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.

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new post: ‘borrowed boats’ and the outsourcing of Chinese soft power

Those curious about China Radio International’s subcontracted soft-power strategy might want to read my latest piece for the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute blog. The nodes implementing this strategy have been variously described as ‘borrowed boats’, ‘makeup’, ‘fake foreign media’ and a source of ‘foreign shills’. They are located all around the world, but the focus in my post is of course on the one serving the Nordics (specifically through an Icelandic-language version that triggered an article by Hjálmar Friðriksson last month on Stundin).

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.