Kai Mueller

China after the Communist Party?

Something that has never, or at least seldom, been heard is currently echoing on China’s streets. “Down with Xi Jinping, down with the Communist Party,” chanted hundreds of demonstrators, perhaps more, openly and apparently without fear of the omnipresent surveillance and repression, in Shanghai and many other cities on the last weekend of November. The protests against the brutal zero-Covid policy of the CCP still seem manageable for the Communist Party. But they must ring the alarm for the autocratic leadership around Secretary General Xi Jinping. After all, what if the voices of the brave few multiply and Xi and the Communist Party can no longer hold on to power? An unlikely, even unreal, scenario given how accustomed we have become—or are meant to become—to the omnipotence of the Communist Party.

But as in the case of Russia, entrenched assumptions can be proven wrong, and as in the case of Russia—and many are already doing so—we must grapple with the question of what comes after the autocrat. Will a peaceful transformation of China be possible—and what role will the many peoples colonized by Beijing, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Mongols, play in this? Are there blueprints, ideas, suggestions for a way out of a potentially explosive situation?

The current protests should give reason to think about this as well, they may even force one to do so. And one would get answers and leads right away. There is the Charter 08 by the late Liu Xiaobo, and there are the Tibetans who have made many constructive suggestions as to what peaceful coexistence could look like. The 1987 Five Point Peace Plan, the 2008 Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People and the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. And these proposals do not only refer to Tibet but could be an inspiration for a fair balance of interests between all parties involved. China policy and strategy development should deal intensively with these scenarios. We have to think the unthinkable.

Overdue: Telegraph discontinues CCP propaganda supplement

The end came as a surprise to many observers: Without further comment, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph recently stopped publishing Chinese propaganda content and also deleted it from its homepage.

As the British newspaper The Guardian reported, the Telegraph had maintained the lucrative connection with the Chinese propaganda sheet China Daily for more than 10 years and, together with its print edition, had delivered its supplement China Watch. In addition, the newspaper maintained a subsection on its website that originated from People’s Daily Online and naturally also ran unrestrained Beijing PR. No wonder, since this is the English version of the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Guardian quotes some typical headlines from articles that have since been deleted. The headlines read, for example, “Why are some framing China’s heroic efforts to stop coronavirus as inhumane?”; “Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus’”; and “Coronavirus outbreak is not an opportunity to score points against China.” The Telegraph is reported to have received about £750,000 a year for supporting Chinese state propaganda.

The step by the Telegraph comes late, and the motives for it remain hidden. The paper follows newspapers such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung and The New York Times, which have also withdrawn from such cooperation. Until the end of 2019, the Handelsblatt was the only German newspaper to carry China Watch. Despite several inquiries, its management does not want to comment on the conditions of cooperation with the Communist Party. And also Le Figaro in France or Le Soir of Belgium refuse to respond to appeals from civil society, including the International Campaign for Tibet. Transparency and openness would be essential, especially for newspapers that are important watchdogs in a democratic society. This lack of transparency does not match the image of independent media and damages their credibility.

The termination of China Watch by the Telegraph is a long overdue step. It was and is a shame for free Western media to disseminate propaganda of a regime that uses violence to attack freedom of expression and mercilessly censors the media. It is incomprehensible why free Western media can be bought by a system that harasses, persecutes and imprisons countless people who dare to insist on their human right to freedom of expression. It is high time that the remaining China Watch inserts in Western newspapers are now discontinued.

A welcome about-turn: the Süddeutsche Zeitung renounces its Chinese propaganda supplement

Virtually unnoticed by the general public, the Süddeutsche Zeitung seems to have decided to discontinue supplements from the Chinese Communist Party’s China Daily. News of the termination of this presumably very lucrative business relationship was tucked away in a third-page article by the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s correspondent for China, who claimed that the “China Watch” supplement was only meant as a one-time affair. In November 2017, things certainly sounded different. In response to our criticism, the managing directors stated in an email to the International Campaign for Tibet that they intended to include the supplement in their print edition “bi-monthly.” This would mean that at least two more print editions should have appeared this year if the SZ had not, apparently, thought better of it.

Even if it remains unclear what made the management reconsider, it is a decision worthy of praise. Other media should follow the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s lead and terminate their advertising deals with this propaganda-peddling newspaper. They should distance themselves from cooperation with Chinese state media, which not only serve as the mouthpiece of an authoritarian country and party leadership but also take part in the most perfidious oppression. Since 2013 TV and the state-run press in China have broadcast forced confessions from dissidents clearly jailed unjustly to silence them and intimidate the public. This clearly contradicts international human rights standards as well as China’s own written laws.

Thus, the International Campaign for Tibet, along with the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) and the French Ligue des droits de l’Homme, made an urgent appeal to the Parisian Le Figaro to discontinue its monthly China Daily supplement. In Germany, the Handelsblatt continues to publish advertising supplements from China Daily, as do many other leading media in Europe and America. It is high time to call out this cooperation for what it is: the selling-out of journalistic credibility.

Follow-up: Süddeutsche Zeitung risks its credibility

China Watch supplement explaining the workings of the Chinese Communist Party to the readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

It has been just over a week since we addressed the issue of the supplement to the Süddeutsche Zeitung taken out by the Chinese state’s mouthpiece, China Daily. Meanwhile the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung has responded to our letter, a response that is as predictable as it is disappointing: the Süddeutsche Zeitung will continue to publish China Daily supplements. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that articles and advertising are separate and there is no reason to be concerned about critical reporting on China.

Furthermore, the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung cannot provide any information about how much China Daily paid for advertising for which other papers take large six-figure sums annually. Given that the sixteen pages entitled “China Watch,” according to the executive director, henceforth will be published six times a year in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, it is clearly no small amount that China Daily will be transferring. At any rate, it will apparently be large enough for the executive board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung to abandon any concerns they had entertained about Russian advertising supplements not too long ago.

China invests strategically

China invests strategically and long-term, also and specifically in the field of media. For example, the Chinese state (or rather the controlling Communist Party) systematically advertises via a state media system conceived especially for prestigious Western newspapers. There have been supplements from China Daily in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Telegraph, the Handelsblatt, Le Figaro, and Wall Street Journal, to name just a few.

The Communist Party of China stands only to gain. First, it successfully exploits the reach and reputation of these high-quality newspapers to cleverly spread its propaganda in seemingly apolitical articles to its Western readers and to obscure the reality of authoritarian China.

Secondly, the Communist Party is priming to undermine the independence of potentially financially weak publishing houses, particularly in small, economically fragile but stable countries. Who would have thought that we would find ourselves talking seriously about or facing the sad reality of censorship of the prestigious Cambridge University Press or the academic publishing house Springer?

Thirdly: even if Beijing’s leadership cannot entirely prevent critical reporting on China, it can continue its efforts to undermine the credibility of individual newspapers. It can inspire public debate about their independence, which can only be expected in an open society. Is it naïve to assume that readers are not reading articles that are “China-friendly” or “optimistic about China” because they assume that seven-figure payments might be making their way from Beijing to Munich?

It is scandalous that highly regarded Western media are risking credibility over advertising from authoritarian states. The Süddeutsche Zeitung should no longer publish “China Watch.”

Selling out: Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and its Chinese propaganda ads

Can democratic societies get the upper hand against authoritarianism if their own institutions sell out to dictators? Since November 10, we have had to ask this question again—also and especially in Germany. It has become particularly pressing since Germany’s daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, in its own words “Germany’s largest nationwide quality daily” notable for its “opinionated and independent journalism,” published a supplement from the state-run China Daily. Headlined “China Watch,” it promises to reveal “All you need to know.”

What’s in there is what you’d expect—16 pages of good news from the Middle Kingdom. The title article includes not one but two photos of Xi Jinping while the headline boasts that the country “is gaining new strength.” Naturally, they could not leave out the panda bears in the Berlin Zoo or German ex-pats celebrating Oktoberfest in China, their beer mugs in hand. And right in the middle you’ll find an enormous chart entitled “The Communist Party of China in Figures.” Pure propaganda from an authoritarian regime distributed in Western mass media. What is the difference, one feels compelled to ask, between Facebook and Twitter ads apparently paid for by Russia (and which exerted massive influence on the American presidential election) and the publication of a China Daily supplement in the Süddeutsche Zeitung?

The China Daily supplement, however, is not an isolated case. In July, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a multi-page ad from the Chinese state agency Xinhua, just in time for the G20 Summit. The editorial board of the Süddeutsche Zeitung at least must have known who it was dealing with, either by reading its own paper or from – apparently cozy – meetings with representatives of the Chinese state media, for example, at the now expanded “Mediaforum China-Germany-USA” established by the Robert Bosch Foundation and which we’ve already written about (German language blog). Perhaps they laid the groundwork for further business at, for example, the fun-loving table top soccer game with the “enemies of press freedom”?

The Chinese state media are not such good sports when it comes to dissent and pluralism. For example, they actively took part in blackmailing human rights activists, bloggers, book dealers, and journalists into making “confessions” and publicly humiliating them. These methods, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, violate to an extreme degree the human rights, personal rights, and liberty of those they target. They intimidate dissenters and doubtlessly intensify the climate of repression under Xi Jinping. China Daily and Xinhua, state-run media, are an integral part of this repression.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, if it really wishes to produce quality journalism and preserve its credibility as an independent paper, cannot publish the propaganda of authoritarian states guilty of egregious human rights violations. In this particular case, they also must disclose what the Chinese state media paid for advertising and supplements. The International Campaign for Tibet in Germany has urged the paper’s editorial board to rethink their policies accordingly.

In Germany, the door to authoritarian policies and ideas has been thrown wide open—ironically also by those who see themselves as the pillar of democratic societies and who should clearly be so: the media, universities, even NGOs. Will there be a change in thinking before it’s too late?

Kai Mueller, Executive Director, International Campaign for Tibet Germany, based on an original German language blog at http://savetibet.de/blog/ausverkauf-die-sueddeutsche-zeitung-und-ihre-chinesischen-propagandaanzeigen/