By Cathy He and Eva Fu
A group tied to Beijing has organized trips to China for more than 120 journalists from almost 50 U.S. media outlets since 2009, as part of a broad campaign to deepen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence in the United States.
Called the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), the group is a Hong Kong-based nonprofit headed by billionaire Tung Chee-hwa, a Chinese regime official. Tung was formerly the Chief Executive (top government leader) of Hong Kong and is currently a vice-chairman of the CCP’s political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. CUSEF is registered as a “foreign principal” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
FARA filings reveal how the group has tried to sway media coverage and shape public opinion in the United States.
Alongside trips for journalists, the group has organized trips for current and former lawmakers, courted media executives from major publications via private dinners, and aimed to cultivate a group of “third party supporters” in the United States to generate positive opinion articles on China that would appear in Western media outlets.
The activities offer a glimpse into the CCP’s sprawling efforts to influence public perceptions and sway elite opinion in Western democracies, in an effort to persuade governments to adopt policies in tune with Beijing’s agenda. The goal of this campaign, dubbed “United Front work” by the Party, is to “make Americans receptive to Beijing’s form of authoritarianism,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech last October.
By targeting foreign news outlets, the regime hopes to limit negative media coverage of Beijing, while boosting favorable coverage, Grant Newsham, a senior fellow at Washington-based think tank Center for Security Policy, said in an email.
Positive stories—such as “how many shiny skyscrapers there are in Shanghai and Shenzhen, and how the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has been so successful in battling COVID-19, and how the Chinese economy has recovered nicely”—shape “both public and ‘official’ thinking in the U.S.—and ultimately shapes official (and business and financial) policy” towards China, Newsham said.
FARA filings from 2011 made by BLJ Global, a public relations firm hired by CUSEF, laid out a multi-pronged plan to frame public discourse on U.S.-China relations in positive terms—centered on the idea of “China as an indispensable partner to the U.S.”
The firm listed the objectives of its work for CUSEF as: “Develop and foster a community of like-minded experts on U.S.-China relations;” “Build relationships with influential media figures who can serve as positive voices for discussions on U.S.-China relations;” and “Construct a positive and cohesive message of U.S.-China engagement and work to broadcast that message through the Chairman [Tung] … Third-party supporters and organizations, and the media.”
Its target for 2010 was to place an average of three articles a week in various publications containing statements in support of China. In 2009, the firm “assisted or directly influenced” the publication of 26 opinion articles and quotes within 103 articles, the filing stated.
Some positive opinion articles would be written by CUSEF’s “third party supporters,” a group of experts, former politicians, and influential figures whose membership BLJ sought to expand, given their key role in “effectively disseminat[ing] positive messages to the media, key influencers and opinion leaders, and the general public.”
Since 2009, BLJ has organized journalist trips for 128 journalists from 48 U.S. outlets, including Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Vox, NPR, and NBC, according to a review of FARA filings.
The firm, in the 2011 filing, called the visits “familiarization trips” intended to recruit “top journalists to travel to China, selected for effectiveness and opportunities for favorable coverage.”
“These visits should be designed to offer a fresh and positive look at China’s accomplishments, and underscore how important it is for the U.S. to engage directly with China,” it said.
In 2009, two trips attended by reporters from seven publications yielded 28 articles, the filing said.
The China trips, Newsham said, resembles the Chinese regime’s “longstanding practice of ‘visit diplomacy’ and hospitality that works so well with government officials and businessmen from many countries.”
He added this approach “works really well with people who have only limited experience with China.”
Journalists may believe they are immune from the regime’s influence efforts, Newsham said. “But that’s hard to believe.”
Shift in Perceptions
The Chinese regime has heralded foreign journalist trips like those funded by CUSEF as important programs through which reporters can understand the “real China.”
The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, a state-controlled body that regularly funds trips for foreign officials, plays host for the journalists on the CUSEF-sponsored trips.
Then-director of the Institute Yang Wenchang, at an internal meeting in 2009, called U.S. media visits a “very good experiment,” noting that such efforts needed to be carried out for the long term with an emphasis on creating a “unique brand.”
In 2020, director of the institute Wang Chao wrote in their in-house publication that the organization has made increasing efforts to invite foreign media groups to China so that they can “experience China’s progress firsthand, and use these media as a window to make more foreigners see a real China.”
The Party-run All‑China Journalists Association has been running a journalist exchange program since 2010. A 2016 state media article boasted that foreign media visits organized by the association have played a key role in expanding China’s international “friend circle.”
Such trips have allowed “reporters who have never been to China and have been deeply influenced by biased U.S. reporting on China” to “have in-depth conversations with Chinese officials, experts, and media counterparts about China’s development, which helps to clear much of the misunderstanding or concerns,” the article said.
It further cited testimonials from a senior editor at Huffington Post, who said the visits arranged by the association made him “realize how ignorant the U.S. press circle is about China.”
A Pulitzer-winning financial columnist with the L.A. Times, after a 9-day visit to China, said he found that the understanding from U.S. media about China “will never catch up with the speed of China’s development,” according to the report.
A reporter with Reuters, identified as “Patrick,” said the China visit had changed his perception about the role of Chinese media.
“Before visiting China, I thought that Chinese media served the goal of class struggle, but after coming here I found that this idea remains fixated on the Cultural Revolution period, which is somewhat laughable,” he said, according to the Chinese article. He called the media exchange “quite valuable.”
The regime has also utilized these media trips in times of crisis, seeking to sway foreign media sentiments to its side. Following two major protests by ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang against the Party’s rule in 2008 and 2009 respectively, which the CCP branded as riots, the association “condemned Western media that fabricated news at the earliest opportunity,” according to a 2011 article by state-run media Xinhua. The group “promptly arranged foreign media for on-site interviews … to create a favorable public opinion for the handling of the incidents,” the article said.
Reuters declined to comment. Huffington Post and L.A. Times did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
From 2009 to 2017, CUSEF hosted a range of dinners and meetings with representatives from 35 outlets, including Time magazine, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, New York Times, AP, and Reuters.
Private dinners hosted by Tung with executives and editors at top American publications—usually in Washington and New York—were described by BLJ in the 2011 FARA filing as “invaluable for their effectiveness in engaging support from the leaders of the news industry.”
“While it cannot be quantified, the influence that Mr. Tung has had on high-level opinion-formers has served to sway news coverage in major outlets and influence the elite,” BLJ continued.
As vice chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Tung presides over a key unit in the regime’s United Front network. The advisory body self-identifies as a “patriotic united front” organization for “promoting socialist democracy.”
United Front work, described by Party leaders as a “magic weapon,” involves the efforts of thousands of groups inside and outside of China that carry out political influence operations, suppress dissident movements, gather intelligence, and facilitate the transfer of technology to China.
Tung, a Shanghai-born Hong Kong businessman, was the first chief executive of Hong Kong after the city transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. He resigned in 2005 before finishing his second term. While in office, he oversaw the drafting of the controversial anti-subversion bill called Article 23, which triggered the city’s largest protests until the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019.
He has consistently expressed loyalty to the Chinese regime, most recently in December by voicing his support for the national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year. He has also claimed that Beijing did not breach its promises under the “one country, two systems” formula—under which Hong Kong was to retain autonomy and freedoms not found in the mainland—and has not “intruded in Hong Kong affairs for the past 22 years.”
In a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2017, Xi praised Tung for “selflessly devoting your time, energy, wisdom, and resources to the nation,” and “establishing an example for latecomers.”
CUSEF and BLJ did not respond to requests for comment. CUSEF, in a 2017 statement to Foreign Policy, denied any connection to the Chinese regime. “We do not aim to promote or support the policies of any one government,” a spokesperson said at the time.
The Lure of Chinese Money
Besides fostering influence through personal relationships, the CCP yields more direct influence on Western media by controlling their ability to operate in China and their access to Chinese citizens, Newsham noted.
“If you write something too critical of the CCP … you can be kicked out of the country,” Newsham said. “So it leads to a degree of self-censorship—that inevitably ‘weakens’ the coverage of China in that it presents a less than accurate account of things.”
Foreign correspondents in China have accused the regime of “weaponizing” visas to pressure foreign media to alter their reporting. Last February, the regime revoked the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters after the newspaper declined to apologize for running an opinion article headlined, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
In 2013, Bloomberg pulled the plug on an investigative report on ties between Wang Jianlin, then China’s richest man, and top CCP leaders, for fear of retribution from Beijing, NPR reported last year. “It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country,” Bloomberg then-editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler said in an October 2013 conference call obtained by NPR. “They’ll probably shut us down.”
Newsham said Beijing’s efforts to sway American press coverage have been “rather successful.”
“Consider also how long it took to get any sort of decent press coverage of Chinese genocide in Xinjiang, or any coverage at all, of CCP organ harvesting from Chinese, often Falun Gong, victims,” he said, referring to a spiritual group that has been severely persecuted in China since 1999. “From the CCP’s perspective, that’s a success.”
Besides underreporting Beijing’s human rights abuses, U.S. media outlets often fail to account for the Chinese regime’s role in precipitating crises on domestic soil.
For instance, in its coverage of the CCP Virus pandemic, the “mainstream media refused to even entertain the possibility it leaked from a Chinese lab. And they attacked such claims as ‘fake news,’” Newsham said.
He noted that this theory has only recently appeared to gain more acceptance in media coverage. “But the media wasted a year at least, and allowed the PRC to obscure the story.”
Press coverage of the fentanyl crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year also routinely fails to mention that the synthetic drugs originate from China, Newsham noted. Meanwhile, reports on the Chinese economy “very rarely” mention that official economic and financial statistics are unreliable, or that there is no rule of law in the country, he added.
Newsham suggested that more needs to be done to “inoculate” journalists and media executives so “they are to some degree (and even subconsciously) better disposed towards the CCP.”
“Would these reporters/executives have done something similar with South Africa’s ‘apartheid era’ government? Maybe not.
“It comes down to principle ultimately.”
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