Huawei’s Christmas battle for Central Europe

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Published on Sinopsis on 28 Dec 2018. On the Greenlandic connection, see links and tweets here. For additional Czech coverage, cf. „Ztraceno w překladu w průhonice Sokolovně“ by Hála and earlier Sinopsis pieces.]

An unusually blunt warning by Czech intelligence against the use of Huawei and ZTE products in telecommunications infrastructure was met with similar bluntness from the PRC. The embattled Babiš government, whose survival depends on the support of the country’s most CCP-friendly figures, was subjected to a pre-Christmas diplomatic ritual hyped by the state-media as “correcting” the spooks’ “mistaken” advice. After an outrage in the Czech Republic, the PM backpedalled and reiterated the NÚKIB warning was being treated “seriously”.

The Czech intelligence warning against Huawei and ZTE equipment via NeoVlivní.cz.

The Party-state’s concerted diplomatic and propaganda effort spent on awaking Czech politics from Yuletide hibernation and attempting to neutralise the intelligence warning signals the strategic stakes: a Czech Huawei ban could trigger a domino effect in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region still untouched by the wave of Western measures against the use of its equipment in 5G networks. Should Poland, in particular, join the Czech and Anglophone scepticism, Huawei could risk losing the region’s biggest market, and the one where it has placed its biggest 5G bet.

This post summarises some of the open-source evidence on Huawei’s background and practices behind the concerns about the company aired in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, before illustrating the PRC’s likely fears of CEE contagion with a brief discussion of the Polish case. The peculiar pre-Christmas démarche involving Babiš, the PRC embassy and the domestic and external propaganda machine is described in the context of the support Huawei frequently enjoys from state media and foreign entities cultivated through ‘friendly contact’ activity, a connection demonstrated in Australia and New Zealand.

The PR strategies Huawei has adopted, as well as its targets, overlap with those encountered in the analysis of global United Front work; the Party-state’s support for the company demands a wider discussion informed by the CCP’s international influence operations, a main focus of Sinopsis’ coverage of the Czech Republic and other locales. The Polish case neatly illustrates this connection: a local Huawei interlocutor is known as a contact favoured by the CCP’s International Liaison Department, a Comintern-inspired organ whose expansion to general political influence work we have been describing in a series of posts.

Among Huawei’s links to the Party, state and Army, its collaboration with Public Security in the PRC and, in particular, Xinjiang, could make its role in state surveillance and repression of particular interest in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that found itself on the receiving end of earlier totalitarian regimes. Huawei’s technology is among those that could fuel an upgrade of the CCP’s systems of social control to a new level of authoritarian governance; as Lenin stressed, Communist rule relies on both Party power and technological breakthroughs. For Lenin, Communism was Soviet power plus electrification; extrapolating, Xi’s New Era is orthodox Communism plus “intelligentisation” (智能化).

Huawei as a Party-state champion

Open-source information and previous statements from the intelligence community squarely back up the concerns aired by Czech cyber-intelligence.

The warning, issued by the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (Národní úřad pro kybernetickou a informační bezpečnost, NÚKIB) on 17 December, calls the use of software and hardware products of Huawei, ZTE and their subsidiaries a “threat against information security”. According to Czech press reports, the warning was originally meant as a classified document for internal government discussion. The unusual step of going public reportedly resulted from the fact that some of the intended recipients lacked the security clearance to read the report.

Besides the companies’ legal obligation to cooperate with PRC intelligence activities, the text mentions “organisational and personnel links between these companies and the state”, the agency’s knowledge about the companies’ work in the Czech Republic and the PRC’s “influence and espionage” activities there to justify fears that the presence of Huawei or ZTE products in information or communication systems could affect “the security of the Czech Republic and its interests”.

The 2017 National Intelligence Law (国家情报法) mandates “all organisations and citizens” to collaborate with intelligence work as requested. This legal obligation and the characteristics of the activity of such companies as Huawei and ZTE makes such ‘requests’ likely. As Elsa Kania notes,

[T]he trend towards fuller fusion between the party-state apparatus and commercial enterprises—and the ways in which that fusion might be leveraged to support intelligence work—should be taken into account in business and governmental assessments of risk.

Huawei’s current and previous top management includes individuals with backgrounds in the PLA, military-linked universities and the Ministry of State Security.

Huawei chairman Ren Zhengfei 任正非 was enlisted in the PLA between 1974 and 1983, after which he went on to manage Huawei using “Mao Zedong’s military thought”.

Sun Yafang 孙亚芳, Ren’s “most trusted deputy” and Huawei’s chairwoman until 2018, studied at the Radio Technology Department of the Chengdu Institute of Radio Engineering (成都电讯工程学院), then still under the joint management of the PLA General Staff Department. (The Institute’s successor, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC, 电子科技大学), remains committed to servicing national defence and takes pride in its military research, one foot of its research “tripod”. Hacker groups linked to UESTC were allegedly behind attacks (p. 37f.) against Indian targets, including the Offices of the Dalai Lama.) After graduating, Sun did communications work at the Ministry of State Security, the PRC’s main spy agency, until joining Huawei in 1992. According to Chinese press reports, these connections helped the company obtain state support when experiencing financial difficulties.

The company’s early contracts with the PLA, while a small part of its sales, were reportedly seen as important in terms of “relationships”. Kania estimates that Huawei is “still engaged in defence-related research and development”, citing its recent participation in projects related to civil-military fusion. Adam Ni, an expert on the PLA, argues that Huawei, although a private company, depended for its success on the state’s support “through a combination of protectionist measures, cheap financing, subsidies, favourable regulations, and diplomatic support abroad”.

A recent investigation by Danielle Cave found that Huawei was “the key ICT provider” for the African Union’s headquarters, whose servers had been transferring data to China until the breach was discovered, implying that the company was either incapable of detecting, or complicit with, massive data theft.

In 2012, a US House of Representatives committee heard statements from former Huawei employees alleging illegal practices. A former employee is suing Huawei in the US, alleging the company ordered him to participate in the theft of trade secrets and retaliated against his whistleblowing. An Israeli solar-energy technology manufacturer is suing Huawei for patent infringement in Germany.

Leninism plus smart surveillance

Telecommunications infrastructure and equipment are central to surveillance, a key tool of authoritarian social control. Xi’s stress on Party control, repression and propaganda stands to benefit from emerging technologies that can take the state’s ability to monitor, analyse and shape the private behaviour of large numbers of individuals beyond the wildest dreams of his predecessors in the Leninist tradition. Propaganda, far from being drowned out by the arrival of digital and social media, has embraced it, if anything getting closer to a literal form of Lenin’s boast of having the Party’s “truth” penetrate “everyone’s head”.

Likewise, the Party-state-Army’s repressive apparatus stands to benefit from advances in surveillance technology, notably aided by artificial intelligence. Like earlier totalitarian regimes, Xi’s CCP could find a technological breakthrough empowering a ruling “vanguard” to upgrade its domination of its state and society and project social control beyond its borders, achieving what Heilmann calls “Digital Leninism”. If, as Lenin put it in 1920, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, Xiism could be Leninism plus artificial intelligence.

The security and human-rights implications of Huawei’s “smart” and “safe city” solutions are of particular relevance to the Czech Republic. Adriana Krnáčová, mayor of Prague until last month for the ruling ANO party, displayed a special interest in PRC smart-city technology: during her 2016 visit to Shanghai, she talked about smart cities “intensively” with the local government. Krnáčová revisited the topic during a meeting with the PRC ambassador the following year. The Prague government signed an agreement with Huawei on intelligent freight transport at a 2017 event that also promoted the company’s smart-city technology. Smart and “safe” cities are among the areas the company wants to cooperate” on in the next five years.

Huawei has recently partnered with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, aiming to guarantee the region’s “social stability”. The company signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government in 2016. Huawei has partnerships with city-level public security organs throughout the country, including in Ürümqi, as well as with the national Ministry of Public Security. The involvement of companies such as Huawei and Hikvision in Tibet and Xinjiang, the CCP’s “digital Leninism lab”, further clarifies their function as tools of state policy and makes a state-subordinate role abroad even more likely.

Huawei signs a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government. Source: Huawei.

Huawei’s exports of smart-city technology have been expanding from authoritarian and hybrid towards democratic countries. The former Soviet Union is a potentially important market, with, e.g., a smart-city project slowly progressing in Baku, a 2017 agreement in Armenia, an (aborted) deal in Kyrgyzstan and talks with local governments in Russia.

Huawei signs an agreement with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

Smart-city forays farther West have arguably used the localisation tactics often deployed by PRC entities in Europe, seeking subnational-level faits accomplis by courting local officials and eschewing the attention of potentially critical national audiences.

Huawei’s ‘smart cityproject in Valenciennes seemed well received locally, with the mayor calling it “a €2bn gift to the city”.

Smart-city deals in Prague would give Huawei an upgrade from the regional successes it has seen in France and Germany to claim a capital city as it has done in Azerbaijan. It remains to be seen if the less authoritarian-friendly Czech public opinion will welcome this westward advance.

Global warnings

These circumstances have been largely known for years, and have long generated concerns among analysts, politicians and intelligence agencies in multiple countries. Only in the last few months, however, have these concerns crystallized into actual measures limiting the use of Huawei equipment, triggered by the United States and its intelligence partners rushing to exclude Huawei from 5G, the next generation of mobile phone technology.

The NÚKIB statement explicitly refers to previous warnings from Czech civilian and military intelligence. Indeed, the Czech concerns are not new: the 2013 annual report of the main Czech counterintelligence agency, the Security Information Service (BIS), called Huawei’s growing share of the local telecommunications market a “potential danger”. The use of Huawei phones at the presidential palace has generated controversy.

Since a US House of Representatives committee found in 2012 that Huawei had failed to establish its independence from the PRC state and the PLA, bad press has constantly rained on Ren’s company. That year, experts found Huawei equipment “riddled with holes”. A deal with AT&T to sell Huawei products fell through earlier this year “because of security concerns” after lawmakers from both houses wrote to the Federal Communications Commission warned about “espionage” risks. In February 2018, at a US Senate hearing, intelligence chiefs would not advise private citizens to use Huawei products.

Australia banned Huawei from the country’s broadband network in 2012. A 2016 deal to build an undersea communications cable between Australia, the Solomon islands and Papua-New Guinea was dropped over Australia’s concerns.

These difficulties pushed the company to focus on other markets, such as Europe. While Huawei has become a major player in network technology in several European countries, concerns about the security implications have been growing among analysts and security services.

Propaganda materials supportive of Huawei have used the British example to dismiss security concerns elsewhere. However, such concerns have long been present in the UK as well. In 2013, a parliamentary committee found the “self-policing arrangement” put in place to evaluate the security of Huawei equipment used in network architecture “highly unlikely” to provide “the required levels of security assurance”. Last July GCHQ downgraded their assessment of Huawei’s security, after finding shortcomings and exposing “new risks in the UK telecommunication networks”. Earlier this month, the head of the MI6 called for a “conversation” on the role of Chinese companies in the country’s 5G network, as news emerged that BT was removing Huawei equipment from its core 3G and 4G networks.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom made headlines with a statement about “reassessing” its procurement strategy. Although the Federal Office for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, BSI) has explicitly denied there are grounds for a Huawei ban, some within the ruling coalition are reportedly concerned about allowing Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G network. Analysts and politicians have expressed worries over Huawei infrastructure, earlier this year in the light of the intelligence service’s public concern about cooperation between Chinese companies and PRC security services, and now specifically on the 5G issue.

The NÚKIB warning came shortly after unusually blunt statements cautioning against Huawei from the Anglophone intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes. Intelligence chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US met in Canada last summer to discuss the risks presented to their countries by Huawei in particular, and the PRC more broadly. The meeting took the unusual step of making its concerns public. Four Five-Eyes prime ministers had earlier agreed in London to avoid becoming dependent on Huawei’s 5G technology.

A series of measures against public procurement in the Five Eyes countries followed. Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network in August. In late November, New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau blocked Huawei from providing 5G equipment to a telecom after identifying “a significant network security risk”. The New Zealand case is especially remarkable: with the exception of the Green Party, which had already called for an investigation of Huawei in 2012, the political class had avoided criticism or explicitly supported the company’s growth in the country.

The Danish case provides a good illustration of the effect the Five Eyes’ newly militant attitude can have on European allies, giving Huawei cause to worry about a domino effect. The Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE) advised in strong terms against giving Huawei access to the country’s infrastructure in a 2011 classified report, before changing its mind two years later to approve a deal with TDC, the country’s largest telecom. While politicians and media reports continued to raise suspicions about Huawei, the FE continued to defend Huawei’s presence, stating in 2015 that TDC-Huawei agreements had “increased the security” of telecommunications networks. As late as last February, reacting to US warnings against Huawei equipment, the FE saw “no concrete grounds to advise against smartphones from specific manufacturers of countries”. Following the MI6 head’s recent statements, however, his Danish counterpart admitted Huawei’s possible involvement in the country’s 5G network is now of interest to the security organs, explicitly referring to “the dynamics between companies in China and the Chinese state”.

Perhaps most dramatically, Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟, who happens to be the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in Canada on Dec 1 at the request of the US. An extradition battle is now being fought at Canadian courts, with the stakes illustrated by PRC’s counter-move – the arrest of at least two Canadian citizens in China in what looks like preemptive hostage-taking. The current climate extends those concerns to a third case, and has lent media interest to the cases of several “forgotten” Canadian victims of politically motivated arrests in China, notably of Chinese or Uyghur ethnicity. Some of these cases feature the increasingly extraterritorial application of the PRC’s repression apparatus, with abductions outside the PRC’s jurisdiction and the unlawful treatment of foreigners of Chinese origin as PRC nationals—two characteristics illustrated in the case of Swedish editor Gui Minhai 桂民海, recently discussed on Sinopsis.

Huawei’s CEE front: the case of Poland

Given the very public concern about Huawei in Five Eyes countries, there isn’t much the PRC can do to counter the procurement bans there. Just like in the trade war, much of the battle is therefore taken to third countries, especially those cultivated by China recently through the BRI and related activities. The countries in former Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe targeted in the PRC’s “16+1” initiative are one of the hottest battlegrounds, sitting as it were on two chairs that keep pulling further apart: the EU and NATO memberships, actual or desired, on one side, and the “special relationships” with the PRC on the other.

The Czech warning is particularly significant as it risks setting in motion a domino effect in other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, an important market for Huawei.

Contagion to Poland, the largest country in the region, would be especially damaging. Huawei’s Polish foray has been particularly successful. The Polish government has remained silent on the security implications of the use of Huawei products. Huawei’s way to the Polish 5G network seems unimpeded: while its French parent declines to use Huawei equipment at home, Orange Poland has begun 5G tests in partnership with Huawei. Last month, Huawei co-sponsored and took part in a debate on artificial intelligence organised by the Polish state news agency and featuring two ministers.

Recent developments show Poland’s significance within the CCP’s discourse management activities. Official caution towards the PRC has become pronounced, with PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s recent call to “maintain the proper level of deterrence, not against the forces of the free world, but against China and Russia” and, not two weeks ago, a MFA statement on industrial cyber-espionage attributed to China. Efforts to create a more friendly image of the CCP are illustrated in a full-page advert praising Xi Jinping in Poland’s leading centre-right daily, paid by an entity the paper has refused to identify. Huawei’s link to the CCP’s broader propaganda and influence efforts can be seen in the fact that one of the company’s Polish interlocutors is a senior target of elite “friendly contact”.

It was Marek Suski, the head of the PM’s cabinet, who announced last month after talks with Huawei in Shanghai that the company planned to invest in a research and development center near Warsaw. Suski is a preferred interlocutor of the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), the organ whose ‘party-to-Party’ purview has been extended from fellow Communist parties to embrace the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum in a form of United Front work that targets foreign politicians.

Marek Suski meets an ILD deputy head before the 19th CCP Congress.

At a meeting with ILD deputy head Shen Beili 沈蓓莉 in October last year, Suski congratulated the CCP on the occasion of its 19th Congress and stated his party’s willingness to use the “joint construction of the Belt and Road” as an opportunity for cooperation. Last May, Suski made news in the country after a Polish journalist spotted him at an ILD-organised ‘dialogue with world parties’ event in Shenzhen. As Sinologist Katarzyna Sarek commented soon after the event, it was remarkable for Suski, a member of the ostensibly anti-Communist ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), to attend an event glorifying a ruling Communist party simultaneously with the celebration of Marx’s 200th anniversary (notably graced by a politician registered as an agent of the Czechoslovak secret police). To further illustrate the irony, in the very same month, the PiS government had to apologise after the police showed up at an academic conference on Marxism to establish whether a crime of propagating totalitarianism had been committed.

Friends on demand

Given the stakes, it’s hardly surprising the NÚKIB public warning against Huawei in the Czech Republic immediately led to a diplomatic showdown. In the Chinese press, the Huawei “ban” in the CR is portrayed as a litmus test of the company’s future in the “vast majority of countries in the World” (outside of the Five Eyes alliance). The CR is also relatively easy to put pressure upon, given the “elite capture” systematically performed in the last five years by, among others, the notorious CEFC conglomerate, one of whose top representatives, Patrick Ho (何志平), has just been convicted at a federal court in Manhattan on seven counts related to large-scale corruption involving senior UN officials and African politicians. Ho’s direct superior, (former) CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明, remains an official advisor to President Miloš Zeman, the most openly pro-Beijing Czech politician, despite being held for almost a year incommunicado in China by the CCP’s disciplinary organs.

Huawei has a history of employing ‘friendly contact’ and the recruitment of foreign figures for its PR efforts, intended to deflect attention from its background and practices and present itself as a ‘normal’ private company. As an high-profile entity linked to the Party-state-Army and enjoying its support, Huawei has used methods typical of the Party-state’s liaison and United Front activities, including ‘localised’ interactions targeting governments and academia. As the recent Czech developments illustrate, these efforts enjoy the backing of the PRC propaganda machine.

Despite the national ban, Huawei has continued to bid in Australia at the state level, notably winning a contract to build a railway mobile data network in Western Australia, ignoring security warnings. Years earlier, a minister involved in negotiating the deal had benefited from Huawei’s generosity during a China trip to get “an insight into Huawei’s operations”, partially paid by the company; the WA ruling party’s links with United Front figures have continued to emerge.

In New Zealand, a country noted for the degree of influence the CCP has achieved in local politics through years of United Front work, politicians have been particularly supportive of the company. Huawei has used the example of New Zealand’s “embrace” of Huawei “within their own security frameworks” in PR campaigns meant to assuage security fears. Former prime minister John Key’s support for Huawei goes back to 2010, when he personally announced its possible involvement in a broadband bid. Key defended Huawei in parliament in 2012, reportedly disagreeing with security agency warnings. Key’s “support” for Huawei, contrasting with Australia’s concerns, was recognised by PRC state media. The previous government lauded a Huawei investment last year. The current Labour-led government, which continues to refuse to address evidence of CCP influence activities in the country, reportedly hesitated before naming the PRC as the author of a global IP theft campaign. After the warning against Huawei 5G technology, the minister responsible for the intelligence services rushed to deny it was a “ban” against “a particular company or a particular country”.

Huawei has sponsored work praising its technology by the Brookings Institution, a US think tank.

Jeffrey Sachs speaks at a CEFC event with Patrick Ho in 2016. Source: 中国经济网.

Friendly ties and the state’s support for Huawei became activated as the company faced an unfavorable climate in the West. Notably, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist, published an op-ed attacking the US over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. Challenged on Twitter, Sachs, a special advisor to the UN secretary general on sustainable development, praised “the many benefits of Huawei technologies for sustainable development” while denying he was aware of the Xi’s Xinjiang internment camps. Sachs had stated similar praise for Huawei in his foreword to a Huawei promotional brochure. Unusually for a Twitter discussion, the one involving Sachs motivated a condemnation from the Global Times.

Sachs is, in fact, linked to the efforts to install CCP discourse at the UN, recently covered on Sinopsis. As Inner City Press has noted, Sachs has been listed as an “advisor” in CEFC materials. For at least three years, he spoke at CEFC events featuring Patrick Ho, still at large, where he praised the agreement between CCP initiatives and the UN sustainable development goals. Crucially, Sachs has sat on the advisory board of former UN general assembly president Vuk Jeremić’s think tank CIRSD since its establishment in 2013. Jeremić is another of the UN officials Patrick Ho cultivated: he became a CEFC “consultant” right after leaving his post, and was paid hundreds of thousands to “open doors” for CEFC. Even though CEFC has been neutralised by the fall of Ho and Ye, CIRSD is among the organisations still active in the discourse engineering enterprise, which perhaps motivated the Chinese state-media intervention over a social media conversation. Sachs deleted his quarter-million follower Twitter account soon after these links were exposed.

Showdown in Prague

In the Czech Republic, the PRC has many “friendly contacts” to call upon. Unusually for the pre-holiday season, it only took four days after the NÚKIB warning for PM Andrej Babiš to convene the State Security Council (Bezpečnostní rada státu, BRS), a rather toothless government body, to urgently discuss the “ban”. PM Babiš has been much weakened by recent scandals around the apparent abuse of EU subsidies for his business conglomerate. In the state of almost permanent government crisis since the last elections more than a year ago, he is much dependent on political support from President Zeman. His minority government also needs the parliamentary support of the Communist party (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM). Zeman and the KSČM are among the most staunchly pro-CCP voices in the country.

The BRS issued a pithy statement emphasising, apparently for Chinese ears, the obvious fact that NÚKIB is independent of the government, which cannot make it revoke or revise its warnings. Among a series of brief paragraphs stating the obvious, one stands out: that the agency is not qualified to comment on the international situation or on other states’ legal arrangements. Since the main public justification for the NÚKIB warning was the legal requirement for PRC citizens and companies to assist in intelligence gathering when called upon, such statement sounds like an indirect rebuke to the document.

More importantly, the PRC side staged a peculiar diplomatic ritual when it forced a meeting between the Babiš and the ambassador in Prague, Zhang Jianmin 张建敏, on the rather undiplomatic date of Sunday, 23 December. The meeting was not reported by the government through the usual channels, but only by the embassy, on its website (Chinese, Czech) and in a Facebook post. The embassy’s account of the meeting makes Babiš appear as doing a full turn-around on the Huawei issue. He supposedly called the NÚKIB warning “a hasty decision”, caused by “a misleading warning”. The post then employs some rather arrogant language:

Ambassador Zhang pointed out that the warning issued by a Czech agency, which is not at all grounded on reality, had had a detrimental impact and the Chinese side resolutely protests against it. He said that the Chinese side acknowledges the Czech government’s effort to rectify the relevant mistakes and hopes that the Czech side adopts effective measures to prevent such events in the future and to effectively protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese firms.

The language did not go down well with the Czech public, already quite sensitive to Chinese activities in the country and the unconditional support it receives from part of the political establishment. Despite the holiday season, the FB post already generated a lot of discussion on social media, mostly highly critical. The opposition was quick to seize on it, with politicians variously stating that the Czech Republic has fallen “in the hands of servile collaborators with undemocratic powers” or that the PM’s reversal at “a meeting with representatives of a country that threatens” the country’s information security meant he was “escaping his responsibility” to protect it.

Andrej Babiš with ambassador Zhang Jianmin. Source: PRC embassy.

Such undiplomatic language, guaranteed to further undermine the PRC image in the Czech Republic, was more likely intended for international audiences, amplified through state media. The heavy-handed response by the PRC embassy seems intended to preempt a replicating effect in the region and beyond, where a similar debate about Huawei is likely to take place sooner or later.

The immediate propaganda reaction further cements the idea that the Babiš administration’s attempt to contain the effects of the NÚKIB warning followed coordinated PRC pressure. One day after the BRS statement, a story by Xinhua’s senior Prague correspondent declared the Czech government had “corrected its mistake” on Huawei. The story soon made it to the English-language Global Times, in the sloppy English characteristic of stories pushed by higher-ups in propaganda organs.

After the backlash over Christmas, Babiš resurfaced to refute the embassy’s account of the meeting.

The Chinese ambassador commented in an unusual and public way about a meeting he had urgently requested, where he stated the Chinese side’s position in a very non-standard way.

Babiš explicitly denied that the government had made a “mistake” with the intelligence warning, as PRC state media had proclaimed: “I don’t know what the ambassador is talking about”, he said, adding that “the government takes the NÚKIB’s warning seriously”. The Czech-language statement is, however, unlikely to reach the Chinese public or the larger audience targeted by the PRC external propaganda organs. The goal of ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys’ remains feasible, despite Babiš’ newfound sovereign zeal.

“Friendly contact” conquers all

The Party-state’s efforts to protect Huawei, from friendly op-eds to the Christmas démarche in Prague, show the usefulness of the long-term build-up of influence work. Even countries of less immediate international significance can become key assets: at a critical juncture for a ‘national champion’ desperate to keep the CEE market, politicians and commentators who have developed pro-CCP positions can be called in its defence. With a quick coordinated reaction between Xinhua and the embassy, the propaganda battle being waged in Prague can resonate throughout the region and beyond.

The PRC’s leverage over the Czech Republic, a country where its FDI has been negligible, ultimately reveals various forms of ‘liaison’ and United Front work as cheaper and more effective tools of foreign policy than trade and investment.

With thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Geoff Wade

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more on Shenghe’s Greenland deal

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Shenghe Resources’ agreement to buy into the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit) uranium and rare-earth project in Greenland from ASX-listed GME includes an option to eventually acquire a controlling stake. That simple observation, based on just reading Shenghe’s Shanghai Stock Exchange disclosure, generated some attention after being picked up by Danish daily Politiken and later reflected in Greenlandic media. While rather unremarkable, the 60% option snowballed into something of a controversy after GME started denying its existence, which even prompted Greenland’s resource minister to say they were “investigating” the matter. The fact that GME’s own announcements and press comments didn’t say a word on Shenghe’s further plans for over a week led sources to speculate on the reasons they’d want to keep quiet about what would seem to be rather good news. Yesterday, after letting all this speculation brew for more than a week, GME published an announcement to ‘further clarify’ the issue, now in terms entirely consistent with Shenghe’s announcement. GME also wrote to Greenland’s state broadcaster KNR, admitting for the first time that Shenghe “can be interested in a direct share of the project on a level of up to 60%” (my back-translation from the Danish). Any misunterstandings are blamed on ‘translations’. (Translator-scapegoating is a time-honoured custom in the Chinese business world; cf. this old post of mine, that includes quotes from the Sino-Arctic Bard.)

At any rate, whatever discord ‘translators’ (or the media) might have sown, GME’s current official stance doesn’t contradict Shenghe’s official announcements. We can therefore continue to consider the SSE announcement authoritative.

I don’t normally publish translations of extended passages here, since that feels like doing other people’s homework, but in the interest of readers from Greenland, who are surely entitled to know the details about a project of such importance, I’m going to provide the relevant parts of Shenghe’s SSE disclosure together with a quick-and-dirty (rather literal) translation (original text here).

Page 2, under “Overview of the transaction”.

在科瓦内湾项目取得采矿证且技术优化完成后,基于双方届时洽谈的商业条款,盛和资源可选择收购不超过60%项目权益。

After the Kvanefjeld project has obtained an exploitation permit and completed technical optimisation, on the basis of commercial terms that will be negotiated between the two sides, Shenghe Resources may choose to acquire an interest in the project not exceeding 60%.

Page 9, under “Future cooperation in the project”.

在目标公司就科瓦内湾项目的采矿权申请取得相关格陵兰政府批准且技术合作项目的进展得到各方的满意后,认购方可以书面方式通知公司:其希望取得项目60%的权益。公司收到该通知后,各方将友好协商并购交易的条款,包括收购的交易对价、项目的融资情况,以及成立合资实体(不论是公司还是非公司形式)以开发项目。该并购将受限于所有必要的政府许可。

After the Target Company [GME] has obtained the approval of the Greenlandic authorities regarding the application for an exploitation permit for the Kvanefjeld project and technical cooperation has progressed to the satisfaction of both sides, the Subscriber [Shenghe Leshan] may formally notify the Company [GME] in writing of its intention to obtain a 60% interest in the project. After receiving said notification, both sides shall amicably negotiate the terms for a merger or acquisition transaction, including the value of the transaction, the project’s financial situation, and establish a joint entity (be it of company or non-company type) in order to develop the project. Said merger or acquisition shall be subject to all the necessary government approvals.

Thus spake Shenghe. As anyone who’s been involved in business negotiations with Chinese partners knows, the language tends to be less explicit in Chinese than in English documents. In particular, it could be argued that the Chinese document is ambiguous on whether GME has an obligation to consider Shenghe’s eventual intention. In practice, however, this ambiguity is of little practical consequence, since, as I noted in my previous post, the language implies that there’s no obligation to sell (that’s the ‘amicable’ part).

For completeness, here are the relevant parts of GME’s latest ASX announcement:

As part of the broader strategic relationship and subject to the Company receiving a mining (exploitation) licence for the Kvanefjeld Project and the successful completion of technical cooperation to enhance the Project, Shenghe may notify the Company of their intention to negotiate terms to acquire a direct interest in the Project, in association with project development.

Should this occur, the parties would enter into commercial negotiations in good faith. Any such project level investment and associated agreement would be subject to regulatory and commercial considerations, as well as relevant approvals. There is no contractual obligation on either party to reach such an agreement.

This is consistent with Shenghe’s announcement, except it doesn’t say ‘60%’ and adds an explicit statement that the option is non-binding.

To sum up, a Chinese state-linked company has a non-binding option to buy a majority stake in a major uranium and rare-earth project in Greenland, as I was the first to report in two blog posts. This is important news, but entirely unsurprising, as it has long been known that the main Greenland mining projects are actively seeking to involve Chinese players.

Kvanefjeld is the most important mining project with short and medium-term real prospects in Greenland, and is of global significance as a major REE deposit. The agreement (and especially the 60% option) is very good news for GME, whose shares rose sharply during the weeks leading to the signature of the deal, and are expected to keep climbing as more information emerges on the project’s technical progress. Greenland ministers also welcome the deal, which is also unsurprising given they’ve been actively looking for Chinese investors (with mixed success) for a long time.

On the other hand, the project is not free from controversy. Opposition to the project is known to exist in both Greenland and Denmark. Such opposition mainly comes from two angles: concerns, strongest in Greenland, about environmental issues (both about mining in general and uranium mining in particular) and qualms, mainly operative in Denmark, about China’s influence in the region. Greenland is a democratic society, meaning that engaging the public on these issues is an essential part of developing a mining deal. Chinese companies (and Shenghe specifically) tend to be poorly prepared to deal with that aspect of mining investment, which is one of the reasons partnerships with Western companies are sought. GME have been active in Greenland for quite some time and can be expected to interact with the public in a reasonably smooth way, even if their handling of the 60% storm-in-a-teacup wasn’t that slick. Kvanefjeld, Chinese investment and Chinese labour are also enough of a known quantity in Greenlandic public discourse by now, meaning that the brouhaha that surrounded the Isua project isn’t likely to come back, at least not in the same form.

To my great delight, the online edition of Greenland paper Sermitsiaq, which I frequently read, has reported in Danish on my account of Shenghe’s state links.

the 60% saga: update on Shenghe in Greenland

Two separate sources say Greenland Minerals and Energy, the Australian company that has agreed to sell a stake in a Greenland uranium and rare earth project to Shenghe 盛和 Resources, now denies the agreement includes an option for Shenghe to increase its interest to a controlling one once the project enters the development stage.

An option to acquire a controlling stake (up to 60%) in the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) project is discussed in clear terms in a Shenghe Shanghai Stock Exchange disclosure, as I was seemingly the first English-language source to report. The language suggests GME is not bound to sell Shenghe such a large share, should they ask for it.

The purchase option should be good news for GME, so it’s hard to see why they would deny it.

It’s been known for ever that some sort of more or less Chinese state-connected involvement would eventually begin in Kvanefjeld. GME had long had a non-binding agreement with a unit of China Nonferrous (中色); as explained in some detail in my post from last week, Shenghe’s main shareholders are also mostly state organs.

This information has now reached the mainstream media. Various experts quoted by Politiken draw (geo)political implications of the deal. Rear Admiral (kontreadmiral) Nils Wang, an Arctic expert with the Danish Defence College, expects the deal to attract attention in the US: “It’s very easy to interpret this not just as the classic Chinese-style long-term thinking, but also as two [the other one being General Nice (俊安集团) purchase of Isua] of China’s slowly creating for themselves in Greenland the same kind of soft-power influence they already have in Iceland”. In Greenland, Aaja Chemnitz Larsen of the opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), talks of “a need to know how big an influence China can get over the project”, on which she intends to query the Greenlandic and Danish governments. So that’s already a Greenlandic politician and a Danish kontreadmiral for whom the 60% number and Shenghe’s state connections could be interesting data points.

CRI’s network of ‘borrowed boats’ hits the news, state media responds

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.

outsourced soft power channels Xi Jinping’s dream to Icelanders

“Chinese propaganda,” translated for the convenience of Icelandic readers, is being delivered by news site gbtimes, writes Hjálmar Friðriksson on Stundin. While most of the content on the Icelandic version of Gbtimes, notably an article praising Xi Jinping’s concept of the ‘Chinese dream‘, is simply translated from English originals, some of it is occasionally produced ex nihilo when touching on Iceland-related topics, says its staff of one freelancer, interviewed for Hjálmar’s article. Gbtimes also has versions in English and a few other languages, especially covering the Nordics and the Baltic states. The English version seems to carry the most original content. The issue isn’t thus particularly Icelandic, and the publication isn’t particularly new either, but I thought the Stundin article on it was as good a trigger as any to take a look at what might be the only Icelandic-language media entity aligned with the Chinese state, and to provide some context to judge that ‘propaganda’ label against.

At first sight, the Gbtimes site doesn’t differ that much from the your typical Chinese foreign-language state media outlet, with its assorted general-interest stories punctuated by articles relaying official talking points on issues like South China Sea sovereignty claims, Hong Kong chief executive nomination procedures, Taiwan independence and human rights abuses outside China.

There are surprises though. The French version includes a discussion with a French history teacher on the Tibetan empire and its relations with Tang China, including the brief occupation of the Tang capital Chang’an by Tibetan troops in 763. While the facts in her account are undisputed, the presentation is markedly different from what you typically read in materials produced by state media, especially in those meant for the edification of foreign readers: there, you’d hardly expect to go over a few paragraphs (or a few minutes of audio) without intoning some mantra or another about Tibet inalienably and uninterruptedly and undeniably belonging to China since unfathomable antiquity. Indeed, recently these claims are being pushed as far back as the 7th century. GBTimes (still not sure what to capitalise in there) chose to illustrate the story with a map prominently showing a large Tibetan empire, as of 800, bordering on a separate China drawn in a different colour. Not something you’d see every day in places like the People’s Daily.

And now this, on the English version: ‘World Report 2015 highlights plight of China’s Uighurs‘. The ‘world report’ in question is that produced annually by Human Right Watch, which the GBtimes article links to, describes as highlighting “China’s crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang”, and paraphrases as stating that “the lack of information emerging makes it impossible to know whether crackdowns in the region are aimed at the right people.” The paraphrase turns out to be a bit too liberal if you check the report, but it’s still a far cry from state media takes on HRW, which would rather refer to it as a “so-called NGO” grouping “self-styled American observers and commentators”. They’d also refrain from linking to any references to mis-aimed ‘crackdowns’ resulting in anybody’s ‘plight’. The Gbtimes article has a picture, taken from the HRW report, of none other than Cao Shunli 曹顺利, an activist who died in March 2014 after almost six months in detention. Mainstream media in China largely ignored Cao’s death, a UN statement on the incident was dutifully censored, and the English-language China Daily quoted an official statement denying she had been denied medical attention. Although the Gbtimes doesn’t as much as mention Cao’s name, and her relevance to a story on Xinjiang is unclear, that picture, or pretty much anything else coming from HRW, wouldn’t be your typical state press organ’s choice of illustration. Just like the Tibet story, it looks like a mistake, but not a state-media sort of mistake.

The reason is that Gbtimes is not a typical Chinese state media outlet. The website is operated by a company based in Tampere, Finland and led by Chinese media entrepreneur Zhao Yinong 赵亦农. Mr Zhao arrived in Tampere as a student and worked as a tai chi instructor before turning to the media. His company FutuVision (大众明天集团), not much easier to capitalise, started producing media content in the early 2000’s. The gbtimes.com domain includes an online store where you can shop for Chinese textbooks and tea (though they seem to be short of the latter). So what we have is a private businessman whose endeavours include a China news site, conceivably funded by advertising, with a perspective fortuitously, though imperfectly, aligned with that of Xinhua?

Well, not quite. The company behind the site, Gbtimes Oy (环球时代传媒有限公司), was actually established as a joint venture between Zhao and a subsidiary of China Radio International (CRI, 国际台), which is about as much of a state-media outlet as they come. Zhao’s Gbtimes was also one half of an agreement signed in 2012 to broadcast CRI content in Portuguese on Rádio Íris, an FM station near Lisbon. Zhao is also involved in Confucius Institute activities in Finland, also in partnership with CRI. The only thing on the Gbtimes (English) website that looks like advertising is content promoting Zhejiang province and the city of Zhengzhou. Zhengzhou’s campaign on Gbtimes, which also involves a radio programme, was launched in August last year, at an event attended by CRI representatives and the head of Zhengzhou’s Propaganda Department.

In a statement on its partnership with CRI, Zhao’s company FutuVision Media described its mission in the context of efforts to increase international recognition for Chinese brands (and ‘Made in China’ as a brand), a drive led by government organs and endorsed by the country’s top leaders. The company specialises in “producing localised radio and Internet content” in multiple languages, in order to “report on China’s economic, trade and social development” and disseminate Chinese culture, “based on the thinking, listening and watching habits of Western audiences.”

Tailoring the message to Western audiences helps Chinese companies ‘going out’, explained Zhao in a 2012 CRI interview: international media differ from those in China both in their basic principles and in how they’re operated, and as a result of such differences they will often jump to conclusions and unwarranted speculation when analysing Chinese companies’ activities abroad. This “has a very strong influence on our companies ‘going out’. We’re not used to such Western modes of operation. It can’t be denied that in the examples of our unsuccessful takeovers, these Western media have added fuel to the fire (起到了推波助澜的作用).” An inability to communicate with foreign media is a generalised problem among Chinese companies. These should think ways of “bringing out their story and create an image as responsible members of the society.”

Zhao’s views are endorsed by officials involved in these promotion efforts. In 2012, during a meeting with Zhao in his capacity as CRI representative, Ding Wei 丁伟, at the time China’s ambassador to Italy and now the country’s vice minister of culture, praised the state broadcaster’s outreach efforts as part of the country’s media ‘going out’ strategy.

Gbtimes is not the only element of these outreach efforts. CRI has partnered with a few other media companies in the West to deliver localised content, in at least some cases investing in them or creating joint ventures through a subsidiary. These partnerships have two things in common: they tend to be led by Chinese nationals already active in the local media business, and something about them ends up being named ‘global’ (环球 huánqiú, also part of the Chinese name of other CRI products). This, by the way, explains the capitalisation-resistant name the CRI-Zhao Finnish company was rebaptised with in 2012: the ‘gb’ in GBtimes simply stands for ‘global’, but the more euphonious ‘Global Times’ was already taken (by everyone’s favourite nationalist tabloid). Around the time of the agreement with Gbtimes to broadcast CRI content, Lisbon station Rádio Íris sold a stake to Zhang Liang 詹亮, owner of a Pu hua bao 葡华报, a newspaper targeting the local Chinese community. That stake would later grow to become a controlling one. The station, now managed by Zhang himself, has become part of Iberia Universal (called ‘global Iberia’ in Chinese: 环球伊比利亚传媒集团), a company established in 2013 and also active in Spain. From Melbourne, CAMG Media (环球凯歌国际传媒集团) oversees a network of offices and radio stations in Asia and South America. In California, CRI’s outreach drive is embodied in G&E Television (环球东方广播电视有限公司), owned by James Su (苏彦韬), a Shanghai native whose company EDI Media Inc. owns radio stations and printed media targeted at the local Chinese community, while at the same time it “becomes China’s outward media and adverting proxy“, whatever that might mean.

So we have a global network of Chinese-owned stations partnering with a state broadcaster to provide content tailored to local audiences. These are subcontractors rather than part of the parent entity, and existed in some form as autonomous businesses before joining CRI’s outreach campaign, but CRI is influential enough in those partnerships to, for example, convince them all to be renamed into something ‘global’ more or less at the same time. The slight dissonance emanating from the Tibet and Xinjiang stories would only show that CRI’s oversight over what goes on at the other end of those partnerships is not that strict.

CRI president Wang Gengnian 王庚年 explained the motivations behind the broadcaster’s expansion abroad in an 2009 article in Xinhua journal Chinese Journalist 中国记者, later reproduced on the online version of Qiushi 求是, the Party Central Committee’s theory magazine. Having a voice on the international stage, argues Wang, would allow China to “influence and guide international public opinion trends, as well as influence international mainstream society and mainstream media,” helping create a better global environment for the country’s development while promoting its “soft power”. China’s international voice, however, hasn’t grown proportionally to its economic clout, and the international media landscape is still dominated by the West. Moreover, Western countries have recently been building an “encirclement” around China using radio, TV and online media, targeting the country with nearby broadcast stations and over a hundred dedicated frequencies. It’s the task of China’s foreign-targeted media, such as CRI, to overcome these challenges to “compete to lead international public opinion” and let China’s voice be heard worldwide. Now this struggle requires taking into account the specific characteristics of international audiences, choosing methods that will “make the world understand and accept” a delivery of “a China standpoint” through “an international expression (中国立场,国际表达).” Tasks faced by CRI thus include matching “what we would like to broadcast” with “what overseas audiences care about” and striving to “set the agenda” on the international media stage. To achieve these goals, CRI’s strategy is to increase worldwide coverage by deploying reporters and special correspondents and set up content production rooms, guided and overseen by regional stations.

Wang goes on to tell an early success story: CRI’s “irreplaceable role” in presenting Turkish audiences with an official narrative in the aftermath of the 2009 Ürümqi riots, the ‘July 5 incident’ (7·5事件). Uyghur issues resonate strongly in Turkey, and the authorities’ handling of the Xinjiang riots was condemned from the highest level of the Turkish government: a minister called to boycott Chinese goods and president Erdoğan talked of ‘genocide’. Wang’s article explains how, in order to “counter distorting attacks” directed at China “by foreign hostile forces Western media,” CRI partnered with local FM station Yön Radyo to generate and deliver content presenting the “truth” on the issue. This message reached over a million listeners on the Internet, and they reportedly liked it just fine: “the audience thought that information provided by CRI was more complete and truthful than that from other domestic and foreign media.” The case left CRI with a “successful experience” of “effective international broadcasting targeted at a specific group” by cooperating with an overseas radio station, “borrowing a boat to go out to sea (借船出海).”

The nautical simile was again used to describe CRI’s global outreach by CRI editor Zhang Hui 张晖 in an account of the broadcaster’s multilingual coverage of the 2014 CPPCC-NPC (‘Two Sessions’) meeting delivered at the All-China Journalists Association. Going over the efforts taken by CRI to “broadcast the Two Sessions to the world”, Zhang tells how the quartet of CRI overseas companies with ‘global’ in their name (GBTimes and the other three mentioned above) dispatched journalists to cover the meetings live from Beijing, and even asked assorted officials no less than five questions during press conferences. A Xinhua picture shows GBTimes journalist Andrew Jones formulating a question at a press conference with vice-minister of environmental protection Wu Xiaoqing 吴晓青. Although I haven’t been able to locate the question or its answer on the GBTimes site, the organisation did report extensively on the Beijing event, including an opinion piece on Xi Jinping’s ‘China dream’ (‘Simple, powerful, popular‘) by Jones and shock headlines like ‘Top legislator pledges better legislation as China deepens reform‘.

Such news conferences are known to be staged. Foreign faces brought to them by the ‘global’ quartet of CRI-affiliated outlets may help give the impression of a more spontaneous affair, but the blandness of their questions, and the poorly-concealed actual affiliation of their employers, render the spectacle rather unconvincing. The woman sitting behind Gbtimes’ Jones in the picture linked above, Louise Kenney, represented CAMG, CRI’s Australian partner. When she was called to ask a question at another NPC conference, the press corps reacted to its innocuousness by laughing and complaining about “shills” and “fake foreign media”. In an ABC interview, Andrea Yu, CAMG’s reporter at the event two years before and the object of similar derision, hesitated to describe her job as “real journalism” and alleged she didn’t know about CAMG’s government connections when she began her employment there, a full month before being dispatched to cover a major political event.

Although GBtimes only caught the attention of Icelandic media a few days ago, thereby falling within the purview of this blog and motivating me to write this joyful, succinct article, other Western media had written about the outlet and its state affiliation before. My ignorance of Finnish prevents me from saying much about reporting in, say, Suomen Kuvalehti or YLE, but other European media wrote about Gbtimes triggered by a Helsingin Sanomat article in 2013. Mediated by Der Spiegel, we read Gbtimes vicepresident Henrik Resman: “We would achieve nothing with clumsy propaganda. People in the West are too critical of the media for that.” (The Chinese version of the Global Times later reported on the Spiegel report.) Earlier that year, Denmark’s Information asserted that the country’s “largest commercial radio stations are receiving money” in exchange for broadcasting Gbtimes content. Finnish sources quoted in the Danish article assert that CRI “keeps a close eye” on Gbtimes and “dictates an angle for news items” and forbids it from taking on the usual ‘sensitive’ topics. Exceptions do occur: similarly to the Tibet and Uyghur-related items I referred to above, Information caught a “mention” of the Tiananmen massacre during a Gbtimes radio programme.

A look inside GBTimes Tampere headquarters, or at least what they felt like almost seven years ago, comes through another Danish paper, Politiken. Jacob Zeuthen, then freshly fired from FutuVision’s Danish language desk, wrote at the time how Zhao’s company didn’t make money from selling content to radio stations. “Quite the contrary. Futuvision buys an hour’s airtime every week” from the stations it’s broadcast through in Danmark, France, Sweden and Finland. “Futuvision’s income [originates] exclusively from the company’s sponsors.” A main CRI demand back then was, apparently just like now, for the Finnish outlet to devote enough attention to the ‘Two Sessions’. At some point, they demanded a bit more: reader reactions about their coverage.

A problem appeared, writes Zeuthen, “due to the simple fact that [GBTimes’ previous incarnation] Radio86 doesn’t have particularly many readers.” Zeuthen had trouble coming to terms with “the perfect (‘gilt-edged’) solution to this problem” being just “to fabricate some replies and send them over to China.”

Feedback is indeed important: in the Qiushi-reproduced article quoted above, CRI head Wang Gengnian bragged about how in 2008 the state broadcaster “received more than 2.7 million letters and emails from listeners in 161 countries and regions.”

Edited on July 12 to fix wayward links and correct a few typos.

Danish, South Korean officials discuss Arctic navigation

Officials including Jeon Ki-Jeong 전기정, who leads the shipping and logistics bureau at South Korea’s ministry of oceans and fisheries (해양수산부), and Andreas Nordseth, director of the Danish Maritime Authority (Søfartsstyrelsen) and IMO sec-gen candidate, were scheduled to meet last Friday in Seoul to discuss cooperation between the two countries in Northern Sea Route navigation and talked about fostering the cruise industry. They also renewed a MOU on maritime shipping the two countries signed in 2012, making it valid for another three years.

coming to a Pole near you next month: 1000 sqmt Russian flag, 80+ smaller, still colossal ones

An event was held yesterday at Russia’s Civic Chamber (Общественная палата) to talk about an expedition to the North Pole planned for April, ahead of this year’s Victory Day celebrations. The expedition will convey a delegation expected to include officials and politicians through Murmansk and Franz Josef Land all the way up to, depending on the source, the Russian Geographical Society’s Barneo drifting ice base, or an ad-hoc base called ‘Station-Express 2015’ (Станция Экспресс 2015).

The expedition’s pièce de résistance will be the unfurling of a massive Russian flag with a surface area in excess of 1000 m2, together with the flags of the 85 federal subjects of Russia, from Yakutia to Crimea, and flags of various towns and other entities such as “socially responsible companies“. The regional flags were originally meant to measure a modest 12 m2, but yesterday’s event upgraded their dimensions to 250 m2. This won’t be the massive flag’s first public appearance: it has been previously displayed at patriotic events, such as one last June in a Moscow stadium. I imagine all these flags will be laid on the ice and photographed from the air, since holding them above the ground, let alone raising them up poles, would seem rather tricky.

The people behind the project do know a thing or two about flagpoles anyway, since they are also involved in another project that envisages erecting Russia’s tallest. At 175 m, that flagpole might well become not just Russia’s, but the world’s tallest, retrospectively annulling the irony in a mordant 2011 Izvestia article that reflected on flagpole contests as a pastime “addicted to which are countries not among the world’s richest”. (At the time the tallest were in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and North Korea.)

The project is organised by an “international ecological movement” called “Living Planet” (Живая планета) whose most visible figures are Oleg Oleynik Олег Олейник and well-known biologist and television presenter Nikolai Drozdov Николай Дроздов. Other than displaying enormous flags, this international ecologist movement’s main activities appear to be conducting ecological audits for goods such as mineral water, and awarding the “Global Eco Brand” prize to companies and organisations. Their patriotic activities have enjoyed various forms of support from state and Orthodox church officials. The ministry of emergency situations will be lending an Antonov An-74 for the trip, and among other closely involved organisations we obviously have the Civic Chamber, a high-level government oversight body with a core membership of presidential appointees, who organised yesterday’s event, and of which Mr Drozdov is a member, and the Geographical Society, whose president is Sergey Shoigu, currently the minister for defence and previously for emergency situations.

The organisers have produced an effusively patriotic video about the Arctic flag project, where it is made clear that, just like the flag once planted on the North Pole seabed “will stand [t]here for centuries, supporting the fact that it is Russian territory”, the Arctic flag ceremony next month will “show that we have the largest Russian flag, in order to mark our territory”.

Denmark has a long way to go if they intend to substantiate their own North Pole claim with an appropriately arresting flag display. The largest Danish flag ever seems to have spanned a meagre 150 m2 (the largest for sale at the moment stops at just 138), less than what places as Unarctic as Dagestan are sending to the Pole next month. Not to mention the inauspicious historical precedent: during the Scanian War (1675-1679), Christian V of Denmark, after retaking the Kärnan/Kernen fortress, had an enormous Dannebrog raised on top if it so that everyone understood that this time Scania would remain in Danish hands forever. The Swedes eventually took the flag and to this day they keep it in the Armémuseum in Stockholm.