Legitimizing the 'Civilized Internet': China's Seduction of U.S. Media

Beijing created the World Media Summit as a thinly veiled propaganda vehicle. So why are mainstream media companies participating?
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New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. (second from left) listens to remarks by Xinhua president Li Congjun (second from right) at the World Media Summit Presidium Meeting in Hangzhou, China on October 10, 2013. (Xinhua)

HONG KONG—On October 10, some of the most powerful figures in international media gathered in the Chinese city of Hangzhou for the second meeting of the decision-making “presidium” of the World Media Summit (WMS). The meeting was hosted by Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-owned news service.

The list of attendees was impressive. American participants included Google, The Associated Press, News Corporation (which owns FOX News and The Wall Street Journal), NBC News, The New York Times Company and Turner Broadcasting System (owner of CNN). Other participants included Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera, the South African conglomerate MIH Group, the Japanese wire service Kyodo News, Russia’s ITAR-TASS News Agency and Kasturi & Sons of India. All of these companies were represented by senior management, including CEOs and presidents.

Whether they were aware of it or not, these highly influential media brands were lending credibility to an opaque organization that the Chinese government created expressly to further its global propaganda goals. Moreover, their meeting took place while China is escalating its crackdown on online speech and investigative journalism.

For these reasons, it is perhaps unsurprising that this event has received no attention in the Western press.

On the surface, the World Media Summit presidium meeting appears to be like any other meeting of bigwigs in China: VIPs drinking tea, taking notes, calling for ‘win-win cooperation’ and maybe enjoying a cheerful banquet at the end of the day. But to the upper echelons of China’s leadership, this is a meeting with deep strategic importance.

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“Censorship works best when it works unseen,” says David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.

“One of the best ways to legitimize censorship is to make it look voluntary. This is why China has sought in recent years to push censorship and control through what look like voluntary professional organizations, which then make self-discipline pledges, come out with resolutions mirroring official policy, that sort of thing.”

Bandurski knows a thing or two about such organizations: His 2007 investigation of the Beijing Association of Online Media (BAOM) earned him a Human Rights Press Award. Bandurski showed that BAOM, a large professional organization consisting of Chinese and Western technology firms, was not an independent NGO but rather an extension of China’s censorship apparatus hiding behind trusted domestic and international brands including Sina, Sohu and Nokia.

When BAOM espoused the notion of a “civilized Internet,” a term originally promoted by China’s former president Hu Jintao, it appeared to be the action of a concerned industry group. But actually, BAOM was headed by a Beijing official involved in information control, and it served as a vehicle for eliminating unwanted political content from Chinese websites. The World Media Summit appears to be inspired by this model.

In 2007, then-President Hu Jintao decreed that China must increase its “soft power,” the ability to achieve its international goals through attraction or co-optation rather than military or economic means. The following year, as the government dealt with the crises of Tibetan riots and the Wenchuan earthquake while preparing for its Olympic coming-out party, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with China’s image in Western media reached new heights.

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“For a number of years, China's leadership has seen itself in an epic struggle with the West for public opinion. They've talked about a ‘global war for public opinion,’” Bandurski says. “In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympic Games, the idea of enhancing what China called its ‘discourse power’ overseas became part of Hu Jintao’s media policy. It was in that context that the central leadership called for a world media summit through which the CCP could better influence global media.”

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The official story of the World Media Summit’s creation centers around Xinhua president Li Congjun reaching out to his Western counterparts. According to a summit backgrounder section on Xinhua’s website, Li first chatted with global media leaders on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics, and they all agreed to form the WMS in order to address the challenges posed by changes in the global media landscape.

But articles written by Li, who previously served as China’s deputy propaganda minister for six years, suggest a different story. In a February 2009 piece outlining goals for Xinhua and Chinese media, Li called for new areas, channels and methods of interaction and cooperation with the outside world.

“[We] especially need to, according to central leader comrades’ request, successfully hold the first meeting of the World Media Summit,” he wrote, showing that the WMS was originally created at the top levels of the CCP.

There is little English-language information available online about the WMS, aside from Xinhua’s special WMS section and the official WMS website, which, according to a Whois search, is registered to Xinhua. Additionally, the “brief introduction” page on the Chinese-language side of the WMS site states that the summit is an “unofficial, non-profit, high-level meeting”.

In China, such organizations, if registered, require an official government sponsor—presumably Xinhua in this case. In such relationships, sponsors tend to wield substantial power over their nonprofit patrons. From the little information publicly available about the WMS, it would seem that the summit is subordinate to Xinhua, and, by extension, China’s top leaders.

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The first few WMS meetings attracted little notice. In 2009 Hu Jintao presided over the opening of the first World Media Summit at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The first presidium meeting took place in Beijing in 2011, and in 2012 Moscow hosted the WMS’ second general meeting. The meetings accomplished little of note, despite Xinhua’s assertions to the contrary. But this month’s WMS presidium meeting in Hangzhou was newsworthy, for two reasons.

First, the presidium announced that the New York Times would host next year’s WMS general meeting and that Al Jazeera would follow suit in 2016. Additionally, the presidium announced that the WMS would create “global prizes for journalism to recognize outstanding journalists around the world.”

Other than Xinhua, the only English-language publication to note these developments was The Hindu, a newspaper owned by presidium member Kasturi & Sons. Its report on the meeting described an “outreach” to the Chinese government by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who also announced the launch of a Chinese-language web version of T Magazine. The website, which focuses on design, fashion, dining, travel, education and real estate, steers clear of politics.

Sulzberger surely wasn’t the only presidium representative looking to expand his company’s presence in the lucrative Chinese market. These media companies—many of which have been vilified by Beijing in the past—all have something to gain from a healthy relationship with China’s leaders. At one point or another, Google, the BBC, CNN and the New York Times’ websites have been blocked in China. Additionally, reporters from the Times and Al Jazeera have effectively been expelled from the mainland when authorities refused to grant them journalist visas. In spite of these incidents, these media groups may believe that participation in the WMS might enable them to keep an open channel with Beijing and prevent future problems with their China operations.

There is no evidence suggesting that the WMS presidium meeting in Hangzhou has altered coverage of China by publications belonging to any of the presidium’s non-Xinhua members. However, the growing profile of the WMS does raise significant questions: What is this organization’s agenda? And whose agenda is it?

“I can understand the interest in engaging with China, which is a major potential market for these media organizations,” says China Media Project’s Bandurski. “But I question the decision to become governing members of an ostensibly non-government organization that is clearly associated very closely with the Chinese leadership. If this is indeed an independent organization, then the members should be able to explain to us publicly how its governance works and how it is financed.”

In an email interview, New York Times Vice President of Corporate Communications Eileen M. Murphy said governance procedures for the WMS are “just beginning to be developed, but we think it’s in the interest of free press issues for us to be part of the process.

“We have no illusions about China’s motivations in creating the World Media Summit,” she said, “but we believe that it is important to engage with China on many levels and the WMS is one opportunity to do so.”

Murphy added that the Times was hosting the 2014 WMS “precisely because we believe strongly in promoting press freedom around the world and we feel there is no better way to do so than to invite members of the world’s media, including China’s media, to engage in a dialogue on our home turf.”

The proposed WMS journalism awards, however, are harder to swallow than the Times and Al Jazeera hosting WMS events. The notion of an organization founded at the behest of top Communist Party leaders to reward professionalism in journalism might be considered more than slightly ironic to the numerous Chinese journalists who have been intimidated or detained for their writings.

The situation for journalists in China is grim, to say the least. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 173rd out of 179 in its 2013 Press Freedom Index, and Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Paris-based organization’s Asia-Pacific Desk, said the present state of press freedom in China “raises deep concern.”

“China is the world’s largest prison for journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents,” Ismaïl said. “At least 30 journalists and 70 netizens, including the 2010 Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, are currently imprisoned.”

Ismaïl said Li Congjun’s objective for the WMS is clear: to influence the global media industry in a way that is beneficial to Beijing’s strategic interests. Just as clear is what it will take for him to achieve his goal.

“Li's success will mainly depend on what the media industry’s big players will be willing to sacrifice in order to penetrate the Chinese media market.”

Given the opaque nature of the WMS and the unwillingness to report on it, how will we be able to find out if Beijing succeeds in “harmonizing” international coverage of China? Perhaps it’s time for all of us to start reading Xinhua.

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Chris Horton is a journalist based in Hong Kong. 

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