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.

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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.

beware of the littoral-minded: China can’t be ‘just a passive onlooker’ of North Pole claims

So far there hasn’t been much of a Chinese media reaction to Denmark’s claim over a large swath of the Arctic, North Pole and all, as their territorial waters, something that has been called “the Kingdom’s greatest expansion since the Kalmar Union“. An article from last week, i.e. before the Danish official claim at the UN, in the ‘military affairs’ section of Sina does talk more generally about several countries “wrestling for control of the Arctic”, something China can’t afford to “just observe“.

Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a professor at the Ocean University of China (海大) in Qingdao and a well-known authority on Arctic issues, is quoted as emphasising the importance of the Arctic, both for its natural resources and as a shipping shortcut, from the point of view of the large resource needs imposed by China’s “peaceful rise” and long-term development. China can’t just passively watch while other countries scramble for the Arctic, the article adds, and must plan ahead and act to protect its legitimate interests in the region.

None of these views is new, and specifically people like professor Guo have consistently warned about the Arctic littoral states trying to keep the Arctic all for themselves.

As for specific coverage of the Danish claim, all Chinese media have had to offer thus far is short news sources to either the Financial Times or ‘Russian media’, such as this quickie making the rounds on Renminwang and elsewhere, which mirrors rather closely a TASS story and says right from the title that Denmark is claiming ’20 times their continental landmass’. Whatever the merits od the Danish claim, that number is a bit disingenuous since the roughly 900k km2 the Danes are asking for amount to less than half the area of Greenland, or, if you will, a meagre 25% of China’s own claim in warmer latitudes, also known as the nine-dash line or the Cow’s Tongue.

The TASS story those Chinese news items are drawing from appears to be a short English-language article that doesn’t quite shine for the editing standards you’d expect when discussing a high-stakes geopolitical intrigue: the article manages to refer to Denmark’s claim as “the Dutch application”. Now the Netherlands’ northernmost point does entitle them to be addressed as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (近北极国家)by Chinese standards, or they might for that matter even pull a Senkaku and ask for, say, Jan Mayen based on the exploits of the Noordsche Compagnie, but to my knowledge so far they’re staying put and leaving the Arctic alone. To be fair to the TASS editors, датский ‘Danish’ does sound a bit like ‘Dutch’, although according to Vasmer the words seem to be unrelated.

But the Russians have actually provided a more official reaction to the Danish ambitions, through natural resources minister Sergey Donskoy who said that the UN’s commission the Danes are claiming the North Pole at has actually no authority to give it to them. Mr Donskoy’s surname means ‘of the (river) Don Дон‘, just a soft sign away from Don’ Донь which was an old Russian name for Denmark.