Xinhua is indeed not a traditional news organization. It is instead a branch of the Chinese government, an organization that Reporters Without Borders in 2005 described as “the world’s biggest propaganda agency.” Its current president came to his position five years ago directly from the Chinese government’s propaganda arm. Last year, as tensions with China were escalating thanks to President Trump’s trade war, the Justice Department took the unusual step of demanding that Xinhua and a parallel Chinese television network register as foreign agents.
Again, though, Xinhua’s coverage is slightly more subtle than what you might expect from, say, the North Korean government. Over the weekend, it published an article that neatly incorporated several of its favorite subjects: reporting on foreign cultural phenomenon and embarrassing the government of the United States.
Just southeast of Saginaw, Mich., is a small town called Frankenmuth. It’s one of maybe a dozen towns across the country that are broadly thematic. Frankenmuth’s gimmick is that it models a small town in Bavaria, with half-timbered gift shops and various thematic tourist spots. Two businesses in particular are the anchors of the tourist industry in town: Zehnder’s, with its famous chicken dinners, and Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland.
Bronner’s is probably self-explanatory in a number of different ways. It’s a Christmas wonderland indeed, dedicated year-round to hawking the Christmas spirit in the form of tangible bits of commerce, with that energy peaking, as you might expect, in the coming weeks. My mother used to live in Mount Clemens, Mich., which isn’t really that close, but Frankenmuth and Bronner’s are the kind of places you travel a bit farther than you usually would to see.
“We’re the world’s biggest Christmas store,” Wayne Bronner, the company’s CEO, told me over the phone Monday. “We have about two million visitors a year come through. Our record day is 27,000 people in one day. We have 50,000 gifts and trims, and we’re 120,000 square feet in size.” The store is open 361 days a year, save Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter. The record day came a year or two ago on the first weekend in December.
Recently the store saw another guest: A Xinhua reporter named Wang Ping, whose stories generally cover Chicago and the upper Midwest. Thanks to that visit, Xinhua readers learned some of the same facts about the store that Bronner shared with me. But they also learned a little more.
“Giant Christmas store in U.S. Michigan filled with made-in-China items,” the headline reads. Wang spoke with a manager named Cindy Baxter who said that Bronner’s buys a number of items from China, some 30 to 40 percent of the inventory. Prices had increased as a result of the China-U.S. trade war, Baxter told Wang, thanks largely to increased tariffs on products from China. And just like that, Xinhua had its story: Christian Michigan business being hurt by Trump’s trade war.
Bronner confirmed to me that Baxter’s general numbers were right. About a third of the products in the store are from China, he said. But he didn’t say anything about prices increasing — at least for consumers.
“We are having to pay an additional 25 percent on Christmas lights,” he said. “So far, we’re eating the cost.” While some retailers have tried to find new manufacturers for products that have been the target of tariffs, Bronner explained that doing so wasn’t an option.
“We’re known for selling good-quality Christmas lights,” Bronner said. “And we only deal with the top-quality factories.” He didn’t want to sell “an inferior product,” he assured me.
In fact, he seemed unfazed by the trade war. He explained that they were “weathering” the tariff increases and, while he didn’t seem to think that the fight over trade would be a long-term boon, he did at least seem confident that things would eventually return to normal. Sales so far this year “look good,” Bronner said.
Frankenmuth is Trump country. The president won the city by a more than 2-to-1 margin in 2016. In fact, Trump’s margin in Frankenmuth made up about 1 out of every 8 votes in his total margin of victory statewide — a function of the closeness of the state, but still remarkable. It’s not surprising then that the owner of an overtly Christian business in the area would feel at least somewhat sanguine about the trade war and the president. Trump’s push to get Americans saying Christmas again — or CHRISTmas, if you will — won’t do Bronner’s any harm.
But that’s also why it’s such a nifty bit of propaganda for Xinhua and the Chinese government. In essence, Xinhua hopes to gain a foreign-policy advantage by leveraging America’s freedom of the press itself. Trump wants very much to hold Michigan in next year’s election, and reinforcement of the ways in which his trade policies are increasing costs for Americans and American businesses (and not China) probably won’t help.
In this case, the propaganda isn’t even that far off the mark.