Illustration by Gogi Kamushadze
Driven to ‘near extinction’: Beijing’s high-pressure campaign against the foreign Chinese-language press
From cyberattacks to takeovers, Xi Jinping’s government aims to silence criticism from independent media organizations
In 2000, Watson Meng started something unique – a Chinese-language news website that relied on citizen journalism from inside China for its reporting. Named Boxun.com, much of its coverage focused on human rights, corruption and dissent within the country. Meng had been born in the Chinese province of Hebei, gotten a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the Hebei Institute of Technology, and left China in 1996 to work in the United States, earning a master’s in business administration at Duke University by 2005.
The North Carolina-based operation regularly broke stories no one else did. For instance, Boxun published a series of pieces on the downfall of Chinese government powerbroker Bo Xilai in 2012 that raised its profile, with media outlets running stories on Meng himself. Xilai, a high-ranking Chinese official, was removed from his post in 2012, convicted in 2013 of bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, and sentenced to life in prison.
“Boxun is well known to be open. We receive many anonymous contributions and publish many [Chinese citizen] complaints and opinions,” says Meng.
Meng says that starting in 2000 he also provided hosting services for several Chinese human rights NGOs through a nonprofit that he set up called China Free Press. The nonprofit got small grants from 2005 to 2012 from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, which itself gets funding from the U.S. government.
Boxun runs granular stories on government propaganda efforts and allegations of everyday repression in China. In August 2018, it posted an article about a Chinese landlord allegedly arrested for renting a home to ethnic Uyghurs, a group persecuted by the Chinese government, in central China. A March 2019 article reported on a live Twitter broadcast by a Chinese student studying in Taiwan who claimed that Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping was an emerging autocrat. Another in November detailed the government’s alleged efforts to change curricula used in Chinese schools to better promote a more patriotic brand of education.”
As a citizen-powered site, Boxun’s stories are unedited and therefore often unreliable. So in 2014, Meng started a second site – Bowenpress.com – which, he says, publishes only pieces that are revised and fact-checked by a full-time, paid editor.
At the beginning of December 2016 Meng launched Facebook channels for both sites. But on December 2, he received an email from the platform informing him that the pages had been taken down.
Meng wrote to Facebook’s help center. He was particularly keen to find out why Bowenpress had been targeted, given that the site includes only editorially verified stories.
On December 9 he received a response, saying that Facebook was “unable to confirm” who owned the account in question. He was also asked to email a copy of a form of official photographic ID. Meng complied on December 15, sending a scan of his drivers license.
A reply came later that day. “It doesn’t look like we can help you with the problem you’re having from here,” it read. Meng wrote back, asking for direction. Facebook did not respond.
Since Boxun’s coverage of the Bo Xilai story, Meng’s sites have suffered a series of mysterious cyber attacks, one of which was so severe that it forced him to migrate them to another server. While it is difficult to prove exactly where such attacks originate or who sponsors them, the Chinese government’s use of hacking against targets both large and small has been widely reported.
However, the removal of Boxun and Bowenpress from Facebook points to another way of shutting down opposition voices. Rather than resorting to cyber-espionage to limit the reach of the pages, Meng believes that the Chinese government simply used Facebook’s existing complaints mechanism.
Meng contends that Facebook targets those who publish Chinese-language Facebook posts critical of the Chinese government because China’s government asks it to. In December 2014, Chinese government Internet censor Lu Wei visited FaceBook headquarters, where he was warmly received by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The company continues to take ads from Chinese state media. Last August, China’s internet regulator agreed to pay the state-owned media outlet People’s Daily $820,000 a year to post China-friendly “positive propaganda” on Facebook.
On November 1 of 2017, Facebook attorney Colin Stretch told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the company had wiped a page associated with the U.S.-based Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, because he had posted “personal identifier information” — like physical addresses and email addresses – that ostensibly could be used to track down individual Chinese officials he’d criticized.
Senator Marco Rubio asked if Facebook had taken this action following pressure from the Chinese government. Stretch said no – it had merely reviewed “a report” on the account. Pressed by Rubio, Stretch then admitted, “We did receive a report from representatives of the Chinese government about the account. We analyzed that report as we would any other and took action solely based on our policies.”
In response to questions from Coda Story, a Facebook spokesperson said the company would be willing to work with Meng to get his channels up and running again. However, she didn’t respond to questions about whether the company’s initial action against his channels resulted from a complaint by the Chinese government.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) also appears to be ramping up investment in and expanding the presence of U.S.-based Chinese state media in an effort to become the primary source of news about the country. A January 2020 report by the U.S. NGO Freedom House, for example, notes that the Beijing-run newspaper and website China Daily, based in New York and published in Chinese, English, and French, has increased its spending from $500,000 in the first half of 2009 to more than $5 million in the latter half of 2019 for increased print runs. The paper claims to have a circulation of 300,000 inside the United States and 600,000 overseas.
According to the report, China’s media offensive works on two levels – shutting down or crowding out opposition voices, while simultaneously promoting a carefully curated, positive image of the nation. Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, said in January that the Chinese government “is trying with increasing ferocity to use its economic and diplomatic clout to silence critical voices abroad.”
Meanwhile, a report last February from the Center for American Progress concluded that China’s effort to overtake Chinese-language channels abroad has led to the “near extinction of independent Chinese-language media outlets in the United States.”
Independent Chinese diaspora outlets have been absorbed by China-friendly competitors, seen their advertisers coerced to not do business with them, and been squeezed in other ways such as malware attacks that evidence indicates originated in China, say publishers and experts. In turn, that leaves more room for party-controlled operations that disseminate state-sponsored propaganda to U.S.-based, Chinese-speaking readers.
While the conversation about China’s manipulation of foreign Chinese-language media is a relatively new one to most people, the strategy may stretch back 30 years or more. A 2018 report by The Hoover Institution points to a 2007 interview with Guo Zhaojin, president of the state-owned China News Service. At that time, a quarter of U.S. minorities got their news from outlets published in their own languages. Chinese newspapers and magazines overseas, Guo said, had a duty to “protect the national image.”
The Hoover report describes a wide-ranging effort by the Chinese government and its allies to take over the Chinese-language newspaper market. In the 1990s, it set up two Chinese-language U.S. publications, titled Qiaobao and the Sino American Times. For example the state-owned China News Service and the Overseas Chinese Office of the State Council dispatched editorial personnel to the United States to found Qiaobao as a private firm, with all of its major executives either appointed directly or approved by the Chinese government, according to the report.
At the same time, a number of once-independent Chinese-language media outlets tilted their editorial stances towards Beijing. By 2001 the independent Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Newspaper Group had been taken over by a businessman who was also invested in Chinese state media, according to the report. The World Journal, with headquarters in Whitestone, New York and owned by Taiwan-based newspaper company United Daily News, has become more pro-Beijing in its coverage in recent years – a move that sources inside the publication attribute to its growing business inside China. (In 2004 the paper announced its intention to establish a news group on the mainland and recruit reporters there, notes the Hoover report.)
“There really is no substantial Chinese-language newspaper [in the U.S.] that isn’t allied with Beijing,” report co-author Orville Schell told Coda Story.
Exerting pressure on Chinese media
The few independent Chinese-language media outlets that remain experience various kinds of interference and duress from the mainland government and its consulates. One such outlet is the New York-based Vision Times, printed in Chinese, English, and four other languages and also available online. The publication has editions in New York, San Francisco, and major cities in Europe including London and Paris. It regularly runs stories critical of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, its aggressive stance toward Taiwan, and the crackdown against protesters in Hong Kong.
There have been serious consequences. Vision Times relies wholly on ad revenue to survive and, according to Henry Wang, publisher of the New York edition, the Chinese consulate in New York pressures businesses not to deal with the publication. For instance, Wang says that if a restaurant advertises in Vision Times, the consulate tells the owner it will no longer patronize the establishment.
Wang told Coda Story that businesses still support Vision Times. But, he added, “They flat-out tell us, ‘Sorry we don’t dare place ads with you.’ We’re fairly understanding – everybody’s just trying to survive, trying to do business.”
In a followup email, Wang explained that it is impossible to estimate how much ad revenue Vision Times has lost over the years, as a result.
“By limiting the ability of remaining independent media like us to reach a broader audience,” the Chinese state “will maintain complete control of the media landscape and disseminate whatever misinformation it wants,” he wrote.
A June 2019 report from Freedom House asserts that Wang’s experience is not an isolated case. “Indirect pressure is also applied via proxies — including advertisers, satellite firms, technology companies, and foreign governments — which take action to prevent or punish the publication of content critical of Beijing, while undermining the financial viability of news outlets critical” of the CCP, it concluded.
Despite multiple requests for comment on this matter from Coda Story, the Chinese embassy in Washington DC did not respond.
China’s attempts to stifle independent Chinese-language media overseas are not confined to the U.S., either. An investigation in April 2019 by three news outlets -The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Four Corners – concluded that the Chinese consulate in Sydney repeatedly warned the Georges River Council not to let the Australia edition of Vision Times pay for a Chinese New Year event in exchange for having its name attached. In a follow-up story the Chinese government didn’t deny what its consulate had done, instead defending its actions and accusing the Vision Times of being aligned with the “heretical cult” Falun Gong, a Chinese religious group banned inside China. (Wang told Coda Story that the Vision Times does not have ties to Falun Gong.)
Xiao Qiang is founder and editor-in-chief of the independent Chinese and English-language news website China Digital Times. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, the site does not have to generate revenue, as it receives funding from the institution and grants. Therefore, advertisers cannot be targeted.
However, in 2018, a Chinese-American student who volunteered for China Digital Times told Qiang that Chinese police had visited his grandparents back in the city of Chengdu in China to ask about his work with the site. In 2007, the wife of a former student, a Chinese citizen, worked on the site for two months. Six years later, after she had returned to China, she was visited by state security agents, who questioned her about the site and who else worked there.
Qiang says that people who are approached by agents of the state about their work for China Digital Times are instructed not to tell anyone, so there may be additional instances that he has not heard about.
In 2017 the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab also documented a sophisticated phishing and malware campaign that targeted China Digital Times. It noted that “the infrastructure used in this campaign reveals connections to previous malware operations targeting Tibetan journalists and the Thai government” – targets that match Chinese government interests.
“A technical attack [like that one] is one thing,” says Qiang. “But if there’s a threat – threatening people [those from independent media] not to be able to return to China, many people can’t pay that kind of price.” He says it’s not a fair fight – the Chinese government has “infinite resources to pretty much control most of the Chinese media.”
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