Beijing’s covert radio network airs China-friendly news across Washington, and the world

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Part 3: The Chinese government controls much of the content broadcast on a station that is blanketing the U.S. capital with pro-Beijing programming. WCRW is part of an expanding global web of 33 stations in which China’s involvement is obscured.

BEIJING/WASHINGTON – In August, foreign ministers from 10 nations blasted China for building artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. As media around the world covered the diplomatic clash, a radio station that serves the most powerful city in America had a distinctive take on the news.

Located outside Washington, D.C., WCRW radio made no mention of China’s provocative island project. Instead, an analyst explained that tensions in the region were due to unnamed “external forces” trying “to insert themselves into this part of the world using false claims.”

Behind WCRW’s coverage is a fact that’s never broadcast: The Chinese government controls much of what airs on the station, which can be heard on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

WCRW is just one of a growing number of stations across the world through which Beijing is broadcasting China-friendly news and programming.

A Reuters investigation spanning four continents has identified at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries that are part of a global radio web structured in a way that obscures its majority shareholder: state-run China Radio International, or CRI.

Many of these stations primarily broadcast content created or supplied by CRI or by media companies it controls in the United States, Australia and Europe. Three Chinese expatriate businessmen, who are CRI’s local partners, run the companies and in some cases own a stake in the stations. The network reaches from Finland to Nepal to Australia, and from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

At WCRW, Beijing holds a direct financial interest in the Washington station’s broadcasts. Corporate records in the United States and China show a Beijing-based subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned radio broadcaster owns 60 percent of an American company that leases almost all of the station’s airtime.

China has a number of state-run media properties, such as the Xinhua news agency, that are well-known around the world. But American officials charged with monitoring foreign media ownership and propaganda said they were unaware of the Chinese-controlled radio operation inside the United States until contacted by Reuters. A half-dozen former senior U.S. officials said federal authorities should investigate whether the arrangement violates laws governing foreign media and agents in the United States.

A U.S. law enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits foreign governments or their representatives from holding a radio license for a U.S. broadcast station. Under the Communications Act, foreign individuals, governments and corporations are permitted to hold up to 20 percent ownership directly in a station and up to 25 percent in the U.S. parent corporation of a station.

CRI itself doesn’t hold ownership stakes in U.S. stations, but it does have a majority share via a subsidiary in the company that leases WCRW in Washington and a Philadelphia station with a similarly high-powered signal.

BUILDING “SOFT POWER”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has chafed at a world order he sees as dominated by the United States and its allies, is aware that China struggles to project its views in the international arena.

“We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world,” Xi said in a policy address in November last year, according to Xinhua.

CRI head Wang Gengnian has described Beijing’s messaging effort as the “borrowed boat” strategy – using existing media outlets in foreign nations to carry China’s narrative.

A few of the programs broadcast in the United States cite reports from CRI, but most don’t. One program, The Beijing Hour, says it is “brought to you by China Radio International.”

Some shows are slick, others lack polish. While many segments are indistinguishable from mainstream American radio shows, some include announcers speaking English with noticeable Chinese accents.

The production values vary because the broadcasts are appealing to three distinct audiences: first-generation Chinese immigrants with limited English skills; second-generation Chinese curious about their ancestral homeland; and non-Chinese listeners whom Beijing hopes to influence.

One thing the programs have in common: They generally ignore criticism of China and steer clear of anything that casts Beijing in a negative light.

Around the world, corporate records show, CRI’s surrogates use the same business structure. The three Chinese businessmen in partnership with Beijing have each created a domestic media company that is 60 percent owned by a Beijing-based group called Guoguang Century Media Consultancy. Guoguang, in turn, is wholly owned by a subsidiary of CRI, according to Chinese company filings.

The three companies span the globe:

• In Europe, GBTimes of Tampere, Finland, has an ownership stake in or provides content to at least nine stations, according to interviews and an examination of company filings.

• In Asia-Pacific, Global CAMG Media Group of Melbourne, Australia, has an ownership stake in or supplies programming to at least eight stations, according to corporate records.

• And in North America, G&E Studio Inc, near Los Angeles, California, broadcasts content nearly full time on at least 15 U.S. stations. A station in Vancouver also broadcasts G&E content. In addition to distributing CRI programming, G&E produces and distributes original Beijing-friendly shows from its California studios.

BORN IN A CAVE

CRI has grown remarkably since its founding in 1941. According to its English-language website, its first broadcast was aired from a cave, and the news reader had to frighten away wolves with a flashlight. Today, CRI says it broadcasts worldwide in more than 60 languages and Chinese dialects.

Pendleton said he didn’t know that G&E was 60 percent owned by a subsidiary of the Chinese government until Reuters informed him.  But the arrangement complies with FCC law, he said, because G&E leases the airwaves instead of owning the station.

In any event, he said, CRI is open about its goals: to present a window into Chinese culture and offer Chinese points of view on international affairs.

CHINA’S “PROXY”

G&E now broadcasts in English and Chinese on at least 15 U.S. stations, including Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston, Honolulu and Portland, Oregon.

Full article: Beijing’s covert radio network airs China-friendly news across Washington, and the world (Reuters)

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