The front page of the Beijing News, with a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is on display at a newsstand in Beijing last week. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Columnist

China’s state-run media companies are rapidly expanding their integration with Western news outlets, as part of Beijing’s worldwide foreign influence operations campaign. In Washington, lawmakers in both parties are calling out such arrangements and demanding U.S. media companies make sure they don’t become tools of Chinese government propaganda.

As with all authoritarian regimes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is organized around manipulation and control of information and ideas. Under President Xi Jinping, the party has rapidly and boldly expanded its efforts to influence discussion about China beyond its borders, in part through the global expansion of state-run media outlets. The goal is to suppress any criticism of the Chinese government and shape the international discussion of China in ways favorable to the party’s interests.

Beijing is committed to limiting free expression, and any partnership between China’s state media enterprises and those of democracies must take this into account, said Chris Walker, senior vice president at the National Endowment of Democracy.

“Such partnerships can invite critical risks to the integrity of independent media institutions, which may not fully appreciate their own vulnerabilities,” he said. “As media outlets in Australia and elsewhere have found, engagement with Chinese state media can induce self-censorship on certain issues or the unwitting carrying of CCP propaganda lines.”

That brings us to the late November announcement by Xinhua, China’s largest state-run news agency, that it is expanding cooperation with the U.S. news service Associated Press. AP’s chief executive, Gary Pruitt, traveled to Beijing to meet with Xinhua President Cai Mingzhao, who said that “the two news agencies have broad cooperation in areas including new media, application of artificial intelligence (AI) and economic information,” Xinhua reported.

Xinhua’s description of this kind of cooperation raised alarms in Congress, where members of both parties are newly attuned to Chinese foreign-influence operations inside the United States.

“In sharp contrast to the AP’s independent journalism, Xinhua’s core mission is to shape public opinion in ways sympathetic to the CCP’s legitimacy and behavior,” 14 U.S. lawmakers wrote to Pruitt on Dec. 19, in a letter I obtained.

The letter was led by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and signed by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The lawmakers point out that the Justice Department this year required Xinhua to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Xinhua functions as an arm of Beijing’s propaganda machine and also “serves some of the functions of an intelligence agency,” according to the 2017 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission warns that Xinhua is rapidly expanding worldwide in an effort to undermine and discredit Western media outlets and control public discussion of China.

Congress is asking the AP to release the text of its memorandum of understanding with Xinhua, reveal what future cooperation they are planning and assure lawmakers Xinhua won’t influence AP’s reporting or have access to any sensitive information in AP’s possession.

“As a state-run news agency, Xinhua serves as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party. Its propaganda mission is wholly distinct from legitimate fact-based journalism,” Gallagher told me. “Everything we know about the CCP suggests that it will use this partnership to better shape global public opinion to the detriment of American interests and those suffering under the CCP's oppression.”

AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton told me that AP’s agreement with Chinese state media is to allow it to operate inside China and has no bearing on AP’s independence.

“The recent memo of understanding updates a relationship that has been consistently the same since 1972 and opens the possibility for future commercial interactions, similar to agreements AP has with other state news agencies around the world,” she said. “It does not include or envision any sharing of artificial intelligence information, or any other technology.”

Xinhua has no access to AP’s sensitive information and no influence over AP’s editorial products, Easton said. She declined to say if AP would release the text of the MOU, as the lawmakers requested. The fact that Xinhua and AP can’t even agree on the nature of their cooperation illustrates the concern.

“We need to be certain that this MOU is not an IOU,” Sherman told me. “Xinhua uses its bureaus in the U.S. to collect intelligence for Beijing, so it’s common sense that a cooperation agreement with it and the AP should be scrutinized. We need full transparency.”

In the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, no Western media outlet would partner up with RT or Sputnik. Beijing’s influence operations inside the United States represent a similar threat. In the end, Chinese propaganda and Western free media just can’t mix.

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