China has been actively trying to establish a new world media order in which journalists become nothing more than "state propaganda auxiliaries," press watchdog Reporter Without Borders (RSF) said in a report published on Monday. From exporting censorship models to dictatorial states to launching intimidation campaign against dissidents, the report highlights how China's crackdown on press freedom serves as a direct threat to democracies worldwide.
"Beijing is lavishing money on modernizing its international TV broadcasting, investing in foreign media outlets, buying vast amounts of advertising in international media and inviting journalists from all over the world on all-expenses-paid trips to China," the report said.
"This expansion, the scale of which is still hard to gauge, poses a direct threat not only to media, but also to democracies," it added, while calling Chinese President Xi Jinping "an enemy of democracy, universal values, human rights and press freedom."
Additionally, RSF emphasized that journalists have become the Chinese Communist Party's tools to "relay party propaganda," and that their duties are centered around "aligning themselves with the Party's leadership in thought, politics and action."
The Chinese way of engaging international audiences
According to RSF, China is trying to combat the influence of "hostile" western forces by creating international events under its control and exporting its media and surveillance model to other countries. The report highlights the global expansion of China's state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) and China Radio International as examples of China's attempt to engage international audiences.
Broadcasting in 140 languages, CGTN is particularly ambitious about expanding its media influence in Africa through dedicated daily programs about the continent, where Huawei has installed 70 percent of the telecommunication infrastructure. However, while claiming to introduce the "real" Africa to the world, CGTN also focuses on polishing up China's image through positive coverage of China's activities in the continent.
"A lot of CGTN's content is no longer just about China and Africa as Beijing puts more efforts into producing original content about Africa," Chenshen Yan, researcher at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, told DW. "In other words, China will be able to dictate international discussions about Africa in the future," he added.
China's 'Trojan Horse Policy'
Apart from expanding its media influence through CGTN, RSF also highlighted China's systematic practice of blending propaganda into western media outlets through the free English-language supplement called China Watch. The report pointed out that the free supplement was produced by staff at the state-run China Daily, and described the initiative as a "Trojan horse policy" that allows China to "insinuate its propaganda into the living rooms of elites."
According to RSF, China Watch is distributed as a free insert in around 30 prominent international dailies including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and the Daily Telegraph. Experts estimate that the free supplement has a circulation of 13 million copies. The report warns that these foreign media outlets could be contributing to the spread of Chinese propaganda while being vulnerable to pressure from China.
Read more: How China is trying to export its soft power
Additionally, RSF also pointed out how China tries to secure positive coverage by inviting foreign journalists on all-expenses-paid trips to attend seminars in China. The report argues since these journalists are usually approved by Chinese embassies in these countries, they are invited under the condition that they need to help frame a positive image of China through their reporting.
Louisa Lim, an award-winning journalist and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Center for Advancing Journalism, told DW that all the approaches adopted by China represent a coordinated move to exert their influence overseas at a time when Western news outlets are struggling for money.
"I think Beijing has been very good at exploiting the vulnerabilities of the free press in this way," Lim told DW. "Media outlets are perhaps willing to accept Chinese sponsorships by sending reporters to China or to run the China Watch sections within their newspapers without asking too many questions about what that might mean."
Journalism as propaganda
With China's growing attempt to redefine the global media order, Lim believes it is important for the international community to have a clear understanding about China's definition of news when facilitating discussion about the impact of China's global media expansion.
"Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese government is tightening control over journalists and social media through regulations... Journalism has become a tool to disseminate the CCP's views and opinions to the population at large," said Lim, adding that it is necessary to have discussions questioning the legitimacy of media outlets accepting sponsors from Beijing.
Lim said that sponsored supplements from Chinese media could give the impression that international media outlets are legitimizing Beijing's propaganda. "Journalists should ask their newspapers about some of these practices that have long continued," the expert told DW, adding, "I also think there needs to be more transparency for things like sponsorship and how news is produced."