Shooting, Intimidation, Fear: Independent Media Warns Inquiry of Beijing's Censorship Efforts in Australia

Shooting, Intimidation, Fear: Independent Media Warns Inquiry of Beijing's Censorship Efforts in Australia
A shot pierced a hole in the front window of The Epoch Times office at 3 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2010. (Shan Ju Lin/The Epoch Times)
Caden Pearson

A Senate committee exploring issues in Australia's diaspora communities heard on Monday how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had wielded its influence against The Epoch Times for years due to the media outlet's independent reporting on the totalitarian regime.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry, The Epoch Times emphasised that independent newspapers, in contrast to CCP-aligned newspapers that make up the majority of Chinese-language publications, play an important role in helping migrants understand the values that define Australian society—a free society that operates very differently to the rule-by-law communist system seen in China.

But the submission warned that the CCP continues to incentivise Chinese-language publications in Australia to adopt a pro-Beijing editorial stance. At the same time, the CCP has intimidated and worked to undermine outlets that resist its pressure in preference of safeguarding their editorial integrity and pushing back against the CCP's monopoly on debate in the public square.

A spokesperson for The Epoch Times, Daniel Teng, told a Monday hearing that since first publishing in Australia in 2001, The Epoch Times has been one of the few media to maintain independence from the CCP. It has "shone a light on dark human rights issues" happening in communist-ruled China for its Chinese diaspora readership, including issues like the forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners and the persecution of House Christians, Tibetans, and Uyghur Muslims. The Epoch Times in Australia publishes for both Chinese and English readerships.
"Because of our efforts, we and other independent media outlets have endured a two-decade-long campaign of intimidation, fear, and in some cases, violence," Teng said.

Stolen Newspapers

When asked by Victorian Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching whether The Epoch Times had experienced interference at its distribution points, similar to another independent Chinese outlet she was familiar with, Teng said, "We have certainly seen that issue, of our newspapers disappearing from distribution points before any readers or [the] Chinese community can get access to it."

The Epoch Times had seen bundles—stacks of 50-100 papers—stolen from distribution points in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth, the hearing heard.

"When these incidents occur, we can only really suspect that there is foul play or something of that nature that's occurring because most of the time, people don't have a need to be taking that many newspapers," Teng said.

The Epoch Times prints six editions and 60,000 copies of its Chinese-language newspaper every week across Australia, Alfred Sinn—a second witness from The Epoch Times—told the committee hearing. Online, the Chinese edition receives over 150,000 unique visitors per month in Australia, Sinn said.

Intimidation and Fear

The Epoch Times was founded by Falun Gong practitioner John Tang in 2000 in the United States in response to human rights abuses and censorship in China. As a subject matter expert on the CCP's oppression of the Chinese people and its persecution of Falun Gong, the CCP has constantly attacked The Epoch Times for its uncensored reporting.

The Epoch Times considers the plight of China's Falun Gong one of the most underreported issues of the last 20 years. Falun Gong is a spiritual discipline in the Buddhist and Taoist traditions whose adherents strive to follow its core tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. The practice was first taught publicly in 1992 in Changchun, China. It grew to have 100 million practitioners by 1999 when CCP leader Jiang Zemin unilaterally launched the persecution with the aim to eradicate the practice.

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz asked The Epoch Times whether it was aware of the sorts of pressure Falun Gong practitioners in Australia face when speaking out about the CCP.

Teng said that one Falun Gong practitioner, who is also a staff member of The Epoch Times, was "afraid of attending this hearing because her partner in China faces almost immediate threats or retribution for any of her acts locally."

"So that has a very chilling effect or stifling effect on Falun Gong practitioners becoming actively involved in the Australian community in anything which might be seen as criticism of the Chinese dictatorship, of the communist dictatorship in China?" Abetz surmised.

"Yes, that's a good way to put it," Teng responded.

The Epoch Times is one of the few media organisations that has never taken money from the CCP. But the CCP's continuous pressure and threats, either direct or indirect, have seen ad agencies directing their clients not to advertise with The Epoch Times, the hearing heard.

CCP Targets Advertisers

Sinn said that a former employee of an ad agency told him the agency warned clients not to advertise with The Epoch Times so as not to hurt their interests with the Chinese regime.

"Since 2015, The Epoch Times received zero bookings from two ad agencies that handle large corporations and government advertising," Sinn said.

According to Sinn, key decision-makers at the agency deliberately excluded The Epoch Times from their client's campaigns because its reporting "will offend their Chinese customers or affect their relationship with the Chinese government."

In its submission, The Epoch Times noted examples of potential clients refusing to advertise with the outlet due to fears of upsetting Beijing. These included a state tourism body, an automotive business, and a Sydney law firm. In the case of the law firm, it had already signed a contract to advertise but after attending an event that was also attended by the Sydney Chinese consulate, it cancelled its booking.

The submission included one example of a Taiwanese businessman who successfully resisted pressure from the Chinese consulate in Brisbane when it questioned why he had advertised with The Epoch Times during a visa interview.

Victorian Greens Senator Janet Rice asked how The Epoch Times distinguished between clients that don't advertise because of the CCP's pressure "versus them not being supportive" of the outlet's editorial. She cited The Epoch Times' reporting on U.S. President Donald Trump and the CCP virus outbreak.

"These are things for me; as you know I'm a supporter of Falun Gong and The Epoch Times, your role in the Australian media; but I find them very challenging editorial lines," Rice said.

Teng said The Epoch Times' submission only referenced examples where the potential client provided direct feedback linked to their concerns about upsetting Beijing.

"We do understand ... people will disagree with our point of view at the end of the day. So for the purposes of this committee and this inquiry, we've tried to stick to more solid examples," Teng said.

Senator Rice also asked whether The Epoch Times had reported the incidents it outlined to law enforcement. Teng explained that a lot of the CCP's acts would be considered "grey zone" tactics that therefore made it difficult to report to law enforcement.

"These sort of incidents are often difficult to report to a law enforcement agency," Teng said. "For instance, advertising agencies pulling out at the last moment, with these sort of incidents, obviously we can't report them to law enforcement because they're commercial decisions."

Sinn added that because The Epoch Times Chinese edition was a free newspaper, police often said they couldn't do anything about it when staff reported incidents of newspaper theft occurring at distribution points.

Exclusion and Violence

Sinn also said that The Epoch Times had been disinvited to private and public sector press events at the last minute at the request of CCP officials.

The Epoch Times' submission to the inquiry also detailed incidents of violence.

In 2010, The Epoch Times Brisbane office in Sunnybank was attacked in a drive-by shooting. The office was fired upon with an air rifle by two assailants. No one was injured. The branch was due to host a seminar that same week by renowned human rights lawyer David Matas who co-authored a groundbreaking report that exposed illegal organ harvesting practices in China in 2007.

In 2016, an on-campus pharmacy at the Australian National University in Canberra was threatened by the head of a Chinese student association for displaying copies of The Epoch Times Chinese edition. The student association leader claimed that Chinese students would boycott the pharmacy if it continued to display the paper.

In its submission, The Epoch Times called for a framework to be established for the ethnic media industry to protect against foreign interference without onerous regulation. It also invited scrutiny of Chinese social media apps like WeChat that wield significant influence in the Chinese-speaking community.

"The global COVID-19, or CCP virus pandemic as we prefer to call it, has given Australia a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see the true nature of the communist regime, and for us to take action to address it," Teng said.

"The difficult process we must go through over the next few years is necessary to ensure the health of Australia's sovereignty and freedom for all of us."