too much from it, but if by ‘partner stations’ they mean the ones they have so far, this would suggest the ‘borrowed boat’ strategy hasn’t been abandoned. Judging from the dates, it’s likely that the meeting took place when people close to CRI already knew the Reuters story was coming their way.
A reaction to the Reuters story has already come from Chinese state media, in the form of an angry editorial in the Chinese edition of the Global Times. The article reacts with indignation at accusations that CRI’s affiliate network is involved in ‘propaganda’ or ‘ideological penetration’ and questions Western hypocrisy: CRI’s broadcasts are nothing compared to Western influences in China, viz. countless translations of “works of Western thought”, European football championships, the NBA or Hollywood films. Behind the paper’s usual rhetoric, the crucial point is a denial of CRI’s involvement: “those local American stations are not controlled by CRI” but only broadcast their content.