Australia’s peak intelligence body has warned the government that Beijing has control over two-thirds of the country’s vast online Chinese-language media industry.
The Office of National Intelligence (ONI) has confidentially briefed the government on how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has co-opted leading Chinese-language news websites and WeChat accounts.
Officials within the Open Source Centre of ONI analysed 20-months’ worth of content from 14 online Chinese news websites and ten popular WeChat accounts, according to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
It also examined the ownership structures of these companies and any potential links to the CCP.
They concluded that more than two-thirds of Chinese online news sites had senior staff connected to organisations committing foreign interference on behalf of the CCP.
Australia’s ethnic Chinese population is 1.2 million strong, and accounts for just over 5 percent of the total population, according to the 2016 Census.
The ONI report found Chinese-language news media group Southeast Net Australia was entirely controlled by the CCP.
While popular digital media outlets, Pacific Media, Nanhai Media Group, and Sydney Today had links to the United Front Work Department (UFWD), Beijing’s foremost overseas infiltration body.
Pacific Media, which runs WeChat account au123, has been accused by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of being controlled by China News Service, Beijing’s second-largest state-owned media outlet.
China News Service plays a leading role in cultivating relationships with overseas Chinese media outlets to supply editorial content, the agency, in turn, is controlled by the UFWD.
Australian-based China News Service’s (CNS) bureau chief Tao Shelan was allegedly denied re-entry into the country following investigations by intelligence agencies.
CNS also runs a company which owns the Nanhai Media Group, which runs the WeSydney WeChat channel that has over 400,000 subscribers.
Sydney Today, arguably one of the largest Chinese-language digital news channels with an alleged one million followers, is managed by several figures with connections to the UFWD, according to the report.
Sydney Today also asserts online that it prefers to employ staff with at least two years’ experience working in mainland Chinese media. Mass media in China are subject to censorship and control from the CCP; staff are also trained to follow those rules.
The report also noted that independent Chinese-language media in Australia have been influenced by co-opted staff and content-sharing agreements, gradually shifting the editorial stance of these media outlet to a pro-Beijing position.
This sentiment was echoed by Chinese Epoch Times staffer Daniel Teng, who told a Senate committee that many community media outlets—often smaller business operations—work with entities such as CNS to receive Beijing-approved content for free, due to financial considerations.
Teng told Sky News that revelations of the ONI report establishes several “smoking guns” to expand Australia’s understanding of foreign interference further.
“What the report really does is it establishes a foundation for our intelligence services … to really understand the extent of foreign interference in the Chinese mediascape,” he said.
“It’s actually no real surprise, unfortunately, that (foreign interference) has been one of the worst kept secrets in the Chinese-language community for almost 20 years now.”
The Epoch Times has been subject to a 20-year long intimidation campaign from Beijing due to its independent editorial stance which has been critical of the CCP’s human rights abuses and foreign interference activities.