Author: Kevin Schoenmakers

Kevin Schoenmakers is a Shanghai-based freelance journalist.

Telling China’s Story, Poorly

This May, one year after the Cannes Film Festival antagonized the Chinese government by showing Kiwi Chow’s “Revolution of Our Times,” a documentary sympathetic to Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protesters, it devoted screen time to a film that took the opposite angle. In “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” China is not the autocratic oppressor but the benevolent ruler, helping the city recover from political chaos and weather its worst Covid-19 outbreak.

According to a press release published on June 1, “The audience applauded for 3 minutes after the screening.” Some, it said, were “stunned and their impressions of Hong Kong were refreshed.” It added that the film had also recently won the Best Documentary Award at the Prague Film Festival, where, according to another article, it had to be shown again to accommodate the throngs of people who wanted to see it.

Were the viewpoints of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally gaining ground abroad?

The story did not hold up to scrutiny. As Twitter user K Tse and Czech outlet Deník N reported, there is no Prague Film Festival, just two people showed up for a screening of the film, and promotional images were based on stock photos. While the film had been in Cannes, it had not been shown at the prestigious festival, like “Revolution of Our Times,” but at the concurrent Marché du Films, a marketplace where screenings can be bought.

Were the viewpoints of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally gaining ground abroad?

The film’s press releases fooled some in the Cantonese community who liked a related post on social media, assuming without closer inspection this must be another pro-democracy documentary keeping hope alive. But otherwise, the apparent propaganda attempt withered on the vine.

Trying to unravel more of the mystery, the China Media Project followed a confusing trail of people and projects and found that “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” is part of a set of documentaries that espouse Communist Party narratives. Token foreigners and dubious overseas film festivals seem to have been involved to give the works a veneer of international pedigree. And seemingly at the center of it all stands an indie filmmaker from China — an example, perhaps, of how Chinese artists can find themselves compelled to mix passion projects with propaganda.

Intelligent Talent Levels

“Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” is, by any measure, a mediocre film. It follows several Hong Kong residents as they talk about how a Covid-19 outbreak in early 2022 affected the city. The film is narrated by a middle-aged white man identified only as Alex, who says that he moved to Hong Kong in 2000.

A few times, people in the film link the outbreak to the chaos of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. For Henry, a Cantonese opera apprentice, his main memory of those demonstrations is that they delayed his bus to the theater once and that he arrived just in time. When he got Covid-19, he recalls, a friend sent him medicine from mainland China.

Screenshot of “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” with praise for China’s Central Government and its actions during the pandemic.

Another character, a man called Dolphin, is described as “a dream-seeker from this bay” whose job is cold-calling people about investing in metaverse stocks. When talking to a colleague, he explains that future cooperation with mainland China, as well as the development of the Greater Bay Area, will lead to better economic prospects for Hong Kong. He praises “mainland China’s intelligent talent levels.”

Many conversations sound similarly stilted, if not outright scripted. In one scene, two people having a supposedly spontaneous conversation about how the Covid-19 pandemic reminds them of the 2019 demonstrations walk into the view of a stationary camera and stop to say goodbye. Alex’s voiceover is often oddly phrased, and in some scenes the footage doesn’t match the audio.

Screenshot of “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” in which two friends discuss the 2019 protests in Hong Kong as a time of disruption and chaos – the blame falling squarely on protesters.

The film ends with Henry receiving the news that his theater has reopened, followed by news clips of the city loosening restrictions as case figures drop.

Then the credits roll — arguably the most interesting part of the film.

An Absentee Crew

The crew listed for “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” consists of people whose involvement is questionable, who deny having worked on the film, or who can’t be found.

Benoît Lelièvre, a French teacher and filmmaker who lived in China for several years, is credited as the director. How much he actually worked on the film is unclear. According to a post on Facebook, he left China in late 2019 and hasn’t been back since.

Lelièvre did not respond to requests for comment from CMP or other journalists. Sometime over the past two months, he appears to have deleted photos of himself posing next to promotional materials for the film from his LinkedIn page. “Still in Cannes for a few days where I presented to the film market the last two docus, which I signed and shot in China,” his post read, “and met again many friends.”

A composite of three photos originally public on LinkedIn showing Lelièvre at Cannes with two films he called “the last two docus, which I signed and shot in China.” The poster at far left, just at Lelièvre’s elbow, shows a still of “Alex” from a scene in “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” viewed by CMP.

Aside from the two people listed as consultants, CMP could identify none of the crew members listed in the credits. All but one of the crew members listed as having been involved in the making of the Hong Kong film have non-Chinese names. The credits mention no production company. Nor do they credit the narrator, “Alex.” They list a co-producer, but not a producer.

Who, then, made “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again”? Several connections suggest it could have been Chinese documentary director Jin Huaqing (金华青) or his Hangzhou-based company, Jin Huaqing Film Studio.

Aside from the two people listed as consultants, CMP could identify none of the crew members listed in the credits.

Jin, 38, is an up-and-coming director whose most recent work, “Dark Red Forest,” about Tibetan nuns, was internationally well-received last year. In messages to China Media Project, Jin denies any involvement with “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again.” But there are connections, including several similar films, which he refuses to explain.

For one, the Prague cinema that screened “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” shared the private Vimeo page containing the film with Deník N. The account was named “Huaqing Jin.” Within a day of the China Media Project sending Jin the link, the account’s name was changed to “little observer.”

At left, the name “Huaqing Jin” appears on the Vimeo account that was shared with reporters in the Czech Republic for “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” in June 2022. At right, the same account changes to “little observer” after CMP contacts filmmaker Jin Huaqing to discuss his possible involvement in the film.

In 2020, Jin’s “Dark Red Forest” took part in Visions du Réel, a Swiss film festival, as a “work in progress.” Jasmin Bašić, Senior Industry Consultant at the festival, gave feedback on the then-unfinished documentary and ended up being credited as a consultant. It is the only link she can think of that would explain how she ended up listed as a consultant for “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” a film she had never heard of before speaking with the China Media Project.

The China-Crete Connection

The second consultant listed for “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” is Eleni Vlassi. She is a filmmaker as well as the artistic director and president of the International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra, or IDFI, a small film festival held yearly on the Greek island of Crete.

The festival has a strong, if strange, connection with China. In 2016, Jin’s “The Tibetan Girl,” a documentary about a Tibetan singer, won the Audience Award. For the following edition, according to the festival’s website, “IDFI has also the honor, this year, to welcome ‘China Dream’ which is a spectacular coordination of our Festival with the 9 largest International Festivals of China.” This “China Dream” program seems not to have been announced anywhere else.

Text on page two of the festival booklet of the International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra, or IDFI, which mentions a screening program called “China Dream.”

Over the next few years, this international cooperation involved handing out awards to various individuals with no apparent link to filmmaking — including tworesearchers” of traditional Chinese culture and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner — who instead seem mostly interested in bolstering their dubious credentials with foreign awards.

Jin attended IDFI at least twice, in 2018 and in 2019, when he was a member of the Jury for Young Filmmakers. Benoît Lelièvre also attended that year, and the three of them — He, Jin, and Vlassi — at one point during the opening ceremony shared the stage, photos on the festival’s website show.

Vlassi (third from left), Jin Huaqing (ninth from left) and Lelièvre (eight from left) appear onstage together at the 2019 IDFI.

A year earlier, the three of them also took part in the Silk Road Cup (International) Film Support Program, an event in Xi’an, in China’s Shaanxi province. They appear together in several images from the event, which was covered by local and national media, including China Central Television and, the government website run by the State Council Information Office.

The company hosting the event, Haining Film and Culture Communication Co Ltd, has worked closely with local propaganda departments to produce films that “tell China’s story well,” a phrase currently synonymous with the CCP’s domestic and international propaganda efforts. The company’s CEO, Chinese film producer Wang Haining (王海宁), told those gathered at the event that he welcomed “friends from all over the world to come to Xi’an, China to exchange films, invest in films, and promote films.”

Also present as deputy chairman of the event was Li Xuezheng (李学政), head of the Golden Shield Television Center of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s highest national defense body. Li, who leads propaganda film and television production for the People’s Liberation Army, told the media during the event that “telling China’s story well” was the “true path toward internationalization and promotion” of Chinese film.

Screenshot of coverage of the Silk Road Cup (International) Film Support Program held in Xi’an in 2018. Eleni Vlassi is fourth from the left, Jin Huaqing first from the right, and Benoît Lelièvre fourth from the right.

Despite intersecting with Vlassi and Lelièvre at these events, and despite sharing the stage, Jin says that he does not know Lelièvre, and that he has never cooperated with Vlassi. What makes these denials odder still is that Jin is credited with having co-directed documentaries with both of them.

The Xinjiang Films

Supposedly, Lelièvre and Jin directed a 2021 documentary called “Ripples,” the second of the “the last two docus” Lelièvre previously identified on his LinkedIn account as projects he had “signed and shot in China.”  “Ripples,” too, is a film that promotes the Chinese government’s stance on a sensitive political issue – this time denying foreign accusations of forced labor in the cotton industry of Xinjiang, the region where the Chinese state has, over the past few years, placed over a million members of the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in indoctrination camps.

The film describes the effects of the resulting worldwide bans on Xinjiang cotton on Uyghurs living in Yiwu, a trading hub in Eastern China, according to reviews on — a website, one industry insider says, that publishes content without much in the way of editorial review. The site’s editor did not respond to messages from CMP.

“Ripples” does not appear to be available anywhere online. Jin denies having made it, and Lelièvre refuses to talk. The Xinjiang cotton issue flared up in late 2020, after he left China. Whether or not Lelièvre made the film, he did promote “Ripples” at the Cannes Marché du Films this year, according to the now-deleted photos from his LinkedIn page as well as a press release.

Also in 2021, according to the website of Vlassi’s IDFI, she and Jin co-directed “Splendid Land,” a film told through an English man reminiscing about a trip he made to Xinjiang several years prior, according to a blog post. It says, contrary to the systematic oppression reported in the region, that Xinjiang people are “living freely in their ideal beautiful home.”

A short clip is available on YouTube. Just two minutes long, it features no less than three separate scenes of Uyghurs dancing, a common trope, and plenty of odd phrases. “In the streets of ethnic customs, a lively life sonata is in the air,” says the narrator, who sounds unmistakably like the “Alex” who provides the voiceover for “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again.”

A screenshot of Uyghur children shown dancing in a picturesque alley, a common trope, in the documentary “Splendid Land.” The narrator’s voice is identical to that in “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again.”

Vlassi’s film did well at her own festival. According to the IDFI website, “Splendid Land” won the Best International Short Documentary Award as well as the Audience Award in 2021.

Jin, again, denies any involvement. Much like Lelièvre, nothing about Vlassi’s social media presence suggests she has visited China since the start of the pandemic. When contacted by phone, Vlassi asked CMP to send questions via text message, after which she never replied or answered further calls.

Please Shining Again

Jin has one more propaganda documentary to his name, the 2020 film “Hong Kong, Please Shining Again,” available on YouTube.

In 15 minutes, the film gives the Chinese government’s version of the 2019 protests, explaining that these “radical violent crimes” were supported by “Western anti-China” forces, aided by middlemen like pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. The film ends with the fiction that the National Security Law is widely supported in the city. “Hong Kong and the Mainland are connected by blood,” it says.

Narrated with the baritone voice style typical of programs on state television in China, the film seems directed at a domestic audience. Regardless, “Hong Kong, Please Shining Again” won “Best Foreign Language Film” at Vlassi’s IDFI in 2020. This apparent overseas recognition despite its stylistic affinities with Chinese state propaganda might point to an important aspect of the mystery surrounding “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” the more recent film with an oddly reminiscent title.

Contrary to the other three films, which have barely any presence in Chinese online spaces, the 2020 film’s award win is cited and celebrated in several places, including in Party newspaper Guangming Daily. Junius Ho, a pro-China Hong Kong politician, mentioned the film on his Facebook page in June 2020, sharing a related report from the news outlet HK01. Another positive report on the film was published by the Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper linked to China’s central government.

All of these reports note the film’s IDFI award, and both the Ta Kung Pao and HK01 quote Vlassi as saying: “We believe that this film is a good way to convey to the world the voice of China, and the voice of Hong Kong, and allow the world to see the people behind the chaos in Hong Kong, and to see the true record of China’s defense of national sovereignty and justice. We hope more people can see the real Hong Kong.” Vlassi did not respond to a request to confirm this direct quote, which resembles the token foreign voices often presented in Chinese state media to lend support with perfect Party platitudes.

Clearly, foreign recognition was an important step in promoting “Hong Kong, Please Shining Again” in the Chinese-language press as a film legitimizing the Chinese government’s position on events in Hong Kong.

Partaking in such overt propaganda productions would seem like a departure for Jin, whose films “Dark Red Forest” and “The Tibetan Girl” are subtly critical of how the Chinese government treats ethnic minorities. But he wouldn’t be the first independent-minded Chinese filmmaker to, at times, play along with the government.

Clearly, foreign recognition was an important step in promoting “Hong Kong, Please Shining Again” in the Chinese-language press as a film legitimizing the Chinese government’s position on events in Hong Kong.

Zhang Yimou, celebrated for movies critical of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution like “To Live,” was criticized for directing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Filmmakers change their movies to secure permission for domestic distribution. In 2009, a whole list of stars lined up for small parts in propaganda blockbuster “The Founding of a Republic.”

It’s not uncommon in China for indie filmmakers, whose works are often too politically sensitive to be shown domestically, to take on work for state departments. “I also made several propaganda documentaries for China Central Television,” one Chinese documentary director tells the China Media Project. “Sometimes it’s for money, sometimes the topics are interesting.”

Producer and Promoter

When journalists at Deník N looked into “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again,” they found out that a man named Wang Jie (王杰) had organized the Prague screening and arranged for an unmarked advertorial to be published about it in English-language publication Prague Morning. Interviewees said that he had referred to himself as the film’s producer.

Wang — who blocked China Media Project on WeChat as soon as he found out he was speaking with a foreign journalist — is a major shareholder and the managing director of a company called Film Casting Culture Co Ltd (江苏片投影视文化有限公司), located in Nanjing, eastern China. It has made at least one propaganda title for a local government in Shaanxi province.

Jin, too, has a Shaanxi connection. In 2017, he signed a contract with Shaanxi Cultural Industry Investment Group, a state-owned company majority owned by the Party’s provincial propaganda department, though it is unclear what their agreement was about. When asked, Jin denies knowing Wang, despite the latter being listed as the cinematographer for two of Jin’s short films, “Sheep Dotting Hillsides” and “The Tibetan Girl.”

Besides making films, Wang and his company dabble in the world of make-believe movie competitions. According to a 2019 Hollywood Reporter article, the emergence of online platforms such as FilmFreeway, where filmmakers can submit their work to festivals around the world, has spawned thousands of festivals that run the gamut from minor but genuine events to downright scams that are out for the submission fees of aspiring filmmakers.

The Prague Film Festival, where “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” was supposedly shown to great acclaim, does not exist. But it does have a page on FilmFreeway and a website. Its domain, registration history shows, was linked to someone who filled out “NanJing” as their location. Photos on the website purportedly showing a screening of “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” were repurposed from an actual event held more than two years ago at the cinema mentioned in the advertorial. In 2021, “Ripples” also reportedly won awards at the Prague festival.

Screenshot of images on the “6th Prague Film Festival” website purporting to show the festival in 2022. There are images of posters displayed in the rented cinema Kino Pilotů, but the first two shown below the main image above are images displayed two years ago by the cinema for an unrelated event.

According to several business listing websites, including one in Jiangsu province where Wang Jie is reportedly located, Film Casting Culture at one point set up two websites, “Film Festival Sign-Up Site” (电影节报名网) and “Movie Submission Site” (片投网), that sound like Chinese equivalents of FilmFreeway. The sites claimed affiliation with several of the biggest global film festivals, including the Oscars, Cannes, and the BAFTAs – but neither is now online. The business listings on Film Casting Culture also claim that the company began cooperating in 2019 with a New York-based film company called Intellect Pictures to set up an international network of film festivals.

Intellect Pictures only deepens the sense of mirage and fakery. The company appears nowhere in US corporate listings, in New York State, or elsewhere. Its website includes obviously faked bios of company employees, many of them repetitive and overlapping. Several bios are cross-listed at IMDB, an online database of information related to film and television, having been posted by “Alex Davidson,” listed as the founder of Intellect Pictures.

In Prague, according to Deník N, another documentary called “Success Formula” was screened alongside “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again.” This Intellect Pictures production, which is all over the company’s website and social media accounts, combines interviews with celebrities to distill “a universal formula for success that humanity may eventually be able to use,” according to a trailer.

Intellect Pictures only deepens the sense of mirage and fakery. The company appears nowhere in US corporate listings, in New York State, or elsewhere.

This bizarre doubleheader was arranged by Wang Jie and a middleman, who, according to Deník N, claimed to be Alex Davidson. He said he lived in Canada and that he is the Alex who narrates the Hong Kong film. His WhatsApp profile, however, was linked to a Russian phone number and identified him as Sergei, a discrepancy he declined to explain to the Czech news site. When contacted by the China Media Project, his story changes. He calls himself Sergei and says that Alex Davidson is one of his many colleagues at Intellect Pictures. His collaboration with Wang Jie in Prague was the only time the two worked together, Sergei claims.

But Nanjing’s Film Casting Culture and the mysterious Intellect Pictures seem to have set up a wide array of film festivals that appear mostly fictitious. Possibly because FilmFreeway requires every newly registered festival to prove it has secured a venue, in-person events have been organized once for several of the festivals, such as the decidedly low-key 2017 edition of the “Atlanta Award-Qualifying Film Festival.” But later “events” seem only to involve the announcing of winners online, alongside photoshopped images to pretend otherwise. On the Atlanta festival’s FilmFreeway page, deadlines are coming up for a 2023 edition.

At top, an image from the FilmFreeway page of the “Atlanta Award-Qualifying Film Festival” showing a packed theater in 2019 and a festival banner full of sponsors. At bottom, the same image a year earlier for a film festival in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

The Jewel in the Crown of the two companies’ film festival line-up is World Film Fair, an event promising to bring together film festivals from all over the world, a trailer posted to the Intellect Pictures YouTube channel announced. According to Baidu Baike, an online Chinese encyclopedia, the event’s deputy director is Li Kang, who is the ​​co-founder of Wang Jie’s Film Casting Culture.

Joy Dong, who runs the small Joy House Film Festival in Australia, was invited via email to join World Film Fair’s event in 2018, at New York City’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, and flew all the way to the U.S. At the festival, attendees could mingle with other filmmakers and watch films, but the organizer never showed up, Dong and another attendee, filmmaker Jillie Simon, told the China Media Project. “It was weird,” Simon said.

The Facebook page for the “Washington Film Festival” includes a 2019 award for “Best Environment Documentary given to “Jie Wang,” likely Wang Jie, complete with a stars-and-stripes image of the United States. The festival’s now-defunct website, which announced a “Success Formula” screening, also listed Wang Jie and his business associate Li Kang as judges.

Taking Honors Home

Whatever the intentions behind these festivals, and events like Eleni Vlassi’s IDFI, they bestowed honors on the four documentaries, all advancing Chinese state narratives, that were central to their promotion. Through international wire services, press releases could be published about supposed film festival successes for all four titles. “Spring, Seeing Hong Kong Again” could claim, in its press release, to have won “Best Documentary” at the Prague Film Festival – the non-existent festival where the previous year Lelièvre’s collaboration with Jin Huaqing, “Ripples,” had been the audience favorite. In the same way, “Splendid Land,” with its whitewashing of life in Xinjiang, and “Hong Kong, Please Shining Again” could flaunt wins at IDFI or boast about a full festival circuit schedule.

It’s unclear which company or companies produced and funded these four films. One of the blog posts about “Splendid Land” says it was made by Jin Huaqing Film Studio. Several of the press releases were labeled as having been paid for by a company called Star International Culture and Media, which could be the unofficial English name for a Chinese company or could be entirely fictitious. The Gmail addresses provided along with the press releases do not exist.

Whoever ultimately paid for the production of these four films, it seems they do not wish to be found — mysterious behavior in an industry built on self-promotion. One possible explanation is that the whole point was that these pro-China films could simply do their magic overseas, while any affiliation with state entities and their propaganda objectives remained behind the curtain. This bid for plausible deniability is certainly a facet seen in other kinds of Chinese state propaganda.

Puzzlingly, it’s difficult to ascertain the documentaries’ true audience. Three of the four films have almost no footprint on the Chinese internet, and foreign audiences were given little to no opportunity to watch them. Perhaps, this was all a bureaucratic exercise by some national or provincial-level government office that had been told to do its part for China’s global image building — and needed fancy-sounding festival awards to show it had done its job.

In many cases, the Chinese government agencies conducting external propaganda, eager to publicize results at home, openly claim cooperation or association with foreign media or other organizations when the relationships involved are purely commercial, such as hiring public relations services or renting event venues. Under similar pressure, state media must issue annual “social responsibility reports” for which one metric is how they have conducted “external communication.”

It would be another example of what has been criticized by some scholars in China as “the internalization of external propaganda (外宣内宣化). This internalization sometimes refers to the highly nationalistic and even antagonistic tone of the government’s external propaganda, which plays to more extreme domestic audiences while actually alienating foreign ones. Another facet of this internalization is the need for those carrying out external propaganda, including government agencies and film production companies, to sell their actions to the most important audience of all: Party leaders at the top, like Xi Jinping, who have enjoined them to go out and “tell China’s story well.”

Whatever the full story behind the screen, these films and their puzzling promotional materials are clear examples of how Chinese attempts to engage with the world can be clumsy affairs. Forgoing transparency to appear credible, they ultimately achieve entirely the opposite.

CMP Director David Bandurski contributed additional research for this article.

How is Environmental Journalism Doing in China’s Worsening Media Climate?

Kevin Schoenmakers: How did you become an environmental reporter?

Hongqiao Liu: I majored in journalism and communication as an undergraduate, and I always wanted to become an investigative journalist and cover conventional investigative topics like corruption. When I joined Caixin as an intern, I was assigned to the environment and science desk. It wasn’t my first choice but I stayed.

I left Caixin — and journalism — after four years, in 2014, and started working for non-profits, think tanks, and freelancing.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Why did you decide to leave journalism?

Hongqiao Liu: The media environment was never ideal but at that time I really felt I couldn’t continue working as an investigative environmental journalist. I’d seen enough stories get killed in the newsroom and I didn’t want to repeat that. I also felt powerless, that being a journalist and uncovering stories alone wasn’t sufficient to solve any problems.

So I decided to work with non-profits who actually talk about issues directly with stakeholders such as the government, investors, and the business community, and who propose solutions and bring about change. I still occasionally wrote long-form articles. For example, I covered wildlife trafficking from northern Vietnam into China.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How much, would you say, do Chinese media companies invest in their environmental coverage and how has this changed over time?

Hongqiao Liu: Back in 2010, environmental news was an emerging beat in Chinese newsrooms. Outlets like Southern Weekly, Caixin, and Caijing, as well as many commercial local media, had dedicated pages and reporters. I think that time was the heyday of environmental journalism. There was a lot of interaction between journalists and civil society to bring some environmental crises to the attention of the public and onto the policy agenda, which would push the government to make substantive changes.

For example, in 2012, we wrote about tap water quality for my first cover story in Caixin, “The Dirty Truth of Tap Water.” Our primary source was a survey of China’s water quality conducted by a government-affiliated research institute which had never been made public. At the same time China had set itself a deadline to meet a new, strict standard for drinking water quality. We examined how far away we were from meeting this standard, and illustrated the public health consequences of drinking contaminated water.

Caixin’s 2012 story, “The Dirty Truth of Tap Water” (at left) and other cover stories written or co-written for the magazine by Hongqiao Liu.

That was probably the only magazine that Caixin has ever had to reprint. Every outlet in China, from official media to city media, picked up this story and questioned local governments about their water quality. Civil society groups started to demand transparency and government accountability. Soon after that, the ministry in charge of water quality talked with an official outlet and addressed some of the questions we had raised in our coverage — without naming us. They later invested heavily in improving urban water infrastructure.

So at that time, in 2012, there was still a relatively healthy ecosystem for journalists to do their jobs. Experts supported their work, civil society and other media would pick up their stories, and the government would, to an extent, address the issues they raised. In 2014, when I left my job, that relatively healthy environment had worsened rapidly.

That was probably the only magazine that Caixin has ever had to reprint. Every outlet in China, from official media to city media, picked up this story and questioned local governments about their water quality.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Has there been any change since 2014?

Hongqiao Liu: Media devote less space to environmental reporting. There is also a widespread shortage of specialized staff. This mirrors the general [worsening] media environment. It’s almost unheard of now to have a single story trigger a wave of responses in the way our tap water quality story did.

In terms of support, let me give you an example. For quite a long time, Chinese newsrooms have barely sponsored any coverage of the annual UN Climate Change Conferences, because they don’t have enough funds or don’t think it’s an important enough issue. Environmental journalists have to rely on outside funding, such as grants. Besides foreign correspondents from state media — who aren’t specialized in this topic — Chinese journalists have long been largely absent from these events.

And then there are investigations within China, where a reporter spends weeks or even months on the ground like I did with my colleagues at Caixin for a series on cadmium-polluted rice. Starting from before I joined, the environment desk spent three to four years following that story very intensively. This is barely imaginable these days. I don’t see any stories of this scale or length in Chinese media. But that doesn’t mean such issues are gone.

Even on climate change, coverage is mostly sponsored by foundations or corporations. They mostly fund popular science-type articles on climate change or articles that promote corporate innovations rather than reporting in the field, telling stories about climate refugees or looking into sources of emissions.

Even when I was at Caixin, in cases when they wouldn’t support this type of story, I would apply for external reporting grants. But gradually such grants have gotten much more sensitive, because their funding comes from outside of China.

I don’t know if it’s even accurate anymore to describe the media environment in China as an ecosystem. It’s long gone.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What about reader interest in environmental stories? What is the trend there? A study from 2019 showed that Chinese people aren’t as interested in climate change compared to people in other countries.

Hongqiao Liu: I don’t write for the Chinese audience anymore, so I’m not really in a position to answer that question.

There are different surveys showing Chinese people are actually very concerned about climate change, but their understanding of what climate change is and how it could impact their life varies. A recent study among university students showed that they are concerned about climate change, that they would like to change their consumer behavior, but that they are not well-informed on the issue.

I don’t know if it’s even accurate anymore to describe the media environment in China as an ecosystem. It’s long gone.

Because the Chinese government has made climate change a top policy priority, we don’t see as much climate skepticism in China as elsewhere. We do see a different, quite popular narrative that goes, “Climate change is real, but we are an emerging economy that has the right to develop, and climate change is an excuse used by hostile western forces to limit our development.” It is challenging to unpack climate change, an abstract phenomenon, for a Chinese audience in this particular media environment.

Kevin Schoenmakers: My impression is that last year’s Zhengzhou floods, during which extreme rainfall resulted in the deaths of close to 400 people, were a wake-up call for China. Has that led to more coverage of climate change?

Hongqiao Liu: Zhengzhou was a wake-up call. The floods affected people’s lives to an extreme degree, and they impacted food supply and nationwide logistics. Social media also played a role. It broke through the wall of information control, allowing people to directly see how destructive and serious the floods were, rather than just reading statistics about the number of deaths. An average person sitting somewhere in an air-conditioned room could still experience and empathize with this tragedy caused by climate change-amplified extreme weather.

So in a way, it was a wake-up call, but we had been building up to this moment over the last few years. Before Zhengzhou, in 2020, there was also a series of floods in the south of China, but they didn’t get as much coverage at that time, immediately after the start of the pandemic.

There are more media resources now for covering climate change, but less so for other environmental issues. Ten years ago, we covered a lot of issues relating to air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, and food safety. Those issues are still there, but they are more expensive and more difficult to cover. So, right now, climate change is the go-to topic.

For example, “The Intellectual” (知识分子), a non-profit media outlet that is very popular in China, has hired a dedicated journalist and editor just to cover climate change. Caixin has started an ESG channel that also picks up a lot of news on the environment and climate change. [Note: ESG stands for environmental, social and corporate governance, and is a set of standards applied by socially conscious investors to study potential investments.]

“The Intellectual” is a non-profit media outlet that now has dedicated coverage of climate change issues.

However the challenge is still that the media is not an attractive industry for professionals and investors. News coverage of climate is not profitable. You have to find alternative ways to finance it. There is no ecosystem to support — relatively — independent journalism. From the government to companies, they all have a demand to “strategically communicate” their positions on climate change, be that national policy or corporate strategy, but a crucial link is missing, which is journalism. We need media organizations to fulfill their role of the fourth estate, to ask the uncomfortable questions and to hold parties accountable, especially in China. But newsrooms are much weaker today compared to 2010.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Over the past decade, the Chinese government has become much more concerned with solving environmental issues — for example, they have made their climate pledges, and they have done a lot to reduce air pollution and water pollution. At the same time it seems that reporting on environmental issues has become more sensitive. What explains this apparent contradiction? You might think that if it’s so important for the government to solve environmental issues they would also welcome more reporting.

Hongqiao Liu: Back in 2010, when I was assigned to cover environment and science, I was told — and I also thought to myself — that it was a relatively safe choice, compared to other more traditional investigative beats.

One of my first big stories at Caixin, when I was 20 years old, was about villagers who had set themselves aflame in resistance to a local government-led land grab. After spending a few minutes on the rooftop of the family’s house, where the incident had occurred, I immediately realized that I was followed and had to drop everything and escape. It was traumatizing. [Note: This was the now-famous Yihuang self-immolation case, seen for a number of years as a sign of the power of microblogging platforms.]

Compared to such experiences, environmental journalism at that time was safer in terms of personal security. I was able to carry out most of my investigations smoothly, if discreetly, and with some luck. I was able to push issues like cadmium-polluted rice, and other heavy-metal issues, onto the public agenda and trigger policy changes without exposing myself to much risk.

Back in the early 2010s, environmental reporting played a crucial role in informing the public about pollution’s effects on their own health. According to political scientists, people’s desire for a cleaner environment created mounting pressure on the government and challenged the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule. It was a defining moment in China’s environmental movement. Ultimately, this was the main reason why Xi Jinping decided to invest so much in tackling climate change.

Journalism at that time enabled social change. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. That’s not because the function of environmental journalism has changed, it’s because journalism’s ecosystem has deteriorated a lot in China. The government has made reporting in general much more difficult. Journalists have to follow the script.

At the same time, the government and the party have made the “ecological civilization” drive and the climate pledges their top agenda priorities, and Xi Jinping is personally invested in promoting these issues. Questioning the implementation of these policies, or debating certain policy or technology choices, have become much more sensitive.

Journalism at that time enabled social change. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Besides dealing with censorship, are there any ways in which environmental reporting in China is different from environmental reporting in other countries?

Hongqiao Liu: The issues are different, the national circumstances are different, and there is not much exchange and support. There is no network of environmental journalists in China. There used to be informal groups.

Elsewhere, for example in Southeast Asia, there are a lot of independent environmental journalist networks and initiatives where journalists cooperate across borders to tackle issues whose impacts go beyond one country’s territory. We don’t see that much in China anymore. That is crucial. China’s environmental issues have expanded beyond its own territory along with China’s foreign outbound economic activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. But coverage that tracks issues beyond China’s border is dominated by journalists based outside of China. That’s a pity, I think.

Hongqiao Liu speaks at Session 3 at TED Countdown Summit on October 13, 2021. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED.

There is also not much exchange of investigative techniques, tactics, or tools. When I go to events organized by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), the investigative methods they discuss aren’t compatible with the Chinese context. We have our own Google, our own Twitter. And our skills, tactics, and experiences of conducting investigations in China are often not acknowledged by the international journalism community either.

There is this huge training gap for younger generations of Chinese journalists. In the rare cases they decide to pick up covering the environment, there are very few resources to help them develop their skills, to grow, to develop, and also to take care of their mental health.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In your early career you reported in China for Chinese readers. Now you’re writing about China for foreign readers. Why did you decide to make this change?

Hongqiao Liu: I returned to journalism in 2021, and spent one year at Carbon Brief. After seven, eight years working with a number of non-profit organizations, I realized that what is most lacking today is not research, campaigning, or strategic communication but independent journalism on China’s environmental and development challenges.

That was just a few months after Xi Jinping made his pledges. And since then I had read a lot of misinformed coverage by international media. On this specific topic, which is very technical and complicated, the shortage of expertise and the dominance of politicized narratives are big problems. For me, climate change is the most important issue of our century. It is an issue the rest of the world cannot figure out without China. I felt I had to fill that gap, to explain the logic behind China’s policies, the dynamics within China’s system, and to give credit and criticism where they are due.

I care about China. I care about climate change. I hope climate change will remain an area of cooperation between China and the rest of the world. I know from my own experiences how powerful journalism can be. We have to use it wisely to enable the green transition to happen.

Tagged on Twitter

In late March, Twitter reduced the visibility of tweets containing links to Chinese media outlets, in part by asking users to reconsider before they like or retweet such posts. Tweets that link to the websites of Chinese media outlets — ranging from state news agency Xinhua to local state-owned newspaper Shanghai Daily and even, a website owned by state broadcaster CCTV that is dedicated to China’s favorite animal — now come with a box titled “Stay informed” next to a bright orange warning sign.

When liking or retweeting such posts, users are presented with a pop-up that asks them to “Find out more before liking” or sharing, and provides a link to a page explaining the company’s labeling policies. Such tweets will also not be recommended in users’ timelines or otherwise amplified.

A post from the state-affiliated English-language publication Sixth Tone receives the orange “Stay Informed” label from Twitter when shared by a user. The Sixth Tone article is actually critical of government lockdown policies in the city of Jilin.

In response to the Belarus-aided Russian invasion of Ukraine, Twitter first added these labels to tweets linking Russian and Belarusian state media websites on February 28 and March 10, respectively. RT, a state-controlled broadcaster funded by the Russian government, and Russia’s state news agencies TASS and Sputnik have frequently made false claims about the war — and have refused to even to acknowledge there is a war. (Links to Ukrainian and Iranian state-affiliated media are also labeled.)

Chinese state media have frequently echoed Russian standpoints and disinformation about the conflict. CCTV claimed soon after the invasion that Ukrainian president Zelensky had left the capital Kyiv, citing the speaker of the Russian Duma. More recently, Chinese state media, as well as Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚), have propagated Russian claims that the US runs biological weapons labs in Ukraine.

A video distributed online by China’s official CCTV on February 26, 2022, relays Russia claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has fled Kyiv.

Whether this was a factor in extending the new feature to Chinese media, Twitter won’t say. “This update builds on our years-long work to add context and clarity to how people interact with state-affiliated news outlets,” a company spokesperson told the China Media Project.

In 2017, the site no longer allowed RT and Sputnik to advertise, a restriction it applied to all state media in 2019. One year later, it added “state-affiliated media” labels to the account pages and tweets of such media outlets and their employees from several countries, including China. After that move, the China Media Project reported, Twitter users liked and shared Chinese media’s tweets significantly less. Posts by the three biggest accounts, belonging to the state-run news agency Xinhua, CCTV’s international broadcasting arm CGTN, and to the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, received over 20 percent fewer likes and shares.

“This update builds on our years-long work to add context and clarity to how people interact with state-affiliated news outlets.”

Twitter Company spokesperson

The new labels are meant to reduce Chinese state media content on Twitter, a company spokesperson said. In a March 16 blog post addressing the company’s approach to the war in Ukraine, Twitter said the new labels and related measures “have made a difference, contributing to a 30 percent reduction of the reach of this content.”

Given this substantial reduction in reach, the new labels are likely to affect the Chinese leadership’s global “external propaganda” (外宣) efforts, which under Xi Jinping have been encompassed by the slogan “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事). In recent years, Chinese state media have relied heavily on Western social media platforms, also including Facebook and YouTube, to distribute content created by state-run outlets.

Twitter’s new bright orange warning sign will not be applied directly to tweets by “state-affiliated” accounts, which means there will likely be no additional hit in engagement for posts these accounts make directly. However, those sympathetic to Chinese government viewpoints and eager to share related content might find it harder to spread the word.

In a tweet tagged “#InformationWar,” Andy Boreham, an employee of Shanghai Daily and — proudly, by his own account — the only foreigner to be tagged “China state-affiliated media,” called the new labels a “slippery slope.” In response, Cao Yi, consul at the Chinese embassy in Lebanon, called on people to retweet more state-affiliated media to “keep Twitter a place for reliable info.” Zhang Heqing, cultural counselor at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, called on Twitter to remove the labels.

Does Labelling Go Too Far?

But others expressed concern that the new labelling effort by Twitter might be overreaching in other ways, targeting media in China that while not strictly speaking independent do uphold professionalism and pursue facts in ways that state-run media generally do not.

A number of responses, for example, asked whether Caixin, a financial media group that has long pursued more professional reporting on business and current affairs issues – and can at times be relatively independent-minded in its reporting – really deserves the same label as outlets more closely aligned with and funded by the state. After the first round of labeling in 2020, there was similar criticism suggesting Caixin should not be placed in the same category as Xinhua or the CCP’s official People’s Daily.

A Twitter user rejects the “Stay Informed” label applied as an article form China’s Caixin is shared on the platform.

In analysis of Chinese media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war on March 12, the China Media Project noted that despite clear framing of the story as a “crisis” or “special military operation” in central state media, which also downplayed Russia’s aggression, a number of Chinese media were more direct and professional in their reporting. For example, Caixin Weekly (财新周刊), the business and current affairs magazine published by Caixin Global, wrote in one story lede of “the Russian military’s offensive push deep into Ukraine.”

“Ahh I was dreading this day,” China tech reporter Zeyi Yang wrote in response to a “Stay Informed” Twitter label on an article from the outlet Sixth Tone that was actually critical of recent Covid lockdown policies in the city of Jilin. “The inevitable over-simplification for the sake of convenience.”

Location Labelling at Weibo

Meanwhile, at Weibo, the Chinese social media platform often referred to as the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, misinformation about the war in Ukraine has also prompted experimentation with a labelling feature that offers more context about users’ identities.

On March 4, as part of its efforts to deal with “harmful information” as the “Russo-Ukrainian situation” became more severe, the site announced it would begin showing a user’s physical location whenever they shared posts or commented on posts that contained the keywords such as “Ukraine,” “Russia,” or “Kyiv.” The site said it had noticed instances of users claiming they were in Ukraine and offering on-the-ground observations.

On March 22, Weibo announced it was expanding this feature to now listing the location of all users in their profiles based on their IP address, citing recent discussions about the war in Ukraine as well as China’s struggles to contain domestic Covid-19 outbreaks.

Personal Brands for Party Agendas

Anyone stumbling across the profiles of Miao Xiaojuan on Western social media platforms will gain a glimpse into the life of a Chinese journalist who spends a great deal of time on the road, visiting far-flung regions throughout the country, each more beautiful and peaceful than the next.

At first glance, Miao’s perspectives and experiences seem largely personal. In her Twitter bio, she identifies herself simply as “Journalist, producer,” adding that she is a “Chinese national” and a “global citizen” – based in Beijing but “[always] up for new places and challenges.” On Facebook, she is simply “a journalist in China.” Her posts also seem to have been popular, earning her more than half a million followers on Facebook, the kind of personal reach most working journalists can only dream of.

But Miao’s social media presence outside China is also somewhat misleading, contributing to the ongoing debate in the West about efforts by the Chinese state to influence the discourse on China globally, or even to sow disinformation, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter. When are social media accounts personal? And when are they being disingenuous about the state agendas they serve?

Miao is one of at least a dozen Chinese journalists working for state-run media outlets who are active on Western social media platforms without mentioning who they work for, maintaining ostensibly personal accounts that closely mirror Party-state agendas. Reporting and commentary from official sources makes clear that this fits an explicit strategy of exploiting the ambiguity of such “personal brands” for the conduct of external propaganda. And several of the journalists have expanded their potential reach by running ads on Twitter and Facebook promising unbiased views of China, a claim to straightforwardness betrayed by being vague about their actual employers.

Changing Profiles

Miao Xiaojuan is the host of a show called “China Chat,” produced by the country’s official Xinhua News Agency. The show routinely highlights praise for the government in ways that would make many professional journalists uneasy. “What always impresses me about China is that these kinds of fairs that are actually state-backed,” a Shanghai-based public relations executive says in one segment on a trade expo. “I think that really speaks to how much the government is really sponsoring and supporting these kinds of commercial initiatives to drive the economy.” Immediately after, another source piles on the praise: “What I do see here is the Chinese government saying the door is open.”

Twitter, Facebook, and their competitors have stepped up efforts to limit the reach of Chinese state media on their platforms, and an earlier investigation by CMP showed that Twitter’s labeling of state media, including the limiting of access to advertising features, made their posts less popular among followers. But a closer look at social media accounts suggests that state media employees continue to share government viewpoints while trying to avoid the scrutiny that might arise from an overt connection to state media.

In at least six cases, Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows Chinese state media journalists removing mentions of their employers from their social media bios. Miao’s introduction on Twitter, where she routinely promotes “China Chat” content like the above, once began with “@XHNews editor,” making clear that she is an employee for Xinhua. But sometime over the last two years, this basic act of journalistic transparency on Twitter disappeared.

In at least six cases, Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows Chinese state media journalists removing mentions of their employers from their social media bios.

Similarly, Wang Guan, the chief US correspondent for CGTN, the foreign-facing department of state broadcaster CCTV, describes himself as a “TV Host/Journalist” on Twitter. A previous version of his bio said “Anchor, @CCTV @CGTN.” His colleagues Tian Wei and Cao Bing, who have relatively fewer followers, have done the same. Ren Ke, a Xinhua reporter based in Europe, used to describe himself as “Correspondent of China’s Xinhua News Agency in Berlin.” Now, his profile just says “Chinese correspondent in Europe.”

The descriptions on Twitter for four Chinese state media employees have been changed over the past two years to remove clearly stated affiliations with CGTN and Xinhua. Current profiles (left) are paired with past profiles for Wang Guan, Cao Bing, Tian Wei and Miao Xiaojuan.

It is generally considered ethical practice in the West for those working for news media to identify their affiliations clearly in their social media profiles. For example, the Associated Press states in its “Social Media Guidelines” that employees “must identify themselves as being from AP if they are using their accounts for work in any way.” Employees need not include AP in their usernames, and should use personal images rather than the AP logo for profile photos. “But you should identify yourself in your profile as an AP staffer,” the guidelines say.

Speaking for Peng Shuai

Perhaps the most well-known state media employee to have been ambiguous about his employer is Shen Shiwei, the CGTN editor who in November shared the photos and videos meant to assuage worries about the well-being of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who was not heard from for weeks after she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a post to the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. Shen’s posts were part of what seemed to be a concerted, though often sloppily staged, campaign on American social media to diminish concerns about Peng Shuai.

Shen Shiwei’s posts to Twitter in November 2021 were part of an apparent effort by several state media influencers on overseas social media platforms to speak against very real concerns for the well-being of tennis star Peng Shuai.

Shen’s current Twitter bio is a jumble of descriptions that leave out what it plainly said two years ago: “Int’l Editor of CGTN.”

Among the state media employees identified by CMP as having removed affiliations from their social media profiles, some (like Shen) are marked by either Facebook, Twitter, or both, as being “China state-affiliated media.” Such labelling is perhaps what they had hoped to avoid by omitting mention of their employers over the past two years.

But some accounts have managed to avoid the labels, applied by Facebook and Twitter in the interest of transparency. And this act of flying under the radar has enabled the accounts to increase their reach by purchasing visibility through the platforms. On Twitter, the “state-affiliated media” label makes paid promotion unavailable. Facebook restricts state media-affiliated accounts from running ads targeting American users to protect the elections process in the United States, but does allow them to target users in other countries, where concern over possible foreign interference in elections has not prompted the same level of public debate.

All in all, nine state media employees identified by CMP have managed to grow the reach of their profiles by paying for ads. Miao’s impressive Facebook following, for example, was likely built by the about 60 ads she has run since opening her page in January of last year, Facebook’s Ad Library shows.

Taking the “Public Opinion War” to Twitter

In some cases, journalists for Chinese state-run media promoting themselves as independent voices on social media platforms outside China, and blocked at home, have been openly promoted in official sources as innovators in “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), a phrase that now encapsulates the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy for influencing the discourse on China globally, what the CCP typically calls “external propaganda” (外宣).

Xu Zeyu, a reporter for Xinhua — or just a “Chinese journalist,” as he says on his profile on Facebook, where he has close to 3 million followers — has openly promoted an image inside China as an expert on strategies for “telling China’s story well,” a priority that was the focus of a collective study session of the Politburo back on May 31, 2021 (CMP coverage here).  

On November 8, 2021, in commemoration of Chinese Journalists’ Day, Xu was invited to deliver a talk on China Central Television in which he was open about his use of foreign social media to counter misconceptions about China. In the segment, Xu mirrored official CCP talking points about China being engaged in a “public opinion war” globally. “The international discourse sphere is also a battlefield. This battlefield may not have guns and bullets or the smoke of war, but it has right and wrong,” Xu said.

In a talk delivered on CCTV1 on November 8, 2021, called “The Smokeless Battlefield,” Xu Zeyu of Xinhua News Agency is open about his use of foreign social media to disseminate the official CCP narrative.

Describing his camera lens as a weapon in his struggle for the nation, Xu explained how he had used foreign social media to draw attention to his English-language “vlog” reports singing the praises of first responders in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan.

But another of Xu’s weapons has apparently been his use of ads to build up his overseas following and more widely disseminate his reports. He has run 25 ads on Facebook, the latest two ads appearing on January 4 this year. Some of these ads focus on particular official news stories, such as President Xi Jinping’s visit to a rural village around Spring Festival in 2021. Others promise a “different angle” on Chinese society. Xu’s most recent ad shared images of the ski jump venue for the Beijing Winter Olympics. Such content is arguably harmless, but the ad buying behind it has the effect of bolstering attention to a Facebook page and linked social media accounts that can, when necessary, be blatant channels for provocative content and disinformation.

On December 10, 2021, as the US held its Summit for Democracy, Xu posted a high-polish illustration to Facebook of a Mordoresque landscape of destruction, with the US Capitol Building sitting atop a mountain of fire. The unmistakable message of the image – which was captioned “Climbing the Summit for ‘Democracy’” – was about the falsehood and hypocrisy of American democratic values, a theme that dominated headlines in Party-state media in November and December, in the weeks ahead of the US-led summit.  

A post to Xu Zeyu’s Facebook page, where he identifies himself only as a “news personality,” runs an illustration mocking the US Summit for Democracy in December 2021.

The illustration on Xu’s Facebook page was attributed to “Xu Zeyu Studio” (徐泽宇工作室). As Xinhua has itself reported, the “Xu Zeyu Studio” was “specially set up” by the agency at the end of 2020, to “be responsible for account content planning and production, and overseas landing promotion.” Moreover, the report said, the establishment of the studio had enabled “better use of the strength of [the Xinhua] team” and “strengthening of cross-departmental cooperation.”

Describing his camera lens as a weapon in his struggle for the nation, Xu explained how he had used foreign social media to draw attention to his English-language reports.

The “Xu Zeyu Studio” is meant to capitalize on Xu’s position as an “international influencer” (国际网红), enabling more effective dissemination of Party-state propaganda, including more viral forms of soft propaganda. In a paper published in July 2021 in China Journalist (中国记者), a Xinhua publication that is a flag bearer for the official state-run press, this operationalizing of the personal accounts of state media journalists like Xu was clearly identified as an explicit strategy.

The paper, “Xu Zeyu Studio: Using Personal Brands to Innovate the Overseas Public Opinion Struggle,” took an in-depth look at the rapid development of Xu Zeyu’s personal accounts on overseas social media beginning in February 2020, just as the Covid outbreak was at its most severe in China, and culminating in Xinhua’s creation of the “Xu Zeyu Studio.” It mapped Xu’s connections to a wide range of people and institutions active on overseas social media, and advocated for greater utilization of the “personal brands” (个人IP) of “individual netizens” – meaning known and trusted personal account holders with Party-state affiliation or affinity – as an effective strategy for external propaganda:

In the future, the official accounts of central media and individual netizens should further strengthen communication interaction with the accounts of our diplomats, embassies and consulates abroad, with Chinese and overseas Chinese groups, with international student groups, pro-China media, pro-China scholars, international organizations, research institutions and other opinion leaders. In particular, individual netizen accounts should be more flexible and personalized, and should strive to become friends with opinion leaders in different fields and circles, so as to expand their own circle of friends in the overseas media and explore communication resonance.

One example of such “communication resonance” cited by the Xinhua Daily Telegraph last month was another glossy illustration by the “Xu Zeyu Studio” satirizing the Summit for Democracy by likening it to the sorting hat ceremony at Hogwarts, with various spirits hovering around in the darkness that are meant to give shape the lie of American democracy.

The Xinhua Daily Telegraph posts a detailed reading of a cartoon satirizing the US-led Summit for Democracy, noting that it received more than two million views after being posted to the social media accounts of Xinhua journalist Xu Zeyu.

“After the cartoon was posted on the overseas social media accounts of Xinhua’s Xu Zeyu,” the publication noted, “it attracted more than 2 million views and more than 40,000 likes from foreign netizens, who engaged in lively discussions about the cartoon’s symbolic meaning and the ‘Summit for Democracy’ itself.”

The Bid for Influencers

In addition to Xu Zeyu, CGTN employees Serena Dong, Li Jingjing, Wang Guan, Jessica Zang, and Rachel Zhou have also run paid promotions of their Facebook pages, helping give them a combined following of some six million users.

Back in January 2021, Twitter closed its Ads Transparency Center, making it harder to track paid posts on the site. But two Xinhua employees who remain label-less – Ren Ke, the Europe-based Xinhua reporter, and his China-based colleague Liu Fangqiang – appear to have run ads for their profiles, posting tweets through “Twitter for Advertisers.” One year ago, Ren tweeted: “Providing unique views & information about China. Follow me.” The post was promoted widely enough to rack up more than 600 retweets and over 7,000 likes. Back in August 2021, Liu Fangqiang promoted a tweet in which he promised to bring followers closer to a China not shown by Western mainstream media.

Social media users attracted by these ads will see content that doesn’t stray far from the Chinese government’s messaging. Between selfies and food photos, much of what Miao shares revolves around trips to Tibet and Xinjiang, focusing on travel as though none of the widely reported human rights violations were taking place in the two Chinese regions. Xu’s first Facebook ad promoted Hong Kong’s national security law as an unambiguously positive development.

Much of the activity of the above-mentioned accounts could certainly be construed as personal activity, reflecting genuinely held opinions, and none of the activities outlined above are illegal. But as Xinhua’s open reporting of Xu Zeyu’s social media presence overseas makes clear, mixing personal presence with the Party’s agenda is an actual strategy.

Back in July last year, Singapore’s Straits Times reported on how three of the state media employees mentioned above – CGTN colleagues Li Jingjing, Jessica Zang, and Rachel Zhou – were also part of a project by the state-run broadcaster to manufacture influencers. The paper reported, on the basis of interviews with current and former CGTN staff, that an “influencer studio” had been set up inside the broadcaster for the purpose of grooming such influencers.

CGTN is part of the China Media Group, a conglomerate created in 2018 to merge China’s major CCP-controlled media companies. In June 2021, the group’s chief, Shen Haixong, called for the creation of “a studio for influencers in multiple languages,” in order to seek new breakthroughs in “telling China’s story well.” As the China Journalist paper published soon after Shen’s call (and written by Xinhua insiders) makes clear, one important strategy is to ensure that “personal brands” help to amplify Party-state talking points while maintaining the semblance of distance. That means not mentioning, presumably, that influencers work for CGTN, Xinhua or other state media outlets.

In fact, Chinese state media, which face stringent controls under the mandate of CCP “public opinion guidance,” have always taken the management of the personal social media accounts of employees seriously.  Earlier internal guidelines for microblog use by employees at one state media group, distributed in 2014 and viewed by CMP, specify that “[news] staff shall apply for approval and be put on file at their news media before opening accounts for blogs, microblogs, WeChat and others,” and that “their work units shall be responsible for daily supervision and management over them.” Aside from specifying responsibility in the organization’s General Office for “taking charge of the unified management of personal microblog[s] in the program publicity system,” the guidelines also instruct each channel to designate a “contact person” to “[take] charge of assisting the responsible person of the channel . . . . to manage and guide personal microblog behaviors.”

The guidelines make it patently clear that state media view employee activity on social media as a serious matter for daily oversight, and that mechanisms have long been in place for regular monitoring, enforcement and discipline. If the CCP’s public opinion controls as applied through the state media are to be taken seriously – which is of course a point Xi Jinping has himself stressed with greater force than his predecessors – what are the implications for the independence of personal social media accounts maintained by state media employees on platforms that are banned inside China?

Affiliation with state media does not mean, of course, that individual journalists are not personally motivated to counteract the bias they perceive in global discourse on China, a conviction that underlies the Party-state’s determination to enhance its “international discourse power.” Ren Ke, the Xinhua reporter, tweeted in September last year, “I’ve found that many self-claimed experts, journalists are posting bullshit, fake news and disinformation about #China! Disgusting!” He added, “I have to tweet more.” But he, too, seems to have decided the best way to convince foreigners is by hiding who he works for.

CMP Director David Bandurski contributed additional research for this article.

Tracking China’s Social Media Influence Operations

Trying to Convince

Kevin Schoenmakers: When we talk about influence campaigns on social media, what are we talking about? What forms does it take and what are usually their aims?

Hannah Bailey: Influence operations can take a wide variety of forms, including diplomats and state-owned media posting on social media, or Chinese citizens, whether within China or abroad, appearing as themselves and trying to convince international audiences to support a particular narrative put forward by the Chinese state.

It can also be these kinds of more nefarious, inauthentic social media accounts, trying to convince audiences incognito. Traditionally, when people think of influence operations, they think of bots operating en masse to try and convince people, but that’s not always the case. Academics are divided on what the term bot even means and how common these are.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is the boundary quite murky between influence operations that most people would agree are fair game, and those that people would say are not?

Hannah Bailey: Different people would have different opinions on what is and isn’t fair game, and some could argue that the social media space is a neutral playing ground where anyone can try and convince other people to support their own arguments. But the more nefarious activities are those that involve social media users misrepresenting themselves — users that are pretending to be someone else, or networks of accounts that are just run by one person — with the aim of appealing to a particular genuine audience. We call these kinds of activities inauthentic, and that’s the kind we tend to be more concerned about.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What kind of inauthentic social media influence operations are used by Chinese actors?

Hannah Bailey: I can list a couple instances of inauthentic activity that we’ve found. That’s not to say that it’s the whole list of activities that are happening out there, because there’s probably a lot of things happening out there that we can’t detect or don’t know about yet.

My team and I recently uncovered a network of inauthentic accounts that were amplifying the tweets posted by Chinese diplomats. The Chinese diplomat would make a tweet, and all these accounts would rush to retweet, like, and comment on these posts to try and game the algorithm to make it reach more audiences, and to try and make it seem like this post had genuine support.

We also zoomed in on the case study of the UK. Oftentimes, these accounts will pretend to be people in the UK. In their bio, they say stuff like, “I’m a Londoner,” or that they support UK football teams. This is the kind of inauthentic activity that we have uncovered.

There are other organizations that have also uncovered similar campaigns related to Xinjiang and other issue areas of concern to the Chinese state. These are suspected to originate from the Chinese state — because we can never really confirm the actor behind the screen. In our reports, we were very clear to say that we’re not ascribing this behavior to any individual or organization, because we don’t have the data to be able to say that a particular person or organization is behind these influence operations. We can only say who or what they are promoting.

Oftentimes, these accounts will pretend to be people in the UK. In their bio, they say stuff like, “I’m a Londoner,” or that they support UK football teams. This is the kind of inauthentic activity that we have uncovered.

We believe from the takedowns that Twitter and Facebook have reported that they have access to more data that allows them to figure out who are behind these operations.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Do Chinese state media use Western social media in inauthentic ways?

Hannah Bailey: We haven’t researched this ourselves but I know from other people’s research that similar inauthentic amplification activities are happening or have happened in the past, and there have been releases by Twitter to that effect. We’ve also seen Western YouTubers and other influencers apparently being paid by Chinese state media to amplify their content, or to discuss Chinese state media content on their platforms.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is there a particular timeline for these kinds of efforts? Did they start or ramp up at some point?

Hannah Bailey: We often say that, compared to Russia, China is very new to the internet game. And it’s kind of been playing catch-up in that sense. But we really saw a rapid escalation from virtually nothing to an awful lot of activity in the wake of the Hong Kong protests. I think this was really the spark that made the Chinese state realize, “Oh, wait, international audiences are seeing this happening within our country, they are becoming increasingly critical of us, and they have a negative perception of the way China governs. We should try and rectify that by pumping out favorable content on these international social media platforms.” And ever since then, we’ve just seen an escalation and also a migration away from Hong Kong to other issues that the Chinese state particularly cares about.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is that maybe also in a way, admission of sorts that what they were previously doing to try and convince foreign audiences of the Chinese viewpoints wasn’t really having enough of an impact?

Hannah Bailey: It’s hard to read into that. It could mean a number of things. It could be an admission, it could be just a sudden recognition that this was an activity that lots of other states partook in and that they, as a large nation state with an image problem, should also partake in. Around that time, there were also a number of polls coming out that showed international audiences had very negative perceptions of China.

And, of course, it’s only in recent years that public awareness of these influence operations has emerged. So you can say that they were just kind of a little bit behind, but generally following the trend of countries and also businesses and media organizations jumping on this bandwagon of conducting influence operations.

The Russia Comparison

Kevin Schoenmakers: It sounds like most of what Chinese actors do, or what you suspect they do, is to try and convince foreign audiences of Chinese viewpoints. Do they ever aim to destabilize, like Russia did during the US elections and also the Brexit referendum?

Hannah Bailey: This is a very good question, because it’s hard to say for any fixed period of time that we know exactly what China is doing and why they’re doing it. But initially, in the first couple of years that China was conducting these kinds of operations, we really saw them focus on issues that had domestic relevance, that were threatening their domestic sovereignty, essentially — issues like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and territorial issues like the South China Sea. We assume that the Chinese state wanted to reassure international audiences that they had a handle on these issues, but also potentially to convince domestic audiences via this international messaging that they had the confidence of international audiences, and that domestically, this would all be taken care of. This is broadly in line with a lot of other strategies where we’ve seen China prioritize its domestic sovereignty.

Russia cares an awful lot more about destabilizing Western democracies rather than projecting a positive image of itself. So initially, there was this real dichotomy between the Russia approach and the China approach. But in the last year or so, especially with the emergence of COVID-19, we’ve really seen China shift tack a little bit towards not necessarily trying to destabilize but criticizing Western democracies and particularly the US. This could be for a number of reasons. But predominantly, I think it’s to appeal to a domestic nationalist sentiment. By criticizing the West and the US, they can say, “the West is doing really bad at dealing with COVID-19,” or, “the West is doing this wrong and that wrong and we’re a better governance system.” That’s still a slightly different approach to that of Russia.

A recent Tweet from Hua Chunying (华春莹), a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, questions the applicability of US democracy to the world.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Does China do any destabilizing of Taiwanese democracy?

Hannah Bailey: Yes. Particularly surrounding Taiwanese elections, there have been a number of studies that have found very significant evidence of influence operations. I’m not sure how much evidence there is that those actually worked. And I don’t think they were very successful from the studies that I’ve read. But yes, those exist.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is there any indication whether any of these influence campaigns have any effect?

Hannah Bailey: So there’s a short answer and a longer answer. The short answer is no, we don’t have any evidence that they do. But that’s not to say that they don’t. The caveat is that it’s hard to study the effects of messaging on social media audiences, particularly as an academic. Because it’s a real world setting with real world people you’re dealing with, and they are heard to measure. It’s not like in a laboratory experiment where you can expose someone to a particular message and ask them what their answer is. And even if you did such an experiment, you might not have findings that are necessarily representative of people’s real life online experiences.

But broadly speaking, we see that the messaging put out by Chinese state-backed media, Chinese diplomats, and these influence operations that we’ve uncovered so far really hasn’t had the engagement pick-up that you would expect of a successful influence campaign.

The influence operation that we uncovered recently didn’t seem to be receiving an awful lot of engagement outside of their own little network. That’s not to say that they won’t in the future. An important element of social media influence operations is that there’s a very quick feedback loop. Unlike with traditional print news, where you might nog necessarily have feedback on whether propaganda you published was successful, you get instant feedback on social media. So it’s easy for state actors to better tailor their messaging toward international audiences. So I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the future.

Broadly speaking, we see that the messaging put out by Chinese state-backed media, Chinese diplomats, and these influence operations that we’ve uncovered so far really hasn’t had the engagement pick-up that you would expect of a successful influence campaign.

Kevin Schoenmakers: And outside of China, is there evidence that other countries or other groups have been effective at these kinds of campaigns?

Hannah Bailey: I’m not a Russia expert, but according to a large literature on Russian influence operations, typically surrounding elections and promoting populist narratives, they have been slightly more successful at that.

U.K. Case Study

Kevin Schoenmakers: You just mentioned your recent research project during which you found a network of Twitter users boosting the tweets of UK-based Chinese diplomats. Could that have any effects even if there wasn’t a lot of engagement by users outside the network of boosters?

Hannah Bailey: It’s hard for us to say that few or no users saw it. We have a certain number of things we can measure, like retweets. And then we use these to quantify engagement. And so I can say that there was not a lot of engagement with these networks. But at the same time, these networks also served to artificially inflate the profile of the particular diplomat. And then this could have gamed the Twitter algorithm to think, “Oh, this person’s very popular so we should show this tweet to more people.” And so it’s hard for us to know exactly the ramifications of this influence operation.

Kevin Schoenmakers: When I read your report and saw the somewhat uninspired way they went about faking engagement I couldn’t help but think, could it be that they have some kind of social media outreach goal from the Foreign Ministry back in Beijing that they need to meet, and this is how they go about it?

Hannah Bailey: That’s another hypothesis, that this is kind of a self-promotion tool to signal to their bosses and their higher ups that, “I’m doing really well at my diplomatic job. The domestic audiences love me, and they’re engaging a lot with my content. And so I’m a good diplomat.”

What Can Platforms Do?

Kevin Schoenmakers: You looked at Twitter. Have you done research or do you know of research into other social media, such Facebook or YouTube?

Hannah Bailey: We did use Facebook data in the first report, but there’s a limit to how much Facebook lets you dive into their data. Twitter is far more transparent, allowing researchers more access to more granular data. So yeah, we would have loved to do more Facebook analysis, and see if there were similar influence operations networks on Facebook. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get the data. And we’d love to do future research on TikTok and all these other social media platforms. But data access is always an ongoing problem.

Kevin Schoenmakers: I suppose TikTok is a very unique case in that it’s the only worldwide social media platform that is Chinese.

Hannah Bailey: How much it still is Chinese or not Chinese is up for debate. But obviously, it operates very differently from other forms of social media. So if there were to be influence operations on that platform, I’d imagine they’d be behaving in a very different way to what we’ve seen on Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Twitter from time to time announces they’ve taken down groups of accounts that purport to be people who they are not. Are such cleanups effective at countering influence campaigns?

Hannah Bailey: I don’t know exactly what methods or tools they use to identify these accounts. When we alerted Twitter to the accounts that we discovered, they took almost all of them down. But it would be nice if the response was less reactionary, and more proactive.

We’ve found in research before and after our report that these networks tend to pop up pretty instantaneously. You take one down and another pops up. And they seem to be pretty widespread. Despite these kind of takedowns by Twitter, they’re still very prevalent on the platform from what we’ve seen. So maybe there’s scope for Twitter to expand their detection operations.

When we alerted Twitter to the accounts that we discovered, they took almost all of them down. But it would be nice if the response was less reactionary, and more proactive.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What are some of the other countermeasures that social media platforms, and Twitter in particular, take to combat inauthentic behavior?

Hannah Bailey: Last year or so, Twitter and Facebook have started putting labels underneath particular users to make audiences more aware when they’re consuming content by a particular state actor. And so we, as part of our analysis, looked at how effectively these labels were being applied to users that we knew were Chinese diplomats or Chinese state-backed media outlets. And we found that they weren’t as widely applied as we might have hoped. Some of the accounts that we identified and flagged as being not labeled were then labeled after our report. But that’s quite concerning if this is one of the measures that these social media platforms are taking to inform users when they’re consuming content by state and state-owned media outlets, and that these labels are not being well applied.

Broadly speaking, any way of informing audiences when they’re consuming content by a particular actor can better allow them to digest that information properly. So they can say, “Is this information trying to influence me and should I trust this information?” So we would hope that these labels will be more widely applied in the future

How China Wants to Tame Tech’s Use of Algorithms

Algorithms Are Everywhere

Kevin Schoenmakers: To start with a refresher: What are algorithms and how are they used both inside and outside of China?

Rogier Creemers: Essentially algorithms are mathematical rules that derive a product from a series of inputs. They can be static, where it’s almost like making pancakes. You need this many eggs, this much flour, this much milk, and it all combines and the output is pancake.

They can also be dynamic, and this is what we call artificial intelligence machine learning. These are algorithms that can change by looking at patterns in your behavior. They are often used online to learn about what people like in order to then make decisions about them, most often related to advertising or to content recommendations.

Spotify will know what music you’ve listened to, what other people who listened to that same music also like to listen to, and then recommend that to you. The algorithm then looks at whether or not you like that suggestion and learn from that. Similarly, in advertising, algorithms will look at what product websites you have gone to, how much time you spent there, which links you clicked, and so on. On the basis of that it will then recommend certain products to you.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In late August, the Chinese government published draft regulations for algorithms. What were some of the headline rules in those regulations?

Rogier Creemers: Essentially, they’re saying that in a number of spaces there will now be limits on what you can do with algorithms.

In the workplace, especially at parcel delivery and food delivery services, algorithms are used to monitor how people work and then optimize their efficiency. But the problem is Amazon warehouse-type practices where people are timed to the second and put under severe strain. The government doesn’t want that.

When it comes to recommending content, the regulations are partially about opening up space for propaganda authorities to be able to make sure politically desirable content is being pushed to people, not just entertainment-related content.

Another aspect is consumer protection by preventing addiction. In the West, we know how social media use algorithms to increase engagement by pushing increasingly extremist content. This can suck people down a political rabbit hole. That’s less of a concern in China, but the consumer rabbit hole is.

When it comes to recommending content, the regulations are partially about opening up space for propaganda authorities to be able to make sure politically desirable content is being pushed to people, not just entertainment-related content.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How will these regulations prevent people from overconsumption? Why is that a concern?

Rogier Creemers: The Chinese government is treading a narrow path here. One element of its economic development strategy is to broaden consumption. But it’s careful about debt build-up. Alibaba and Tencent both have financial arms and credit rating systems. They make money not just by selling their products and services, but also by facilitating loans so people have the money to buy them. There is a risk that people start buying stuff with money they do not have.

We very often forget the extent to which China looks abroad. And one of the things that it has seen, most notably in countries like the United States, is that a little bit of consumer credit is good, but that a lot of consumer credit destabilizes your economy.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Another section of the regulations say algorithms may not be used to create fake user accounts, fake likes, etc. What does that refer to?

Rogier Creemers: You can train algorithms to create a whole bunch of fake user accounts on websites, which you can then use as a sort of almost a firehose to either upvote or downvote people or companies. This can be used, for example, to vote for contestants in television talent shows or to boost the ranking of your restaurant on a review website.

Effects on Media and the State

Kevin Schoenmakers: Will these regulations affect news aggregation apps? Is there some way in which these algorithm regulations will make it easier for government departments to, for example, tell Bytedance’s news aggregation app Toutiao to push this or some other article?

Rogier Creemers: The document says algorithms should take into consideration the political quality of content. So in essence it opens that door. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a lot easier for the state to do that, because it was already fairly easy for the state to intervene. It’s just that there is now a clear and non-negotiable process.

News apps will also need to offer non-algorithm-based pages, and a way for their users to gain insight into what goes into the algorithm. What are the keywords that are part of the algorithm? How are you being tracked?

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is this the first time that China has moved to regulate algorithms? For example, I remember that Toutiao had previously been told to adjust their recommendation system.

Rogier Creemers: It is the first time that we get a comprehensive piece of regulation about algorithms. There have been rules before. For instance, the 2019 consumer protection law requires that in any case where online services were offered on an algorithmic or automated-decision basis, the consumer should have a choice to switch it off. In the same way that, on Apple, we now have a don’t-track-me option, the consumer should always have an option to not be targeted for advertising on the basis of algorithms, for example.

In the content control system, there have been both all sorts of general rules and also fairly specific limits on who gets to produce content. But we now live in an age where information is abundant. And that changes the rules. When you operate under scarcity, you operate under completely opposite constraints from when you operate under conditions of abundance. That means the whole information management landscape is no longer just about removing content from public view or producing propaganda, but also about gatekeeping and information prioritization.

There has been — and presumably still is — a constant stream of communication, often just by phone, between media organizations and propaganda authorities, and sometimes other authorities such as public security organs. They don’t just say how media organizations are supposed to deal with a particular topic, but also what content they have to prioritize.

What we’re seeing under Xi Jinping is that the Communist Party wants to — as the official term goes — comprehensively rule the country according to the law. And so they need a legal basis for all of this. This isn’t to constrain the state, but motivated by realizing centralization, discipline throughout the government bureaucracy, and a certain amount of transparency, as well as by populism.

Kevin Schoenmakers: So there are no restrictions on how the government can use algorithms, for example in facial recognition technology?

Rogier Creemers: Not in these regulations. There are limits on, say, which government departments can install them, mostly regionally. China very rarely creates general rules — rules that are going to be applied to everyone, regardless of who they are. Chinese rules are always or nearly always purpose driven, and therefore they tend to be fairly micro-managerial. In Europe, on the contrary, privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in constitutions. A European resident has the right of privacy against everyone — be it individuals, companies, or governments — because this is a rule of principle, not of purpose.

Chinese rules tend to be rules of purpose. You try to achieve a particular outcome, rather than establish a general principle. The outcome they’re trying to achieve is make the digital economy work better in response to claims by the population.

Chinese rules are always or nearly always purpose driven, and therefore they tend to be fairly micro-managerial. In Europe, on the contrary, privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in constitutions.

The Great Rectification

Kevin Schoenmakers: What are examples of the populist aspect to these regulations? What are examples of protecting consumer rights?

Rogier Creemers: Because Chinese tech companies are so powerful, sometimes even operating as monopolists in their sector, they can essentially foist conditions on consumers and on platform traders. Across the board, these regulations seek to put much more power in the hands of individual consumers and platform traders.

Unless a product or service needs the algorithm to function, you should be able to switch it off. And the company cannot then deny you the use of a product or service. You get to monitor and change the keywords on which algorithms are based.

Another aspect is competition on platforms. If I search for a particular product on Alibaba and there are 10 people offering it, the ranking of those 10 people will obviously impact their business. So how do you do that fairly?

This also ties into what we’ve been seeing with the unfair competition regulations that have been coming out where the government is telling companies they can no longer block, for example, e-commerce retailers from being active on a competitor’s platform.

The regulations also include something about price discrimination. This is referred to as “using big data to kill the mature” (大数据杀熟), which isn’t really directly translatable. It’s something that you see fairly regularly, where algorithms are used to identify a consumers’ willingness to pay. People who are new to the platform or people who have demonstrated less willingness to pay get a cheaper price for the same product as people who are more willing to pay, in a manner that isn’t transparent to the individual consumer.

The limits on how companies can use algorithms to govern workers fit into the overall drive by the Xi Jinping administration to move away from a development program of “GDP at all costs” to a more broad-based approach where the government looks out for people’s welfare, including that of ordinary people who may work as delivery drivers.

But it’s not just the content of the rules that’s important. It’s also the signal that is being sent. Beijing is telling all of these companies that the days of them being able to operate as largely unregulated monopolies or oligopolies are over. They are no longer special, and will now be treated like any other company. I call this “The Great Rectification.”

It’s no coincidence that we suddenly get the Supreme People’s Court essentially saying “996” working hours are illegal, that they have always been illegal, but that now we’re going to come down on you like a ton of bricks. There’s a substantive element to these regulations and also a performative element.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do these regulations fit into “The Great Rectification”?

Rogier Creemers: What my Chinese interlocutors told me three, four years ago is that the Chinese government didn’t want to regulate too much out of a fear they’d smother their emerging economy. But that there would come a point where the economy is mature, where there is a lot of money, and where these companies would be robust enough to withstand regulation. And that, by that time, the government would know what it is they’d want to regulate.

And because the Chinese government regulates according to purposes and not to principles, it can actually be more agile. It can say: “This wasn’t a problem when these businesses were relatively small and serving 100 million people. Now, these businesses are really big and serving a billion people. So the game has changed, and we now need different rules to deal with this situation.”

On the one hand, you might say this is a centralized campaign. On the other hand, you might say that the stars have aligned — that political conditions are now so that it is logical for all these bureaucracies to intervene because the problems are just getting so big.

The People’s Bank of China is looking at the financial stability risks that emerge from having unregulated money creation through Ant Financial’s services. The Cyberspace Administration of China is looking at the fact that suddenly you have smart cars with lots of sensors, generating all kinds of data. And then you have a situation where if one ministry does something the others don’t want to be seen to be doing nothing.

Another aspect is that for several regulators, this is actually an opportunity to raise their profile. They can raise their bureaucratic standards, get bigger budgets, bigger staff allocations, more prestige, and so on. All of these things are factors. It’s all part of that complex witch’s brew.

Kevin Schoenmakers: I would assume that the algorithms within apps like Didi or Taobao are terribly complex. Won’t that make it difficult to enforce these regulations?

Rogier Creemers: People often assume the Chinese party state is all-powerful. And in very many ways it’s not. What is probably going to happen is that this is a sort of warning that this is what the law is going to be.

These regulations do contain punitive provisions. They are relatively light, because they have to be. Under Chinese administrative law, it is impossible for a ministry to issue rules that set a fine of more than 30,000 yuan ($4,600). For a company like Alibaba, 30,000 yuan is pocket change. The CAC might exploit a loophole by saying 30,000 yuan per infraction. So if you’ve done something that affects 10 million customers, suddenly you’re talking about a lot of money.

People often assume the Chinese party state is all-powerful. And in very many ways it’s not. What is probably going to happen is that this is a sort of warning that this is what the law is going to be.

But what I foresee is that these rules will be brought into legislation in the not-too-distant future, maybe through a revision of the consumer protection law. The Chinese government very often starts out with having rules at the ministerial level where punishments are low. That is a clear warning for companies to adjust their business practices. And then at some point, they will be brought into legislation, as we’ve seen with data protection, for instance. Then the fines and punishments can be huge.

Global Effects

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is there any in which Western tech companies will be affected by these Chinese regulations? Will LinkedIn have to make changes to how it works in China, for example?

Rogier Creemers: Probably. This is also where we need to think broadly about what a Western tech company is. Does McDonald’s count because of its delivery services?

Whenever we think about algorithms, we immediately think about the big tech companies. We’re not wrong to do so, because they cover the majority of the markets where algorithms are used. However, they are, by far, not the only players.

Airlines do price discrimination. They usually don’t do it on the basis of algorithms, but they might. So they need to demonstrate some degree of compliance, or at least that they are not breaking the rules.

There are only a few Western companies that are big in China in tech, and the only one that really offers online services is Apple. They will have to adhere to these regulations. For example, in their app store.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Is the way these regulations cover so many industries a reflection of how widespread the use of algorithms has become?

Rogier Creemers: There are three big trends: “The Great Rectification,” in China, but also ongoing in Europe; “The Great Normalization,” where tech businesses are no longer special and are now being treated like normal business; and “The Great Integration.” The last of these means that whatever you want to regulate in the world — be it labor conditions, food safety, supply chain tracing, whatever it is — you’re essentially going to be regulating tech. Tech is inseparable from pretty much any economic or social process.

Once upon a time we had tech regulation and real-world regulation. Increasingly, everything is going to be tech-infused, which means that it’s going to be less and less informative to talk about tech regulation.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do these regulations compare internationally? Are there similar regulations in Europe or in other countries?

Rogier Creemers: Yes, there are, and more are coming. Not in the United States. That’s where the tech companies are, and that’s where they strongly believe in having unregulated monopolies. That may change in the future. But that’s not really where the action is. The action at the moment in the U.S. is more on anti-trust and on Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act], which says social media providers cannot be seen as publishers, and therefore bear no editorial responsibility.

In many ways, what the European Union is trying to do, especially in terms of consumer protection, is not far removed from what China is trying to do.

A couple of years ago, the European Union issued a whole bunch of rules on online consumer protections, and algorithms are part of those rules already. But what we’re seeing in the digital markets and services package that’s working its way through the Brussels legislative process, is that there’s going to be a lot more.

In many ways, what the European Union is trying to do, especially in terms of consumer protection, is not far removed from what China is trying to do. And the reason for that is that it’s the same problem, and there are only so many different possible solutions.

The Juggling Act of Being Female, Chinese, and a Foreign Correspondent

Bridging the European Knowledge Gap

Kevin Schoenmakers: How did you become a correspondent in Europe?

Wang Qing: I want to help China and the rest of the world understand each other better. After I graduated from a master’s program in the Netherlands, I first worked for a Dutch outlet where I basically explained China to foreigners. Then, in 2016, Trump’s election and Brexit happened. These two events had a major impact on young people, intellectuals, and other liberal-minded folk in China. As I’m sure young people in Europe did too, they suddenly began to wonder whether these are things that ought to happen in Western democratic systems. I was shocked too, and decided to switch my career direction to instead explain the West to Chinese people.

Before, Chinese people of my generation — born in the 1980s and ‘90s — would have a certain yearning for Western political systems. We’d respect them, and think that China could learn a lot from them. But after these two events, I sensed a general disappointment among Chinese intellectuals. At the time, I’d lived in Europe for five years. I knew that the American election and the Brexit referendum are just two forms of democracy, and that there are so many other versions. In France, for example, the far-right Le Pens have been active in politics for many years, but never made it to the presidency. Then there’s the German system, and the still different systems in eastern European countries.

I realized at the time that there are so few news reports about Europe in China, especially compared to how much we do hear about the United States. If a Chinese journalist is stationed abroad, then the chances are they’ll be in the U.S. Chinese people are more interested in America, and more people of Chinese descent live there. So there’s a long history of Chinese people writing about the U.S. And even though it’s a big place, people speak English, so a journalist can cover the entire country. But Europe is a different story. I felt like there was a big information gap.

Chinese readers are interested in Europe, but not that interested. They know some things about Europe, but also not a lot. So I figured I could become a kind of pan-European correspondent, writing from the perspective of a Chinese person living in Europe and explaining to a Chinese audience what I see and experience, and what European society is like. That’s how I ended up doing what I do now.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How does your outlet define your beat?

Wang Qing: My title is Europe correspondent. One part is covering large political and economic events. Another is to report on Chinese-European interactions, including diplomatic ties but also Chinese diaspora, Chinese overseas students, and Chinese people working in Europe.

In short, I write about European stories important to Europeans, and European stories important to Chinese people. These two sometimes overlap but they’re not always the same.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How do you keep up with the news of an entire continent? How many countries do you officially cover?

Wang Qing: In theory, I cover all of Europe, but that’s not really feasible in reality. The European Union has more than 20 member states by itself, and then there are non-members at the edges of the continent. So I cover more than 30 countries, which sounds kind of ridiculous. But, first of all, I’m not by myself. We have an editorial team in China doing remote reporting, and a network of freelancers around Europe. So sometimes when there’s some breaking news or something worth covering, it’s my job to commission an article.

When I cover something, my philosophy is to provide a pan-european perspective, which means I don’t just look at what happened in a particular European country, but also why those events are important to the continent. Some international outlets might have the resources to have one correspondent per country, allowing that journalist to have a deep understanding of that country. But there is no way I’ll be able to do that. I can’t master more than 20 languages in my lifetime. But I could look at these countries using a pan-European framework. This way, regardless of whether I’m writing about Germany, France, or the U.K., I can explain to Chinese readers what Europe is.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Are there any stories you would personally like to do but that you can’t get approval for from your editors?

Wang Qing: I work in a commercial outlet, so we have slightly more leeway than official state media. The limit is more often how much my organization is willing to invest in a particular pitch. Sometimes it’s not that you want to write something but can’t, it’s that you reported on something and want to follow-up with a more in-depth article, but that the organization doesn’t have the time and resources. In my impression, this is more likely the case when it comes to smaller European countries.  There might be something interesting happening there, but Chinese readers might not know the country that well so there’s only scope for something short.

Of course, besides that, there are some sensitive topics when it comes to international relations that a Chinese outlet will be very careful with.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Because of the pandemic you’ve been in China for some months and you’ve been writing more about domestic topics. Have you noticed any difference in sensitivity of national and international news? Do you run into such issues less when reporting on other countries compared to reporting on China?

Wang Qing: When I speak with friends who also work in international news, many say they initially wanted to move in this direction because there are fewer restrictions. As long as the news is unrelated to China, you can mostly write whatever you want. But if a topic touches on China, there will be restrictions.

As for domestic news, I don’t do investigatives stories but write mostly about social and cultural issues, and there aren’t usually tight restrictions on such topics.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How many Chinese journalists are there in Europe? How many of them are, like you, correspondents for commercial media?

Wang Qing: I’ve never seen an accurate figure for this, but I’d say that there are fewer than 10 Europe correspondents who work for commercial Chinese media. The overwhelming majority of Chinese journalists in Europe work for state media. They have enormous teams. I’d estimate that more than ten state media outlets have offices in Brussels, for example. Some of those might just have one or two people, others have dozens.

At the same time, the number of correspondents for commercial media is shrinking, and most of them are financial reporters who live in London. On the European mainland there are a few in Paris and in Berlin, but they might not all be on full-time contracts.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Why is the number of correspondents working for commercial media shrinking?

Wang Qing: On the one hand, state media have grown bigger both at home and abroad, and there is less space for commercial media. In the past, such media could do hard-core investigative reporting, but now that’s gotten harder.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting the rise of self-media in China. I believe the difference between state media and commercial media has gotten smaller in recent years, and the new division in the Chinese media landscape is that between self-media and institutional media — which includes both state media and commercial media. Self-media means people or organizations who most commonly post content on social media like WeChat, Weibo, and Douyin, and who are increasingly blurring the line with writing news. They adhere to different standards though. When they write about Europe, they might find a few articles in English media, aggregate them, and write it up in a dramatic and eye-catching way. Self-media have quickly gained a lot of traffic, influence, as well as advertisement. But institutional media can’t work like this.

Commercial media have also experienced a brain drain, and advertising revenue is declining every year. They’re fighting for survival. So the disappearance of correspondent positions at commercial media is a reflection of their crisis at home.

In the past, such media could do hard-core investigative reporting, but now that’s gotten harder and harder.

Growing Mistrust and Hostility

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have you noticed anything from the worsening China-West relations? For example, in China many western journalists say it’s becoming more difficult to find interviewees. Have you noticed anything similar?

Wang Qing: In general, my experiences in Europe have been positive. European society has better civic education, so people understand the importance of news media. But there have been a few incidents in the past two years. Sometimes people refuse to be interviewed because I’m a Chinese journalist, even saying, “I can’t trust a journalist from a Chinese news outlet.” Explaining the reporting you do or the kind of organization you work for won’t put them at ease.

When I first started as a reporter in Europe about eight years ago, I was never refused an interview because I’m a Chinese journalist. It might be because there is much more China coverage in Western media now. In the past only people in the so-called China-watching community would pay attention to the country, but now regular people in the West are also increasingly interested in China. But their interest was piqued by negative news stories. It’s not because, for example, they traveled to China and thought it was a fascinating place.

Hostility toward China is on the rise in both the United States and Europe. People like us, whose role is in between China and other countries, will notice such changes the earliest.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What kind of people will sometimes deny your interview requests? Just regular people, or companies and governments?

Wang Qing: All three you mentioned will sometimes deny interview requests, but people at companies or governments have received PR training so they won’t directly tell you it’s because you’re from a Chinese media outlet. Only regular people will.

I can think of an example of when I went to Greece to do a story about China buying a port there. Because the port itself is considered a scenic spot, someone offered tours on AirBnB. I thought this was very interesting, also because it mentioned China. So I wanted to join the tour and interview the person behind it. But because I explained who I was he didn’t even allow me to join the tour, saying that he thought Chinese media would distort his words.

The opposite also happens. When I went to report on Brexit I discovered a lot of English people who supported Brexit were eager to talk to Chinese media. They figured that after Brexit, the U.K. would need to become friends with countries outside the European Union and that China would be a good country to be friends with, so they were willing to speak with Chinese media.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Do interviewees sometimes question your motives because they assume your outlet is a propaganda outlet?

Wang Qing: Yes! The international perception of Chinese journalists has changed a lot in the past two years. I often get asked what it’s like to be one. I think, in the English-speaking world, there is a subtle bias toward Chinese journalists, where people assume that you need to create propaganda. But Chinese journalists are a varied group of people, including more and more Chinese nationals now working for international media. I have some friends who work for official state media, and their work isn’t all propaganda either. Within the limits placed on them, they too do work that I think improves Chinese and Western people’s mutual understanding.

Chinese journalists aren’t so different from journalists in other parts of the world. The motivations they have and the training they receive are broadly similar. But I do think they are treated differently. A South Korean reporter, for example, is much more easily trusted in the West than a Chinese reporter, even if the articles they end up writing are broadly similar.

Kevin Schoenmakers: And, the other way around, has the perception of Europe changed among your readers?

Wang Qing: First of all, Chinese people’s interest in Europe is not as great as their interest in the United States. Then, their perception of Europe is split into two. They look up to Europe but also look down on it, and these two contradictory viewpoints exist at the same time.

They want to see the good sides of Europe and regard it as having a more advanced market, governance, and society that China should learn from. This includes things such as Europe’s education, health care, and pension systems. Recently, China allowed three children per couple, but young people in China don’t really want to have children and people wonder why that is. Perhaps Chinese society doesn’t support and subsidize women and families enough when it comes to having children? So people look to Europe to see what they do. What kind of welfare do single-parent families receive, for example? How do governments support sending children to day care or to school? Chinese people are very interested in this aspect of Europe.

One the other hand, Chinese people look down on Europe, thinking that even though Europe was very civilized and advanced in the past, it has more recently been plagued by terrorist attacks, refugee crises, demonstrations, riots, and other chaos — casual readers love to read this kind of news. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, this second perception has become stronger. Many believe that China controlled the pandemic better than Europe, where it caused a lot of chaos. People increasingly feel like Europe isn’t as good as it used to be, or even that it’s become a complete mess and that China is better now.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Journalists who write about China are often criticized either because they are too soft or too harsh in their analysis of the country. Are you ever accused of being one or the other about Europe?

Wang Qing: Yes, I’ve encountered both. Refugees are a topic that easily causes controversy on Chinese social media. When I tried to explain some of the complexities behind Europe’s refugee crisis, readers who might not be very familiar with Europe and saw the refugee crisis as a major disaster thought I was being too soft.

At the same time, some friends have told me they think my analysis of Brexit is too harsh, that I overestimate the impact it will have on the U.K. But based on my interviews I judged at the time that its impact will be quite serious.

I think my situation is a bit different compared to Western journalists in China, however. If you work for an established international media outlet, your analysis will have an impact on government policy. Even though sometimes people in government or academia might read what I write, what I write is mostly for ordinary Chinese readers. So its impact on policy is small. This is the case for many reporters working for commercial media, and this probably is a reflection of the status of media in China.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Are there any misconceptions about Europe that stand out, about which you cannot convince your readers or editors otherwise?

Wang Qing: One example that I find quite interesting is about Europe’s attitude towards regulation. The European Union has introduced a lot of digital regulation in recent years, which is a source of discussion in China. From a Chinese perspective, Europe is doing this because it doesn’t have strong internet companies like Facebook or Alibaba.

Some people — not me — think Europe’s economy and status have slipped because there is too much regulation. This idea is widely shared by my fellow Chinese journalists who do financial and economic reporting. I will try to explain to them that the so-called decline of the European economy isn’t actually because they overregulate, or that this regulation is necessary and might also be adopted in China. [NOTE: In August 2021, China passed what one article in the National Law Review called “the world’s harshest data privacy law,” with stricter data security requirements some experts found to be opaque.]

I think the larger context of this is that Chinese intellectuals, after experiencing China’s marketization drive in the early ’90s, have formed a consensus that less oversight promotes economic development. So they don’t understand why Europe would choose to implement more regulations.

As for misconceptions among the wider public, I can take my mother as an example. When the yellow vest movement damaged the Champs Elysées, the Chinese internet was overflowing with fake news about how Paris had become a hell on earth. So my mother will think that Europe is total chaos. Sometimes due to the time difference, when I wake up, my mom will have already sent me 10 different articles she saw online about how Europe is a mess, and ask whether I shouldn’t consider moving back home.

Navigating the Shrinking Space of Weibo

Kevin Schoenmakers:  You’re quite active on Weibo, where you have more than 75,000 followers. Do you consider this part of your job as a journalist, to build an audience?

Wang Qing: I don’t really have a detailed strategy for my Weibo. But I want it to be a personal thing, a channel through which I engage with what is happening in China. I know many foreign reporters will use Twitter to promote their work. I sometimes do that, but only when I think that what I wrote is relevant to what is already being discussed on Weibo at that moment.

Weibo might be the only public space left in China. Even though its scope is shrinking too, there is still a lot of discussion on Weibo every day, and the topics are very different from what foreign media report on when it comes to China. What is talked about on Weibo isn’t of national importance, but it’s still meaningful to me. People talk about gender issues, consumerism, and other things that young Chinese people are concerned about. I want to engage in these discussions.

Sometimes I will bring a European perspective. One time, a Chinese rental platform had some funding issues that caused its young customers to suddenly have no houses to live in. This sparked a discussion on whether it’s better to buy or rent an apartment. I shared my experience renting a house in Europe, and explained why young people in Europe don’t seem to be in a hurry to buy a house because there are policies that protect tenants.

But I won’t write daily posts about what happened in the EU today. I don’t want my account to be a press release machine.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In recent years, discussion of China on Western social media is at times very black-and-white — you’re either in favor of or against China. Is the discussion of Europe on Weibo similar?

Wang Qing: There is such a trend. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening international climate, Chinese social media users have become more antagonistic toward Europe and the U.S., or the West in general. Fewer people are willing to understand the complexities of the world, or they no longer speak up and are drowned out by more radical voices.

The fact that European countries made mistakes in how they handled COVID-19 only adds to this. Chinese social media users will think, “Why can’t we criticize them? Why do we have to agree that Europe is a nice place? Why do we need to be nuanced?” I don’t think this is something particularly Chinese. All around the world people seem to have lost their interest in and patience for understanding another culture’s complexity.

Kevin Schoenmakers: On Twitter, female journalists say they face constant harassment. Is this also an issue on Weibo?

Wang Qing: Yes, there is a lot of harassment aimed at women on Weibo as well. It’s not necessary because they are journalists, but just because they are female. I think an important context is that on Weibo, gender issues are very actively discussed — far more than any other topic. It might be one of the few issues that can still be discussed publicly on the Chinese internet to the same degree it is discussed internationally. Usually there are people in strong support and in strong opposition to certain gender issues, and as a result women will face a lot of attacks by patriarchal users.

I recently posted something about the Kris Wu rape case that got tens of thousands of comments. Many people agreed with my point of view, but I also got a lot of hateful responses, including private messages, saying “Why do you want to turn this into a gender thing?” They think feminism in China is going too far. People who have grown up in East Asian cultures may not be accustomed to women speaking out in public. So when you do speak up, a lot of people will attack you for your gender.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Do people ever send abusive comments because you are a journalist?      

Wang Qing: That happens as well. I think because journalists and other public intellectuals have become stigmatized in China. In the past, say five or ten years ago, when you said that a person is a public intellectual, it was a compliment. Everyone would think such a person is very knowledgeable, that they have a critical perspective, and are doing something good for society. But views have shifted to public intellectuals being people who don’t want the country to do well. So people with these identities are attacked a lot. But still, I mostly receive abusive comments because of my gender.

Podcasting Through the Pandemic

Kevin Schoenmakers: How would you describe your podcast? Who are your co-hosts? What do you talk about?

Wang Qing: I started the podcast together with two friends who are former journalists at the end of 2019. We began because we’d often talk and when media people talk they mix their private stories with things that are in the news, and we figured conversations like that can be quite interesting. So we thought about how to present this to an audience and turn it into a podcast.

We named it TheWeirdo (in Chinese: 不合时宜, meaning to be out of step with current thinking) because we believe that in Chinese society there are a lot of people like us who feel like they may not be in line with the mainstream of the era, who are independent but still interact with society. We hoped to bring people like this together through the podcast.

We talk about domestic and international current affairs, but also issues that young Chinese people are concerned with such as education, buying a house, and having children.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Podcasting took a while to take off in China compared to the West. Why do you think that is? Have you noticed your podcast’s audience has grown a lot recently as well?

Wang Qing: I saw an industry analysis that said many American podcasts are made by institutional media who have experience with making radio, such as NPR. But Chinese podcasts are almost all very grass-roots. Podcasters might be journalists, like us, but there is no institutional support. I don’t have a radio background either, I’ve mostly done written journalism. There are very few Chinese media companies that are systematically making podcasts.

One reason podcasts are gaining popularity is that across Chinese online platforms, the quality of the content is decreasing. Because, depending on whether you want to write an article for 100,000 or 1 million people, your approach has to be very different. For the former, you can write in a very refined way that only highly educated people might understand. For the latter, you have to write in a way so it is very easy to understand. So with other content decreasing in quality, podcasts have become something that highly educated people enjoy.

One reason podcasts are gaining popularity is that across Chinese online platforms, the quality of the content is decreasing.

Podcasts really gained attention in China during the pandemic last year. Lots of people had to stay at home and wanted good content to pass the time. Our audience also grew during that period. When we began in late 2019, we had no idea we’d grow this much, or even be successful at all. But our conversations resonated with listeners. It’s more important than anything for a creative to find an audience that understands your content. It will really boost your morale. So when we grew our audience and they responded with writing letters and whatnot, it was very inspiring to us and made us keep going.

For example, during the pandemic last year when a lot of flights were cancelled and many students who wanted to go abroad were unable to go. Lots of people were wondering whether China would be cut off from the world. We talked about studying abroad in an episode, and I said that because of the worsening international climate in which every country is isolating itself, people who can form bridges across borders should go abroad more than ever. Afterward some listeners said that they had abandoned their study abroad plans but because of us they had changed their mind. A year later these people are on their way to foreign universities. Stories like this inspire us to keep at it.

Kevin Schoenmakers: How big is your audience?

Wang Qing: We have about 500,000 subscribers across all platforms. Popular episodes are downloaded up to 700,000 times, less popular ones fewer than 200,000 times.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Some people say podcasts are popular in China right now because they are quite loosely regulated. Would you agree?

Wang Qing: I think the restrictions on certain topics in place on other platforms are also there for podcasts. The difference lies in the audience. Podcasts listeners are relatively highly educated and liberal minded. And when you listen to a podcast, you need to spend an hour to listen to an entire episode, so that means you can deal with a lot of nuance and won’t get furious when you don’t agree with someone’s argument. This gives podcasters more space, but they still have to adhere to certain limits on content.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have any of your episodes been taken offline?

Wang Qing: Yes, they have. When you discuss something that’s closely related to a recent news event that’s a hot topic, that episode is at a higher risk of getting taken down.

Kevin Schoenmakers: I listen to some Chinese podcasts, and I’ve noticed none of them run ads. Do you know why that is? Have you been contacted by companies to place ads?

Wang Qing: Commercialization of podcasts is a hot topic right now. We regularly have people from our audience who work at some or other large company and contact us to ask whether we’d want to join their promotional campaign. But the way advertising is done in Chinese podcasts isn’t the same as in English-language podcasts. Rarely will there be ad reads before the start of an episode. The format is more commonly that a company has something to promote and the podcast will create content based on that. But as far as I know, Chinese podcasts, especially those with large audiences, are very selective. When choosing an advertiser you have to make sure it fits your brand to keep your audience happy.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Have you placed such ads?

Wang Qing: We have created some content for brands, mostly regarding gender topics.

Kevin Schoenmakers: What kind of brand?

Wang Qing: I won’t name them, but we mostly work with brands that promote ideas rather than products, and these ideas need to be in line with our values. One of them was a relatively large Chinese e-commerce brand. They had a report about consumer behavior and had noticed men were buying more yoga mats and women were buying more boxing gloves. This is against stereotypes, so we thought it was an interesting phenomenon. They hoped we could make an episode about gender stereotypes and we felt this fit our podcast.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Lastly, I’d like to discuss one of your episodes that was was about what it’s like to be a woman, a journalist, and a person living abroad. In China or at Chinese media outlets, what is the difference between being a female journalist and a male journalist?

Wang Qing: Female reporters in China face many different stereotypes. One is that, when there’s some big news event, female reporters are just there as eye candy or to fulfill a quota, and not because of their ability.

And, though the number of female reporters within media organizations is pretty big, the executives are men. In journalism school there are also way more women than men, but the decision makers are mostly men. Male reporters have higher salaries, have more opportunities to make a name for themselves, and are given more on-camera appearances.

The professional life of female reporters in China is generally quite short. Unlike in other industries, as a journalist you have to be on the frontline. But a woman in her 30s will have to think about having children and taking care of her family, making it hard to do on-the-ground reporting. In other professions, your 30s is a time when you have finished your training and you enter a golden age of productivity. But as a female journalist, you will find that there are fewer opportunities for you because you have your family responsibilities.

In addition, in the past two years there have been a lot of reports of violence against and sexual harassment of female reporters. These incidents have always existed, but because of the gender movement, this has been getting wider attention and has thus become more visible.

Kevin Schoenmakers: Would you say more women are moving into positions of leadership within Chinese media?

Wang Qing: I think a very interesting change is that the rise of self-media is providing women with more opportunities. I think gender-wise there has been no change in institutional media. They’re part of the establishment, so men dominate editor-in-chief or CEO positions. But because we now have self-media, many women leave institutional media and start on their own path that is outside the establishment and doesn’t have the same historical baggage. They become their own bosses, and they do really well creating fresh content and valuable brands.

So self-media has had some impact on the traditionally male-dominated media industry, which I think is a positive development. Women have another source of opportunities, and they’ve discovered they are no worse than men, that they can be media directors, and that they can have a family while also working on their career. There are many female media professionals around me who have successfully started their own businesses.

Kevin Schoenmakers: In the episode I mentioned you say that younger women who are considering a career in news media often message you asking for advice. What do they ask you and how do you respond?

Wang Qing: People want to know what it’s like to be a female reporter and a foreign correspondent; how to enter this career; what the career path is like; and what the opportunities and challenges are.

I think a big reason they reach out to me is that I’m on Weibo, and they sooner believe advice from a person than from an organization. There is also a trend in China called “girls help girls.” People are more aware now of the power that connections between women can have. On Weibo this atmosphere is now very noticable. If a younger woman is looking for advice, she’ll reach out to another woman rather than a man, because he’s not facing the same situations.

I don’t really directly give advice, because everyone’s circumstances are different. But I will describe my situation, the challenges and problems you will face as a female journalist in China, and how these aren’t always things you can solve through your own efforts.

If you are going to be a reporter in China, one of the questions people will often ask you is: how long do you plan to do this? Careers in this industry seem very short. It’s not as in international media where there is a track from junior reporter, to senior reporter, to some overseas postings, to an editor position, and a chief editor position. In China, this might exist in official state media, but in commercial media, the path forward isn’t very clear.

When I look in front of me, it’s difficult to find a role model whose career path I can follow. As we discussed in the episode, when we were young there were some female reporters who we could take as our role models, but they have all left the industry. This is very dispiriting, and makes it hard to know what your next goal or your next stop could be. But perhaps this is something that the current generation of female reporters should do. Because the people before you didn’t create a path, you have to look for one yourself.

I had my doubts in previous years, but I’m more determined to go on doing this for as long as I can. But being a journalist might not be my one and only job. I might start some other projects, but always carry the journalistic mindset and mentality with me. I might not be in a media company but be more flexible. Social media has brought many new opportunities and spaces that didn’t exist before. If you asked me now what I would do if I could go back to the beginning. Then I think I would still choose to be a journalist.

China’s Telling Twitter Story

Twitter users are liking and sharing fewer tweets by Chinese news outlets since the social media platform started labeling them as state-affiliated, an analysis by the China Media Project shows.

Comparing tweets from a sample of 33 official Chinese accounts on Twitter for 50-day periods immediately before and after the implementation of the new policy in August 2020, CMP found that tweets by most of the accounts studied showed significantly fewer shares and likes.

The three accounts with the most followers, belonging to state broadcaster CGTN, state news agency Xinhua, and the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, all saw drops of over 20 percent per tweet. The numbers for China Daily and the Global Times, English-language newspapers published by the Information Office of the State Council and the People’s Daily respectively, also shrank by double digits. Tweets by the latter, a national tabloid long known for its often provocative comments on world affairs, received 31 percent fewer likes after the labeling.

Twitter introduced labels for state media and government accounts on August 6, 2020, with the goal of “providing people with context so they can make informed decisions,” according to a company announcement of the policy at the time. The announcement said the company would begin, in the interests of “transparency and practicality,” with the five countries comprising the UN security council: the US, UK, France, Russia, and China, before expanding to more countries.

As for which media would be labeled “state-affiliated,” Twitter said these would be outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content. “Unlike independent media, state-affiliated media frequently use their news coverage as a means to advance a political agenda,” Twitter wrote. The company made clear that the “state-affiliated” label would preclude organizations such as the BBC in the UK, and National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, which receives some federal funding but maintains strict editorial independence policies.

As the labelling process was implemented, in consultation with independent experts on the Twitter Trust and Safety Council, certain individual employees at Chinese state media also received this label. Prominent among them was Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the Global Times editor-in-chief known for his outspokenness on social media, both inside and outside China. Hu seemed to notice soon after the new policy that Twitter users were less interested in what he had to say. On August 14, 2020, a week after his Twitter account was labelled, he tweeted that he no longer saw the same level of growth in new followers that he was used to – and he had noticed people unfollowing him. “It seems Twitter will eventually choke my account,” he wrote.

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin remarks on the new labelling policy at Twitter on August 14, 2020.

As it applied the new label, Twitter also said it would no longer amplify or recommend state-affiliated media accounts or their tweets. This means that Twitter accounts like that of China Daily, the state-run English newspaper, no longer feature at the top of search results when users search the service with keywords like “china daily,” which amounts to unpaid promotion of such accounts. This followed a 2019 policy by which the company restricted the purchase of advertising by “state-controlled news media entities.”

A search of “china daily” on Twitter, conducted on January 12, 2021, does not call up the official China Daily account.

For many businesses, advertising services on Twitter, through tools like “Quick Promote,” are an important way to boost engagement, increasing followers and website traffic. But Chinese state media and diplomats have also seen platforms like Twitter and Facebook as essential channels in getting global audiences to hear official state narratives, and redress what China’s propaganda officials regard as a serious deficit in what they call “international discourse power” (国际话语权), and what they regard as a key aspect of China’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力).

Borrowed Boats

China is broadly seen by CCP leaders as lacking in “soft power,” a concept introduced to international relations theory in the 1980s by American political scientist Joseph Nye, and which in 2007 was incorporated into China’s political report to the 17th National Congress of the CCP through the phrase “cultural soft power” (文化软实力). Leaders essentially see the country’s lack of soft power, or its “discourse deficit” (话语赤字), particularly against the strength of Western media and governments, as having a serious impact on China’s international ambitions.

While China’s government has tried to address this “discourse deficit” by pouring huge resources into the international development of state media, and into a broad campaign of public diplomacy, its cultural and media products have had limited appeal abroad. Looking to bolster his country’s image, and to balance against international criticism, president Xi Jinping urged state media in 2013, during an August meeting of propaganda ministers from across the country, to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). This catchier propaganda notion has now essentially supplanted talk of soft power, to become the central catchphrase encompassing a modernized notion of what the CCP has long called “external propaganda” (外宣). In fact, Xi spoke in his 2013 address of “innovating external propaganda methods . . . that integrate the Chinese and the foreign.”

But despite China’s massive external media investments, reaching foreign audiences has been difficult, and so these same outlets rely on Western social media to share China’s viewpoints. They have been aggressive in making sure they have a big audiences – or at least appear to have them – on major platforms like Twitter. Some Chinese state media have spent millions of yuan to expand their base of followers on both Twitter as well as Facebook, as tender documents show. A government notice published in August 2019 showed that China’s top internet control body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), had a one-year agreement with the People’s Daily for the latter to promote information about China on Facebook for 5.8 million yuan, or just over 800,000 US dollars. State media have also been suspected of buying followers on social media networks.

China’s use of Twitter has long been viewed as problematic, particularly given the banning of Western social media platforms inside China, and restrictions on the use of domestic Chinese platforms by Western news outlets and foreign diplomatic missions. State outlets like China Daily, which joined Twitter in November 2009, just five months after the network was banned in China following riots in the northwestern city of Urumqi, have been given relatively free reign to espouse Beijing’s viewpoints on Twitter, Facebook, and other services outside China. Western news outlets and foreign diplomatic missions in China operating accounts on Chinese domestic social media platforms such as Weibo, a popular microblogging service launched in the wake of the Twitter crackdown, have frequently been censored or blocked outright.

China has also been accused of abusing its official presence on these platforms. In August 2019, Twitter said it had “reliable evidence to support that . . . . a coordinated state-backed operation” was pushing out misinformation regarding protests in Hong Kong, and suspended some 200,000 accounts. Subsequent actions announced in September 2019 and June 2020 removed thousands of other accounts.

In 2020, accounts run by Chinese media or government actors actively promoted conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19. ProPublica in March reported on more than 10,000 fake or hijacked accounts that promoted Chinese government viewpoints. Meanwhile, Chinese nationals who use VPNs or other tools to jump the firewall and tweet messages going against the government’s viewpoints can face prosecution by the authorities.

With Beijing seeming more assertive than ever in its effort to change how its actions are viewed in other countries, Twitter isn’t the only company that has increased its scrutiny of Chinese media. A number of newspapers around the world that previously carried paid inserts from state propaganda outlets like China Daily, another favored way of utilizing Western channels to reach broader audiences, have recently stopped the practice. They include the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Telegraph, and several Australian media. Newspaper inserts are just one of many “borrowed boat” methods that China has employed in an effort to get its message out to audiences in the West and elsewhere in the world.

Splitting Differences

Our research suggests that Twitter’s new labelling policy has to some extent curtailed the ability for Chinese state media to reach audiences outside China. But Twitter’s move has also elicited criticism for painting all Chinese media with the same brush. Long-time readers of CMP, which has tracked Chinese media development since 2004, will be aware that the media landscape in China has changed dramatically since the 1990s, with the emergence before the new millennium of a new generation of more market-oriented media. In many cases, media affiliated with the Party-state, such as commercial spin-offs of Party-run publications at the provincial and city levels, pursued a more daring brand of professional journalism against the formal constraints of the media control system.

Through the 2000s, these media often challenged official narratives with strong reporting from the scene of breaking news stories, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, or through in-depth or investigative reporting. And while Chinese media have faced a far more difficult professional environment since 2012, owing to more determined political controls and a digital transformation that has fundamentally changed the commercial environment, it should be recognized that there are still marked differences between media outlets – and not all are simply propaganda organs.

Fang Kecheng, a former journalist and now assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that, in principle, it is not a bad thing to help social media users better understand the content they are viewing. But Twitter’s current label, while not strictly inaccurate, lacks important context. “There is simply no private newspaper or TV station in China,” he says. “But media outlets like Caixin are significantly different from Party mouthpieces like the People’s Daily.”

A prime example of the complex phenomenon of journalism undertaken within constraints, and with state affiliation, Caixin was launched in 2010 by Hu Shuli (胡舒立), a respected journalism veteran who for many years ran Caijing magazine, a commercial business publication that distinguished itself into the 2000s with heavy-hitting investigative stories, such as its series on the 2003 SARS epidemic. Hu remains Caixin’s publisher, and has a strong team of journalists that continue to pursue tough stories in a difficult environment. In March 2020, for example, the outlet called into question the official Covid-19 death toll figures being released in the city of Wuhan. In 2016, Caixin even spoke out directly against the CAC after it ordered the deletion of a critical article. Such open criticism of official censorship is rare in China.

Caixin is a commercially operating media outlet. Like all media in China, however, it must have some affiliation with the state through a so-called “sponsoring institution,” or zhuguan danwei (主管单位), responsible for maintaining the CCP’s ultimate control over the press system. The sponsoring institution” overseeing Caixin is the Chinese Literature and History Press (中国文史出版社), a publishing house operated by the General Office of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body.

It is important to recognize that media like Caixin, while also state-affiliated, can have room for critical and investigative journalism, Fang says. He suggests Twitter could refer users to a third-party website with detailed information. It might be possible, he says, for social media companies to commission such a site. At present, there are no reliable expert sources for a more detailed understanding of how various media operate. YouTube, which began labeling “news broadcasters that receive some level of government or public funding” in 2018, links users to Wikipedia.

In a written response to CMP, Twitter said it defines state-affiliated media as “entities that are financed and/or editorially controlled by a state or government authorities. This control can be exerted through self-censorship or direct publication of information per the directive of the government.” The statement continues, “We think it is important for people on Twitter to know when they’re seeing media of this nature so that they can draw their own conclusions.”

The conclusions many users are drawing, our analysis suggests, are leading them to disengage with Chinese media across the board. Just a handful of labeled accounts received more attention from Twitter users after labels were applied.

Tweets from China Xinhua Sci-Tech, which shares “science, space, health and environment news from Xinhua News Agency,” received more likes but also fewer retweets. Tweets by Sixth Tone, an English-language online magazine under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group that like Caixin can sometimes go out on a limb in covering more in-depth stories, were liked 6 percent more but also retweeted a third less. Party newspaper Guangming Daily was a rare Chinese news outlet to — barely — improve in both categories.

Some accounts labeled “China state-affiliated media” can still pay to promote their tweets because they fall under the exception for outlets focusing on entertainment, travel, or sports. According to Twitter’s Ads Transparency Center, XinhuaTravel, Xinhua’s XHSports, as well as PDChinaLife, PDChinaSports, and ChinaScience, three accounts run by People’s Daily, are all still able to promote tweets. Possibly as a result, some of these accounts saw relatively big changes — both positive and negative — in the number of likes and retweets.

Though these accounts do not engage in the most overt kind of propaganda, their tweets still occasionally espouse Chinese government standpoints, such as that Taiwan is unequivocally part of China, or promote propaganda projects such as the China International Import Expo or the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge. They also tweet about China’s COVID-19 diplomacy and spread alternate versions of where the virus may have originated. Twitter’s state media ads policy states that, “If the content is mixed with news, any advertisements will be prohibited.” But, according to the company, the above-mentioned accounts are not in violation.

Another outlier was the Twitter account of iPanda, a product of state broadcaster CCTV which almost exclusively shares cute photos and videos of giant pandas. Both likes and retweets were up by more than 50 percent. Twitter confirmed that the account is allowed to advertise, but that it hasn’t since at least August 6.

The takeaway, it seems, is that China’s most reliable soft power trump card is the adorable antics of its bamboo-munching black-and-white bears.

iPanda, a Twitter account operated by the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, is one of just a few “state-affiliated media” accounts allowed to advertise on Twitter.


We looked at Twitter accounts belonging to media companies that are labeled “China state-affiliated media” by Twitter and have more than 50,000 followers. Because Twitter declined to give a full overview of such accounts, our list (attached below) might not be complete. The only deliberate exclusion from our sample was @XHIndonesia, a local Xinhua account, which, despite some 65,300 followers, did not receive enough engagement.

We scraped the numbers of likes and retweets of all Tweets by these accounts, between June 17, 2020 and September 25, 2020. Using August 6, 2020, as a breakpoint, the average engagement performance of Tweets before that is seen as a baseline. To rule out potential influence of outliers (e.g. Tweets receiving unusually high engagement), these were taken out when calculating the average engagement metrics.

Our analysis does not necessarily prove causality. The drop in shares and likes could also have other causes — for example, because fewer news events that happened in China following the labeling managed to grab readers’ attention. It also does not take into account any changes in follower numbers over the surveyed period, or differentiate between the effects of Twitter’s various policy changes. Not all engagement might be organic.