In a matter of weeks, in a gleaming new office park in west London, China will open a state-of-the-art European hub for its international news outfit, China Global Television Network. The network goes by its initials, CGTN. The hub is going to be big, with at least 90 journalists recruited in the West. And, whether Beijing likes it or not, it’s going to be controversial.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China’s state-owned media has been under ever greater pressure to promote Chinese accomplishments and strength — and a Sino-centric world view.
At home that means an increasingly bland diet of party and government pronouncements on the main bulletins. Abroad, the task of harnessing news and opinion to the greater glory of the Chinese state requires a subtler and more varied approach, but the goal is the same. It even has a name – apparently borrowed from Foucault – “discourse power”.
The millions being spent on CGTN’s new European headquarters are dwarfed by billions already invested in this and other state-run networks in Africa and North and South America. All produce output in which straight news reporting (particularly of stories not related to China) mingles with blatant political propaganda, while some stories critical of China are simply ignored.
This admittedly puts them in good company. From the early days of the BBC World Service to the co-opting of Facebook by troll factories and Kremlin proxies in 2016, the use and abuse of journalism, to inform and misinform, has been an integral part of the story of soft power. But the new office lease in Chiswick Park – complete with lake, waterfall and private security – brings that story into sharp focus.
Western news organisations operating in China do so under serious constraints. They are liable to be followed (online and off), bugged, harassed and left in little doubt that their visas could be revoked if they fail to temper criticism of the regime.
CGTN journalists in London, by contrast, will be free to take advantage of an open society in all its dishevelled complexity. Expect them to show more finesse than RT and Sputnik, the crassly dishonest Russian state broadcasters with bases in the UK. If CGTN’s operations elsewhere are any guide, this will mean plenty of respectable if worthy reporting. But it will also mean a systematic emphasis on democracy’s vulnerabilities (Brexit, anyone?) and a relentless push to “tell the Chinese story well”, as Xi insists.
The plan could yet unravel. To operate in the UK, CGTN has obtained a licence from Ofcom, the communications regulator. So has China Central Television (CCTV), CGTN’s parent network. But Ofcom has already received four formal complaints from activists forced to make confessions on CCTV for activities seen as critical of Beijing. The complaints demand the revocation of the Chinese broadcasters’ licences and Ofcom is assessing them “as a priority”.
Yuen Chan explains China’s real media agenda
Not many fringe events at Conservative Party conferences go viral but last year one did. It was a panel discussion about rising Chinese authoritarianism in Hong Kong. A woman in the audience began to heckle the speakers, accusing them of being liars, puppets and traitors to the Han Chinese. When organisers asked her to leave, she was seen to slap one of them twice.
The woman, Kong Linlin, was a UK-based reporter for the CCTV. As footage of her altercation spread across the web she was arrested, released – and lionised in her homeland for defending China’s dignity and sovereignty. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing called on Britain to stop “meddling in Hong Kong affairs” and demanded an apology.
No student of Chinese information warfare should have been surprised. In February 2016, Xi visited the People’s Daily newspaper, CCTV and the official Xinhua newswire and told them, in effect, to think of the Communist Party as their middle name. State-owned outlets, he said, “must embody the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority … and act for the party”.
Kong was acting for the party, just as CGTN Europe will have to, in its own way. The network currently broadcasts in English, Spanish, Russian, French and Arabic. As the latest incarnation of what used to be CCTV’s international operation, its headquarters are in Beijing, with an American hub in Washington DC and an African one in Nairobi, both launched in 2012. It says it’s committed to neutral, objective reporting and that it covers the globe with teams in more than 70 countries “reporting news from a Chinese perspective”. We’ll soon see close up what that means.
CGTN Europe announced its arrival last year with a forum at the upmarket Langham Hotel in London that faces into the BBC’s headquarters at Broadcasting House. British newspapers – no strangers to the struggles of the media sector – had reported excitedly that the broadcaster would be hiring 350 journalists at well above the market rate for London. More than 6,000 applications reportedly flooded in. The reality seems to be that the new hub will employ about 90 non-Chinese staff, with 10 or 15 producers seconded from Beijing – not as many as hoped, or feared, depending on your view, but still a big new player on the block.
Several big recruitment decisions have already been taken, with anchors and reporters who have previously worked for Al Jazeera, the BBC, ITV, Sky, France 24 and the Turkish network TRT joining CGTN. Programming is expected to begin in late March or early April and to focus initially on business news.
If the low-key start obscures the broader ambition of Beijing’s global media strategy, that’s the idea. Besides opening new bureaux and hubs for CGTN, China has struck deals to distribute paid content in some 30 newspapers including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Telegraph. It has invested in media aimed at the Chinese diaspora and signed a content-sharing deal with the Daily Mail. According to an investigation in The Guardian last year it has gained access to 58 radio stations in 35 countries, including 30 outlets in the US, for content from Chinese Radio International.
Much of the push is nuanced and sophisticated, at least by the standards of other authoritarian regimes.
One source involved in the launch of CCTV America (now CGTN America) says that instead of reporting on China, the American operation decided to concentrate on providing “coverage of stories and regions that other Anglophone media did not”, by hiring journalists in South America. “The regional hubs were designed to draw in different audiences with a different kind of storytelling,” he says.
Daniel Schweimler was one of the journalists hired to cover those underreported stories. He currently works for Al Jazeera and reported for the BBC for 19 years before joining CCTV America in 2013. He says he didn’t encounter any editorial interference in the two years he worked as a South America-based correspondent for the network.
“While the Beijing authorities may control and manipulate the media seen by those in China, I never saw evidence of the same happening to its foreign language services,” says Schweimler, who adds that he was given a set of editorial guidelines similar to those he encountered at the BBC and that he was not made aware of any red lines.
He says he believes CCTV journalists were given more editorial independence than those working for RT. He admits, though, that he rarely covered China-related stories and when he did, they tended to be soft human-interest ones.
In general it seems that Western reporters hired by CCTV and CGTN abroad are not trusted with Chinese news, which is handled from Beijing. The result can be China coverage which is clumsy and predictable, or simply absent.
“The way CGTN America appears ‘to tell the China story well’ is by trying not to tell it all, if it can’t say something positive,” says Vivien Marsh, who researches Chinese media at the University of Westminster. “It may well be slick and China-lite, but would you want a Chinese channel to be China-lite?”
One way or another, Marsh reckons, CGTN’s China content is likely to alienate British and European audiences. But its close ties to CCTV – and an altogether darker side of “the China story” – could cause it more serious problems.
For 62-year-old Peter Humphrey, the video of Kong Linlin’s raucous contribution to last year’s Conservative Party conference was a deeply unsettling reminder. It took him back to his questioning by CCTV reporters during 23 months he spent in China as a prisoner between 2013 and 2015.
Sitting at home in Surrey, Humphrey says of Kong: “She’s just like the woman who interviewed me … I see her as out of the same mould [and] with the same vindictive nature as the CCTV people who interviewed me in China. These people are not journalists, they are agents of the Chinese state.”
Humphrey grew up in Redhill but dreamed of foreign cultures and adventures. Inspired by news stories about Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to China at the height of the Cold War, he studied Chinese at university in Durham and Beijing as China was emerging from the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He worked briefly for the English language Communist Party mouthpiece the China Daily before reporting for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and Reuters, and then switching away from journalism.
Together with his wife Yu Yingzeng, an American citizen, Humphrey founded and ran a consultancy specialising in white-collar crime investigations for corporate clients in China.
The life the couple built over decades in China began to unravel when they were hired by the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to investigate the background of one of its former Chinese executives. What GSK did not tell him, Humphrey says, was that the company was being investigated for corruption at the time. This, combined with the well-connected executive’s desire for revenge, is what Humphrey believes set him on a collision course with Chinese authorities and led to his conviction in August 2014, and his subsequent incarceration for “illegally obtaining citizens’ information”.
Humphrey believes the two televised confessions he was forced to make were produced to counter Western media coverage of his case and to prejudice public opinion. Both were made while he was detained by the Shanghai Public Security Bureau in a 15-square-metre cell shared with 12 other inmates for 14 months before his trial.
He was subject to repeated interrogations, he says, and kept in dirty conditions with poor nutrition and with the lights kept on 24 hours a day. He was also denied communication with his family and treatment for a number of ailments, including a prostate condition that later developed into cancer.
Yet it’s the memory of the forced confessions that haunts him most, especially the first, for which he was marched out of his cell in handcuffs and “ambushed” by more than a dozen people in civilian clothes with still and video cameras – one clearly marked with the logo of CCTV – inside the detention centre.
In what has emerged as a pattern among detainees who have recorded forced confessions, Humphrey’s police interrogators had told him his co-operation would win him more lenient treatment. In many of the other cases, officers told detainees the recordings would only be shown to their superiors although they were subsequently broadcast on national television.
During that first interview, Humphrey says one of his regular interrogators read out questions to him from a piece of paper and then turned the paper around to show him the required answers. The reporters, including one he believes to be from CCTV, took notes.
The second interview, a year later, was conducted just before Humphrey’s trial. This time he was interviewed, without handcuffs and in an ordinary meeting room by a woman who identified herself as a CCTV reporter.
“She was aggressive most of the time, [and had an] almost hectoring manner of addressing me. She asked me questions initially of how I’d been treated. She wanted to get me to say I’d been treated very well and was in good health and I refuted all of that,” Humphrey recounts.
“I would answer a question and she would immediately say ‘I don’t agree with you’ and ‘I don’t approve’. It was constant; almost everything I said it was ‘I don’t believe you, I don’t agree with you’. She’s supposed to be a journalist, not an interrogator, but that’s how she behaved.”
Humphrey is one of 106 people forced to make televised confessions or denunciations of others in China since Xi’s rise to power. Most are Chinese citizens, including a significant number of Muslim Uighurs, who have displeased the government with their writings. Thirteen are overseas citizens, from the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Their experiences have been documented by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist who was himself forced to make a televised confession when he was detained by Chinese authorities for 23 days in January 2016. He was released after recording a video – broadcast by CCTV in China and overseas – in which he appears to confess to having violated Chinese laws by supporting human rights lawyers inside China. He subsequently founded a group called Safeguard Defenders and wrote the first comprehensive report on forced TV confessions in China.
Humphrey is seeking the revocation of the UK broadcast licences that Ofcom has issued for CCTV and CGTN. In November 2018, he submitted a detailed legal complaint to the regulator, claiming the networks had violated the Broadcasting Code’s rules on privacy and fairness by broadcasting footage produced without his consent and which prejudiced his right to a fair trial.
Further complaints have been filed by Angela Gui – the daughter of Gui Minhai, a publisher and bookseller who went missing in Thailand in 2015 and reappeared three months later in a forced confession recorded on the Chinese mainland – by Gui’s Hong Kong colleague Lam Wingkee, and by Dahlin. The group also plans to submit a complaint to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will claim CCTV and CGTN have broadcast “known and intentional distortion of facts and clear lies” in direct violation of FCC rules.
In the US, CGTN and Xinhua have already been told to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, was charged with violating by failing to declare his work as a lobbyist for Ukraine. In Britain, the BBC World Service is watching closely as Ofcom considers complaints against Russia’s RT, fearful that any sanction could trigger a tit-for-tat response limiting its ability to operate in Russia. The BBC sees CGTN as being in a different – and less nakedly propagandist – category from RT, but is still anxious about the complaints to Ofcom.
The regulator has yet to rule on Humphrey’s complaint. When it does, CGTN can be expected to argue that the broadcasts were made years ago on CCTV and the foreign language service is now a different entity. For Humphrey, the difference is academic.
“CGTN is a subsidiary of CCTV, and CCTV is Chinese Central Television,” he says. “It is an official news outlet working for the Communist Party and outside of China, these broadcasts are intended to project Chinese influence around the world.” Ofcom should take note, and so should viewers.