A group tied to Beijing has organized trips to China for more than 120 journalists from almost 50 U.S. media outlets since 2009, as part of a broad campaign to deepen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence in the United States.
Called the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), the group is a Hong Kong-based nonprofit headed by billionaire Tung Chee-hwa, a Chinese regime official. Tung was formerly the Chief Executive (top government leader) of Hong Kong and is currently a vice-chairman of the CCP’s political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. CUSEF is registered as a “foreign principal” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
FARA filings reveal how the group has tried to sway media coverage and shape public opinion in the United States.
Alongside trips for journalists, the group has organized trips for current and former lawmakers, courted media executives from major publications via private dinners, and aimed to cultivate a group of “third party supporters” in the United States to generate positive opinion articles on China that would appear in Western media outlets.
By targeting foreign news outlets, the regime hopes to limit negative media coverage of Beijing, while boosting favorable coverage, Grant Newsham, a senior fellow at Washington-based think tank Center for Security Policy, said in an email.
Media EngagementFARA filings from 2011 made by BLJ Global, a public relations firm hired by CUSEF, laid out a multi-pronged plan to frame public discourse on U.S.-China relations in positive terms—centered on the idea of “China as an indispensable partner to the U.S.”
The firm listed the objectives of its work for CUSEF as: “Develop and foster a community of like-minded experts on U.S.-China relations;” “Build relationships with influential media figures who can serve as positive voices for discussions on U.S.-China relations;” and “Construct a positive and cohesive message of U.S.-China engagement and work to broadcast that message through the Chairman [Tung] … Third-party supporters and organizations, and the media.”
Journalist TripsSince 2009, BLJ has organized journalist trips for 128 journalists from 48 U.S. outlets, including Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Vox, NPR, and NBC, according to a review of FARA filings.
The firm, in the 2011 filing, called the visits “familiarization trips” intended to recruit “top journalists to travel to China, selected for effectiveness and opportunities for favorable coverage.”
“These visits should be designed to offer a fresh and positive look at China’s accomplishments, and underscore how important it is for the U.S. to engage directly with China,” it said.
In 2009, two trips attended by reporters from seven publications yielded 28 articles, the filing said.
The China trips, Newsham said, resembles the Chinese regime’s “longstanding practice of ‘visit diplomacy’ and hospitality that works so well with government officials and businessmen from many countries.”
He added this approach “works really well with people who have only limited experience with China.”
Shift in PerceptionsThe Chinese regime has heralded foreign journalist trips like those funded by CUSEF as important programs through which reporters can understand the “real China.”
The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, a state-controlled body that regularly funds trips for foreign officials, plays host for the journalists on the CUSEF-sponsored trips.
Such trips have allowed “reporters who have never been to China and have been deeply influenced by biased U.S. reporting on China” to “have in-depth conversations with Chinese officials, experts, and media counterparts about China’s development, which helps to clear much of the misunderstanding or concerns,” the article said.
It further cited testimonials from a senior editor at Huffington Post, who said the visits arranged by the association made him “realize how ignorant the U.S. press circle is about China.”
A Pulitzer-winning financial columnist with the L.A. Times, after a 9-day visit to China, said he found that the understanding from U.S. media about China "will never catch up with the speed of China's development," according to the report.
A reporter with Reuters, identified as “Patrick,” said the China visit had changed his perception about the role of Chinese media.
“Before visiting China, I thought that Chinese media served the goal of class struggle, but after coming here I found that this idea remains fixated on the Cultural Revolution period, which is somewhat laughable,” he said, according to the Chinese article. He called the media exchange “quite valuable.”
Private DinnersFrom 2009 to 2017, CUSEF hosted a range of dinners and meetings with representatives from 35 outlets, including Time magazine, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, New York Times, AP, and Reuters.
Private dinners hosted by Tung with executives and editors at top American publications—usually in Washington and New York—were described by BLJ in the 2011 FARA filing as “invaluable for their effectiveness in engaging support from the leaders of the news industry.”
“While it cannot be quantified, the influence that Mr. Tung has had on high-level opinion-formers has served to sway news coverage in major outlets and influence the elite,” BLJ continued.
Tung, a Shanghai-born Hong Kong businessman, was the first chief executive of Hong Kong after the city transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. He resigned in 2005 before finishing his second term. While in office, he oversaw the drafting of the controversial anti-subversion bill called Article 23, which triggered the city’s largest protests until the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019.
The Lure of Chinese MoneyBesides fostering influence through personal relationships, the CCP yields more direct influence on Western media by controlling their ability to operate in China and their access to Chinese citizens, Newsham noted.
“If you write something too critical of the CCP … you can be kicked out of the country,” Newsham said. “So it leads to a degree of self-censorship—that inevitably ‘weakens’ the coverage of [China] in that it presents a less than accurate account of things.”
Successful CampaignNewsham said Beijing’s efforts to sway American press coverage have been “rather successful.”
Besides underreporting Beijing’s human rights abuses, U.S. media outlets often fail to account for the Chinese regime’s role in precipitating crises on domestic soil.
Newsham suggested the matter of the media's engagement with the Chinese regime "comes down to principle ultimately."
“Would these reporters/executives have done something similar with South Africa’s ‘apartheid era’ government? Maybe not."