You may read today in the headlines at the Khmer Times, a paper closely aligned with the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), about how Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised no traffic jams at an upcoming regional sporting event — or about how two brothers arrested for stealing a pink motorcycle “bowed their heads in shame.”

But the most eye-raising story at the news outlet may be the mini-mystery lurking in the sidebar to the right of each of these news items — a graphic feature that looks like Chinese state propaganda but is apparently orphaned from all relevant context. Is this anachronism yet another salient example of Chinese external propaganda (外宣) gone wrong?

A graphic of apparent Chinese state origin appeared on the right-hand sidebar of the Khmer Times website in early May 2023.

The graphic, which has appeared on the Khmer Times website since at least the weekend, is an odd assemblage of images, including nurses wearing anti-Covid face masks and protective gear, a prominent red national flag of China, saluting soldiers that appear to be Chinese armed forces, and the distinctive silhouette of the Beijing headquarters of China Central Television.

The words across the top of the image read cryptically, and quite ungrammatically: “A Mask A Battle: Everyone is Silent Warrior!”

Taken together, the images and the accompanying words recall the external propaganda campaigns unleashed by Chinese state media and related social media accounts at the height of the pandemic, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was keen on defending its record on Covid internationally, and portraying itself as a robust and courageous disease eradicator. After firmly insisting on Xi Jinping’s strict “zero Covid” approach through 2022, even in the face of rising resistance, the leadership suddenly dismantled the policy last December.

Medical workers in protective gear, which from early 2020 were potent and omnipresent symbols of government resolve — as well as the heartlessness and folly of forced quarantine and lockdown — are now a vision from the past. So what are they doing in the Khmer Times along with a potent symbol of external propaganda, the Beijing headquarters of CCTV?

The odd Covid graphic with Chinese characteristics appears beside an article about the monitoring of elections in Cambodia by police.

CMP reached out to the Khmer Times for comment but received no response.

Perhaps this is the now anachronistic tail end of a paid-for campaign involving the China Media Group, the arrangements made long before China’s sudden pivot away from virus containment. Perhaps it is a current but poorly thought-out campaign to remind local readers of China’s contributions to the fight against Covid in Cambodia. In any case, the image offers no further clues. It does not link to an external campaign page, nor is its purpose explained through any of the social channels operated by the newspaper.

The Khmer Times, which according to some sources has close connections with influential members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, routinely runs content from Xinhua News Agency, China’s official wire service. It has also published special columns echoing state propaganda narratives from such figures as Wang Wentian (王文天), the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, and Li Jingfeng, a defense attaché at China’s embassy.

In 2015, the newspaper was hit with a plagiarism scandal when the online community Khmer440 uncovered at least 22 articles published under the byline of T Mohan, the Malaysian businessman who owns the newspaper, that lifted entire passages from other publications.

CMP Staff

The China Media Project

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