On March 15, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency ran a story claiming Chinese reporters are being used as tools in a “new China-bashing campaign.”
The report accused the Western media of “piles of fake reports on China” and using Chinese journalists as “so-called ‘China experts’.”It calls China's fight against COVID-19 “one of the primary targets in this misinformation war.”
It also accused Chinese reporters who work for Western media outlets of cobbling together “evidence” of China’s human rights abuses, specifically in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where Uyghur Muslims are persecuted.
The Xinhua report’s conclusion:
“Manipulating these journalists to misrepresent China and stir up ideological bias against the country has once again revealed that so-called 'press freedom' touted by the Western media is just a handy tool to advance a narrow political agenda.”
However, there is no evidence to back up the conspiracy theory that Chinese journalists are being intentionally used in a malicious plot against China.
Using the catch-all term “Western media,” Xinhua does not accuse specific media outlets of hiring, and then manipulating Chinese employees. The unfounded accusation comes as Chinese journalists face malicious attacks online, including leaks private or identifying information, called “doxxing.”
When attacking “Western media,” it is unclear if Xinhua is also referring to media outlets in Latin America, Asia, Oceania and the Middle East, which report critically on China.
French philosopher Guy Sorman noted that the term “the West” is “vague enough to include a vast array of areas without describing their unifying characteristics.”
Likewise, media outlets in the United States and Europe have a variety of funding and ownership structures, not to mention editorial orientations.
China’s attacks on Western media often appear based on the assumption (or intentional misrepresentation) that they function like Chinese state media.
In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered state-run media to strictly follow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership and focus on "positive reporting.”
“Xi made no bones about the fact that the Chinese media are indivisible from the ruling party,” Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister organization of the Voice of America, wrote at the time.
RFA reported that photos showed “fervent” employees of The People's Daily, Xinhua and state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) “holding up banners pledging loyalty to the party.”
The CCP later introduced a loyalty test for Chinese journalists seeking to renew their press credentials. The Paris-based free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said the move provided the communist regime “with the perfect excuse to ban the last critical voices in the media.”
In contrast to Xinhua’s unsubstantiated claim, there is evidence that Beijing is using Western influencers to "spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet,” The New York Times reported in December.
“State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers' travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves,” the newspaper wrote. “They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
“With official media outlets' backing, the creators can visit and film in parts of China where the authorities have obstructed foreign journalists' reporting.”
Beijing also continues to crack down on foreign reporters operating in China.
The Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) recently reported that journalists are facing “unprecedented hurdles covering China,” including physical assaults, harassment, threats, cyber hacking, online trolling and visa denials.
Chinese journalists working abroad are also under fire.
China has a track record of intimidating those journalists through doxxing — publishing personal information online with malicious intent — or organized online harassment.
In December 2021, the CCP’s Global Times newspaper published an article that doxxed China-born female journalists working outside China.
The article vilified them as people who fabricate lies about China, “handing a knife to the anti-China western forces and shooting their fellow Chinese in the back.” It characterized the journalists and the organizations they work for as part of Western “cognitive warfare” against China.
New York Times reporter Muyi Xiao was heavily featured in the article. It included information on where she was born, the college she attended, the year she graduated, her previous employers, sources she quoted and reports she allegedly “fabricated” to bash China.
The article said she ingratiated herself into The New York Times with reports “that distorted Wuhan's fight against the [COVID-19] pandemic and gloated over the pandemic.”
The Global Times article named seven other China-born journalists, with screenshots of their pictures or personal websites inserted, as part of “the apparent network” connected to Xiao.
The article listed the patrons and partners of the publications or nonprofits these journalists once worked for or were affiliated with, including George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The article suggested the journalists were working at the behest of these foundations to “incite color revolution” in China.
The Global Times article mentioned Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a journalist and researcher who works for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). In April 2021, a year after she co-authored an ASPI report on Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, she became the target of an online harassment campaign.
Xu’s name became a trending topic on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, with numerous attacks posted and reposted by Chinese state media outlets and nationalist users. She was called a “West-controlled pawn,” a “race-traitor,” a “slut” and a “female demon.”
“Queries for her name turn up thousands of results, including videos claiming to reveal details of her dating life, calling her ‘promiscuous’ and ‘drug infested’,” The Washington Post reported in April 2021.
According to the Post, “On Weibo, people have called for her family to be tracked down and ordered to apologize for raising such a daughter. Others said Xu should never be allowed back into China, issuing not-so-veiled threats. ‘Meet a traitor, kill a traitor,’ one user wrote. Her family asked her to change her name for her own safety.”
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for The New Yorker who emigrated to the United States from China when she was eight, also became the target of Chinese propaganda and online harassment.
In “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda,” her September 2020 cover story for The New Yorker, she recounted how seeking help on Twitter for her mother’s struggle with the debilitating disease ALS during the COVID-19 lockdown led to a targeted cyberbullying campaign.
Chinese nationalists called her and her mother traitors and “race-traitors,” and the two were mocked by Chinese state media. Fan had reported on a variety of China-related topics for the magazine.
U.S.-born ethnic Chinese journalists are not exempt from similar intimidation and harassment. College Daily, a popular WeChat account with more than 2 million subscribers, described by The New Yorker as providing “Chinese news delivered with nationalistic overtones,” published an attack piece on National Public Radio’s China reporter Emily Feng.
The article called her a “colonizing person” (zhi ren, 殖人), meaning a person who reflects the thinking of colonizers from the developed capitalist countries. The article also described Feng as someone who hoped to “be recognized by the Americans for selling out her own country.”
In September 2021, Global Times singled out Alice Su, a U.S.-born Chinese-American journalist and former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, for her reporting on a deadly flood in China’s Henan Province. The newspaper called her a “second-devil (er guizi, 二鬼子),” a term used to refer to Chinese who provided help to “Japanese devils” during Japan’s 1930s invasion of China.
These examples are “part of a broader, years-long pattern in which Chinese state media and their fervent online followers descend on a target together,” Zeyi Yang wrote in a piece for Protocol, a tech and business news website.
“In today’s China, a nationalist campaign involves something far more complex than paying people to post scripted messages parroting Beijing’s line,” Yang wrote. “The government has mastered the craft of influencing people's genuine emotions and having these ordinary users do the trolling and doxxing – for free.”