WASHINGTON—As part of its global challenge to democratic freedom, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is making a systematic effort to spread propaganda and to suppress undesirable voices both inside and outside of China, a panel of journalists and experts said at a symposium staged by Freedom House.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House, said the CCP has three aims to achieve with their overseas influence operations on media.
One is to promote a positive view on China and a benign perspective of the CCP’s authoritarian rule within China. The second aim is to encourage foreign investment in China and openness to Chinese investment in other countries. The third is to marginalize, demonize, or entirely suppress anti-CCP voices.
As for the narratives directed at Chinese living outside China, there are also the added goals of promoting nationalist sentiment and reunification with Taiwan.
Cook said that the CCP has four types of tactics used to advance these goals, including direct actions by Chinese diplomats, local officials, security forces, and regulators; economic “carrots” and “sticks” to induce self-censorship; indirect pressure applied via proxies such as advertisers, satellite firms, and foreign governments; and incidents such as cyber attacks and physical assaults.
Attacking Independent Media
Jan Jekielek, a producer at NTD Television and senior editor at The Epoch Times, shared a long list of attacks and instances of interference that NTD and The Epoch Times have suffered as independent media outlets reporting on China in Chinese and English.
“We get cyber attacks of all sorts. It’s a weekly thing,” Jekielek said. “When the Epoch Times was founded back in 2000, a batch of people in China came to become journalists. Almost immediately, within a month, they were arrested. Ten of them were sentenced to three- to 10-year terms.”
Jekielek said contributors to The Epoch Times in China went to prison, as well. One of them, Yang Tongyan (who wrote under the pen name Yang Tianshui), actually died in prison on Nov. 7, 2017, after serving 12 years.
“In America, thugs of Chinese origin have beaten up our staff,” he added.
Jekielek cited the case of Li Yuan, The Epoch Times’ chief technical officer. Li was beaten, tied up, blindfolded with duct tape, and robbed of two laptop computers by three Asian men who burst into his suburban Atlanta home with a gun and knife on Feb. 8, 2006.
People who put up satellite dishes to watch NTD in China also can be jailed, Jekielek said.
Xiao Qiang, founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, has his own experience of being “talked to” by a diplomat from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.
His editorial team also was targeted by cyber attacks. Everybody was attacked with a bogus page trying to get personal information and “trick us to open up the backend of our website and get our passwords.”
The grandmother of one of his interns was visited by the CCP police in Chengdu, China. A volunteer, and an American citizen, who once worked for him only for two weeks, was visited by CCP public security officers six years later, when she took a trip to China.
“China is more than ever a dictatorship, on its way to a digital totalitarian state. It is determined to maintain a power monopoly over its people. The economic accomplishments make them so confident, but the internal power struggle also makes them so insecure, and desperate sometimes,” Xiao said.
“All of these spilled outside of China. It is inevitably in conflict with [our] open society, our values, our institutions, our civil liberty, and, in a larger sense, our national security.”
Overshadowing a Dissident
Josh Rogin, a columnist for The Washington Post, said that the CCP’s influence operations on English-language media are “part of the orchestrated, well-funded, and comprehensive United Front effort, coordinated both inside and outside of China,” with some of the tactics and interference invisible.
He gave an example of how the CCP “overshadowed” a Tibetan dissident’s testimony before the U.S. Congress and press coverage by sending an official Tibetan delegation to Washington. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) was asked by the Chinese ambassador in Washington to host the delegation, as he owed him a favor—the CCP once gave Montana a $200 million deal for the state’s beef to be sold in China.
Rogin said, as a result, if one searched for “Tibet, Congress, China,” the top 10 results were all Chinese media’s English-language reports with the message “U.S. Senators Endorse Chinese Rule Over Tibet.”
He said another example is Western journalists being virtually paid by the CCP to write pro-CCP articles without disclosing the source of their funding.
Although the CCP had been pressuring Western companies, “We don’t have a government response to that,” Rogin said.