Australia must protect its Chinese-language media

In an already acrimonious year for Australia–China relations, an ‘utterly outrageous’ tweet from a mid-level official at China’s foreign affairs ministry shows the extent to which the Chinese-language media environment is being shaped by the Chinese Communist Party—including in Australia.

On 30 November, a foreign ministry spokesperson posted on Twitter an artist’s impression of an Australian soldier beheading an Afghan child, a reference to the allegations of war crimes detailed in the Brereton inquiry. This led to a statement from a visibly angry Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who demanded the tweet be deleted.

However, as our colleague Fergus Ryan wrote, ‘the only post that was removed was [Morrison’s] own statement on the issue that his team had posted to the Chinese social media platform WeChat’. Ironically, WeChat replaced the prime minister’s post with a message explaining that it had been removed for allegedly violating the platform’s rules on content that uses ‘text, images or videos that may inflame, mislead or run contrary to objective facts, manufacturing social hot topics, distorting historical events and confusing the public’s perspectives’.

When it comes to challenges with Chinese-language media in Australia, the removal of Morrison’s WeChat post is just the tip of the iceberg.

Australia’s Chinese-language media landscape has undergone fundamental changes in the past two decades, that have come at a cost to quality, freedom of speech, privacy and community representation. Our new report, The influence environment: A survey of Chinese-language media in Australia, examines the sector in unprecedented detail. As tensions between Australia and China mount, and foreign interference becomes a greater concern, a serious effort to strengthen and grow the Chinese-language media sector is long overdue.

The CCP has engaged in persistent efforts to influence Australian Chinese-language media for more than 20 years. By leveraging market incentives, WeChat and coercion, it has influenced the media environment itself, creating a playing field that’s distorted in its favour. It seeks to control representation in Chinese communities, encourage pro-CCP political mobilisation and build platforms for broader political interference efforts. In marginal electorates with large Chinese-speaking populations, such as Chisholm and Bennelong, interference in Chinese media can become a nationally significant problem. According to the 2016 census, nearly 600,000 Australians spoke Mandarin at home, and more than 280,000 spoke Cantonese.

Take Nan Hai Culture and Media Group, a Sydney-based organisation pushing out sensationalist clickbait to its young audience. The company also produces the Chinese editions of the Qantas magazine. Its WeChat account is one of the country’s most popular and last year encouraged its readers to rally against supporters of Hong Kong democracy. Yet the account is registered to a Chinese company ultimately owned by the United Front Work Department. Its owner previously worked as an editor for a US newspaper that the Hoover Institution alleged was covertly established by the Chinese government. The owner also holds shares in a joint venture with a Hong Kong company that’s controlled by intermediaries of the united front. The joint venture owns Nan Hai’s CBD office building, having purchased it in 2012 for $15 million.

The alarming ties between Australian Chinese-language media and the CCP go well beyond Nan Hai. Our report surveyed 24 of the country’s Chinese-language media outlets and found that 17 had attended the united front’s forum for overseas Chinese media, 12 had executives who were members of united front groups, and at least four appear to have received funding or support from the CCP.

Anti-CCP media outlets such as the Epoch Times and Vision Times, which both count members of the Falun Gong religious group among their staff, face coercion. Their advertisers are pressured by the Chinese government, and businesses distributing their papers are intimidated.

On top of traditional forms of influence such as content-sharing partnerships, junkets and training programs, WeChat may be driving the most substantial and harmful changes ever observed in our Chinese-language media sector. The app is particularly important to Chinese Australians and helps people stay connected to friends and family in China. It’s used by as many as 3 million users in Australia for a range of purposes including instant messaging. According to research by RMIT’s Yu Haiqing and UTS’s Wanning Sun, it’s also the most popular platform used by Chinese Australians to access news.

However, WeChat’s record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing’s objectives, is deeply troubling. Media outlets on WeChat face tight restrictions that facilitate CCP influence by pushing the vast majority of news accounts targeting Australian audiences to register in China. Australian-registered WeChat accounts for media can post only four times a month, while ones registered in China can post daily but are subject to even greater censorship and must be registered through a Chinese company or individual. Even Morrison’s official WeChat account has been shaped by the restrictions—it’s registered to an unidentified Chinese man from Fujian Province. Networks and information sharing within the app are opaque, contributing to the spread of disinformation. Messages between users, even outside of China, are monitored for content that might unsettle the CCP.

In contrast to the CCP’s sophisticated manipulation of incentives, regulation and coercion to influence media, the Australian government has done little thus far to strengthen and protect our Chinese-language media sector. This needs to change quickly. The start of 2021—and ahead of the next federal election—is the time to address these problems.

Ensuring our foreign interference and influence laws are enforced should be a priority. Security agencies must seek to disrupt and shine a light on interference in media. Outlets that are clearly being guided by the CCP should be made to register on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. The government should also do more to support independent Chinese-language media, such as by expanding ABC and SBS offerings and establishing scholarships for Chinese-speaking journalism students.

But WeChat might be the bigger and more consequential part of this challenge. The government must deepen its engagement with WeChat to hold it to the same standards of transparency, privacy and freedom of speech that we seek to hold other social media to.

But it must also recognise that the unique problems posed by WeChat, with its restrictions on non-Chinese media accounts and China-based parent company, require a tailored response. Working with allies in North America, Europe and Asia, the government should push for an end to WeChat’s unfair and illiberal settings by threatening penalties such as a ban if it refuses to meet these standards.