An illustration featuring Chinese flags within eyeballs
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

How China Weaponized the Press

A small Hong Kong newspaper illustrates how Beijing uses the tools of a free society to suppress freedom itself.

Early one morning a couple of years ago, at the height of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protest movement, Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese-government-owned newspaper based in Hong Kong, published what it claimed was a major scoop. An American diplomat had met with a group of high-profile activists, including Joshua Wong. A photo accompanied the piece, a low-angle shot from across the lobby of the hotel where the meeting had ostensibly taken place. For Beijing, which at the time was promoting the baseless theory that foreign forces were behind Hong Kong’s protests, the gotcha moment was a juicy story.

Western media largely ignored the meeting: A diplomat talking with activists is not typically news. Once trumpeted by Ta Kung Pao, however, the story was picked up by other pro-Beijing outlets and twisted as it reverberated across Chinese state media. The meeting eventually made its way to English-language outlets; the far-right website ZeroHedge published a story that was subsequently posted on the website of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, an organization founded by the former Texas congressman.

Basic facts, however, were incorrect from the start. According to a State Department official, who requested anonymity for fear of being targeted by the newspaper, Julie Eadeh, a political counselor at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, was assisting a delegation of congressional staffers who were meeting with Wong and his colleagues. She had simply arrived a few minutes ahead of the delegates and was waiting with the activists.

The facts and details, though, mattered little. The original Ta Kung Pao story had included Eadeh’s professional background and her education credentials but more personal details as well, including the names of her two young children and information about her husband, who is also an American diplomat. Other outlets published Eadeh’s parents’ names and their hometown in the U.S. As the stories mushroomed on Chinese social media and elsewhere, Eadeh morphed from a regular consulate employee to someone highly trained in the dark arts of subversion. Her past postings in the Middle East, articles claimed, showed a sinister track record of assisting the overthrow of foreign governments. (Ta Kung Pao did not respond to requests for comment.)

Eadeh began to notice suspicious activity offline too. A white minivan started to trail her and her family whenever they left their Hong Kong apartment, including when she dropped off her children at school. Sometimes, the people tailing them would hoist cameras with large lenses, conspicuously snapping photographs of her and her family as they went about their day. (It is unclear who the men in the van were.) Later, Eadeh’s likeness was featured in a Chinese video game promoted by state media in which players had to “hunt down traitors who seek to separate Hong Kong from China.” A state-backed documentary on the 2019 protests shown on multiple Hong Kong television channels devoted substantial time to her.

The length and intensity of the focus on a mid-level diplomat “was highly unusual,” Kurt Tong, the former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong, for whom Eadeh once worked, told me. “It’s intimidation. It is intended to intimidate the consulate and intimidate the [political] opposition.”

Sitting at the center of this storm of vitriol was Ta Kung Pao, a newspaper little known outside of Hong Kong, but one with a long history and which is rapidly growing in influence. Its reports and the fallout that typically follows unfold in a familiar, almost routine fashion. A shaky-grasp-of-facts story or editorial is picked up by an array of other outlets, creating an echo chamber in which those targeted are put under enormous pressure and, in many cases walk back criticism, resign from their job, or flee Hong Kong entirely. In other instances, the newspaper will run an exclusive interview with a high-ranking official that will lay out a de facto policy position or telegraph a possible future move, one that generally attacks prodemocracy organizations or figures.

Ta Kung Pao’s influence illustrates the instruments Beijing uses to pursue its opponents, working in close concert with lawmakers, the police, and other Hong Kong authorities to crush dissent. It also showcases a strategy that China may employ more and more in Hong Kong and elsewhere: using the tools of a free society (in this case a once lively and aggressive press) to suppress freedom itself.

Herbert Chow, an outspoken prodemocracy advocate and shop owner, discovered this spring the damage Ta Kung Pao could inflict. Two days after he opened a new store packed with protest memorabilia, he was the focus of a critical report. The day after the story ran, his shop was swarmed by dozens of police. Three of his five employees quit. “This is how they do things,” he told me. “They just scare you.”

An illustration of Chinese flags reflected in a skyscraper
(Adam Maida / The Atlantic)

Ta Kung Pao, which is controlled by China’s representative office in Hong Kong, in some respects mirrors the city’s broader evolution. In colonial times, the publication championed Chinese identity while taking aim at Hong Kong’s British rulers, playing a crucial role in fomenting the leftist riots that broke out in the city in 1967 as the Cultural Revolution swept the mainland. “The salaries were low but the morale was very high” was the way one former staffer described the atmosphere in the late 1980s when he was first hired. Journalists, he told me, felt they were “not only patriots” but “fighting against the colonial power.” When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the paper remained influential, telegraphing Beijing’s thinking while delivering largely reliable, if heavily slanted, reporting. Its former top editor, the recipient of a prestigious fellowship at Harvard, was named Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs in 2007.

But in recent years, Ta Kung Pao has adopted paparazzi-style tactics. Its employees have been accused of ambushing, harassing, and incessantly stalking prodemocracy activists (and others who land on Beijing’s ever-expanding list of enemies). Its jingoistic rhetoric largely reflects the blustery screeds of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats. The newspaper is the most aggressive in a web of publications that make up what Bloomberg described as a “publishing empire” in Hong Kong that is overseen by Beijing. Ta Kung Pao’s parent company does not make clear its ownership structure but coyly mentions on its own website that it is “supported by the motherland.” China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the 2019 prodemocracy protests, there has been a “sharper, harsher edge of really smearing and demonizing perceived [Chinese Communist Party] enemies,” Sarah Cook, an expert on Chinese state media at the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, told me.

The enactment of Hong Kong’s national-security law last year hampered press freedoms in the city. Apple Daily, a stridently prodemocracy newspaper, was forced to close this year after more than two decades of publishing when authorities froze its assets, raided its newsroom, and arrested numerous editors for violating the new law. Other outlets have moved their operations abroad. Editorial writers have put down their pens. Hong Kong’s public broadcaster is being retooled as a progovernment mouthpiece. (Though these are recent examples, Ta Kung Pao’s opaque ownership reflects a longer-term trend in Hong Kong of once-boisterous independent media outlets falling into the ownership or orbit of Beijing and its proxies, thus further eroding freedoms.) Now that the “political system has no risk,” officials are beginning to “look at religion, media, and teachers,” Fred Li, a longtime member of the city’s largest prodemocracy party, told me recently.

In this new environment where national security is paramount, Ta Kung Pao and other Chinese state outlets have thrived, though not by the common journalism metrics of readership and credibility. Instead, their ability to frighten and intimidate people and institutions into subservience has expanded, making them powerful tools in the ongoing, unrestrained effort to purge Hong Kong of opposition. Ta Kung Pao has targeted artists, filmmakers, academics, judges, and exiled activists. This marks a significant escalation. Ching Cheong, a former deputy editor at Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao’s sister publication, which is also overseen by the Liaison Office, told me that state-backed publications in the city used to act more as traditional newspapers, with pro-Beijing positions set out in op-ed pages and articles from academics and other influential contributors. “What they are doing right now,” he said, “is to force Beijing’s ideological inclination upon the Hong Kong people.”

Ta Kung Pao is the creation of a devout French-speaking Catholic named Ying Lianzhi. After a stint serving at the French consulate in Yunnan province, Ying founded the paper, then named L’impartial, in 1902 in Tianjin, a port city in northeastern China. He promoted a free press and believed in the societal benefits of newspapers. He appealed to a wider audience by writing in vernacular Chinese. After his death in 1926, the paper was sold to a wealthy banker and its new editor in chief, Zhang Jiluan, kept standards high, offered attractive salaries, and lured top talent, building up a circulation of 150,000. Zhang laid out guidelines to keep the newspaper’s pages free from bias, and he became a prominent figure within Chinese journalism. In 1941, the Missouri School of Journalism awarded Ta Kung Pao—whose name is an allusion to a stated mission of serving the public—a medal for distinguished service, lauding the paper’s “rich and essential” reporting on developments in China. As the Chinese civil war erupted in the aftermath of World War II, however, the paper began running afoul of the ruling nationalist authorities, who tightened controls on the press as they sought to fight off the Communist advance. Ta Kung Pao was relocated to Hong Kong in 1948 in search of political and economic stability, but the following year, with the triumph of the Communist Party, its ownership was handed over to the “Chinese people.”

The now pro-Communist paper soon became a source of frustration for the colonial government in Hong Kong. The British accommodated the press to a degree but maintained a trove of laws that could be wielded to curb free speech, deploying them, albeit rarely, when outlets challenged their authority. They used those rules most famously in 1967, when a labor dispute spiraled into deadly riots across Hong Kong. Ta Kung Pao stoked anti-colonial sentiment, but British officials were reluctant to punish it and other newspapers with direct links to Beijing for fear of the response they might provoke. Instead, the government went after independent leftist papers, arresting key figures and barring three outlets from publishing. The moves elicited a furious response from Ta Kung Pao. “What sort of ‘laws’ and ‘rule of law’ is it?” the newspaper asked. “What sort of ‘press freedom’ is it? How can the colonial government close all patriotic newspapers and arrest all patriotic journalists?”

Patriotism is now again at the forefront of Hong Kong’s political discourse, as pro-Beijing figures and the government are trumpeting an overhauled election system that has effectively criminalized the prodemocracy opposition. Ta Kung Pao is doing its part as a propaganda and misinformation megaphone. According to two former reporters, both of whom left in recent years and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, the atmosphere was not unlike a government office on the mainland: top-down and highly bureaucratic, with editors making heavy-handed changes and dictating story angles to please higher-ups. One of the reporters said that during training, immediately after being hired, they were schooled on state-media jargon, how to avoid politically sensitive topics, and the importance of always showcasing the positive aspects of living in Hong Kong. Those working on the international desk were directed to select news stories from abroad for translation that showed police cracking down on protests in foreign countries, as if to normalize the practice. “I felt like I was reporting on Hong Kong in the mainland, using the mainland language and the angles they wanted,” one of the former reporters said. “I felt like there was a divide between Hong Kong and myself.”

Like other traditional media outlets, Ta Kung Pao has tried in recent years to engage a younger, more web-centric audience, with mixed success. In 2017, the newspaper launched DotDotNews, an online publication that hosts original video content as well as written stories. Its English-language version, which is decidedly amateurish and often lacking production value, regularly features commentary from well-known influencers and pundits—many of them foreigners—who hold pro-Beijing views. It falsely reported in March that two U.S. Consulate staffers who’d tested positive for COVID-19 had invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid being sent to quarantine. (Multiple stories were removed from the outlet’s Facebook page in 2019, the social-media company said, before the page was taken down completely for repeatedly breaking the platform’s community standards.) In 2016, a new chief editor arrived at Ta Kung Pao, according to local media reports. His background in the world of pro-Beijing tabloids ushered in the use of a more confrontational and combative style of writing and reporting, the former longtime staffer told me.

An illustration of a poster featuring Xi Jinping
(Adam Maida / The Atlantic)

By modern news-media standards, Ta Kung Pao is flailing. Research from the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that the newspaper’s credibility among the public has dropped significantly since 1997, now ranking the worst among surveyed outlets. Many staffers feared being attacked during the protests two years ago if Hong Kongers became aware of where they worked or that they were from the mainland, one of the reporters I spoke with said. For this reason, and as a way to give the appearance that the newsroom was larger than it was, reporters often used pseudonyms.

Yet these shortcomings hardly seem to matter because, in terms of impact, a favorite buzzword of journalists, Ta Kung Pao is more valuable than ever. Drawing on a rotating cast of pro-Beijing talking heads, lawmakers, and even former Hong Kong chief executives, the newspaper can whip up support for almost any issue, forcing the subjects that come into its crosshairs to cower in submission, out of fear of possible legal repercussions and further harassment. Ta Kung Pao is just one of the numerous ways in which the liaison office exerts shadowy control over the city, serving as what University of Hong Kong politics professor Eliza W. Y. Lee describes as a “quasi-ruling party of the political regime of Hong Kong.”

The newspaper in November 2020 accused a shop selling yellow-colored face masks—​​a color associated with the prodemocracy movement—and other protest-related souvenirs of “inciting hatred and tearing society apart.” The shop shut down days later. The same month, the newspaper began targeting Lee Ching-kwan, the director of the Global China Center at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, arguing that comments Lee had made saying “Hong Kong belongs to the world” were “pro-independence.” Lee suffered numerous waves of media attacks before eventually resigning, she told me. A DotDotNews article in February highlighted a World Press Photo exhibition at Hong Kong Baptist University that included some photos of the 2019 protests. University administrators abruptly called off the event.

There are plenty of other examples. The body that funds art projects has announced that it will cut off resources to any artist “that promotes Hong Kong independence,” after criticism from Ta Kung Pao; one artist singled out by the paper left Hong Kong this month, saying he was in search of “freedom.” Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union disbanded entirely after Ta Kung Pao joined a pro-Beijing pile-on against the organization. The newspaper continues to push for the group to be investigated. And in an August interview with Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong’s police chief said the Civil Human Rights Front, the umbrella organization behind 2019’s largest demonstrations, possibly violated the national-security law and would be investigated. The claim came despite the group having had police clearance for its rallies and holding no events since the law was enacted. The CHRF folded days later.

Cook, the Freedom House analyst, told me that dismissing these instances simply as meaningless propaganda would be a mistake. “It is not just fluff, it is not just words,” she said. “It actually does drive very real consequences for people.”

Two court cases in the past year provide an illuminating glimpse at the double standards now in effect in Hong Kong, where different sets of rules apply to those who support the Chinese government and those who challenge it, and how the press freedoms demanded by Ta Kung Pao half a century ago are being denied to its rivals.

Last November, the freelance journalist Bao Choy was arrested and questioned about accessing a public database of car registrations. She had used the system to obtain license-plate information, a standard practice for Hong Kong journalists, while working on a damning investigation into police inaction during a mob attack on protesters and commuters in 2019. The report would win numerous awards, and Choy was awarded the same Harvard fellowship as the former Ta Kung Pao editor, but she was found guilty and fined about $775. (Choy is appealing.)

Wong Wai-keung, a senior editor for Ta Kung Pao, was this year accused of the same crime for a story that targeted a former prodemocracy lawmaker. At a short hearing this past June, however, prosecutors announced that they had dropped the charges against Wong, saying he would need only to pay about $130 in court fees. Wong had arrived at previous court appearances in a baseball cap and sunglasses, carrying an open umbrella to hide his identity. But on the final day of his case, he didn’t bother to show up to court at all.

Asked why Wong had been treated so differently from Bao by authorities, the prosecutor demurred. “It was a one-off incident,” he said of Wong. “He is of clear record and gainfully employed.”

Tiffany Liang contributed reporting from Hong Kong.