Amid growing criticism of how China has been using English-language newspapers, aimed at western audiences, to spread global propaganda positioning itself as a leader in fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing paid-for propaganda on behalf of Chinese state media, both in its online version and print supplements. According to reports, at least 16 articles were taken down by the publication on Wednesday.
Articles deleted by the Daily Telegraph had headlines such as: “Why are some framing China’s heroic efforts to stop coronavirus as inhumane?”, “Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus’” and “Coronavirus outbreak is not an opportunity to score points against China”.
The Daily Telegraph had been publishing the ‘China Watch’ section funded by the state-controlled China Daily news outlet for more than a decade now. According to one report, the Daily Telegraph received £750,000 annually to carry the supplement called China Watch from Chinese state-run newspaper China Daily. The contents in this section are written by Chinese state journalists with an aim to influence public opinion overseas in order to nudge foreign governments into making policies favourable towards China’s Communist Party.
The Telegraph is one of dozens of newspapers around the world that have struck deals with China in recent years.
Online archives show that the People’s Daily Online had begun running stories about the coronavirus in February, shortly after China’s President Xi Jinping “called upon Chinese media to publish stories casting China’s response in a positive light.” Since then, it had run more than 50 paid articles in the Telegraph praising the Chinese government and attacking its foreign adversaries.
However, in recent days the dedicated content was wiped from the Telegraph’s website along with another section that reproduced material from China’s People’s Daily Online. People’s Daily is the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.
The removal of the paid-for sections comes as China aims to improve its standing with western audiences amid the pandemic, with substantial investment in its CGTN rolling news channel and the growing role of vocal English-language diplomats who use Twitter to forcibly make their arguments. In return, the country is facing an increasingly hostile reception from parts of the British media.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House and expert on Chinese media, said that exploiting foreign media to reach a mainstream audience is a common strategy of China.
China is trying to reshape the global information environment with massive infusions of money – funding paid-for advertorials, sponsored journalistic coverage and heavily massaged positive messages from boosters. While within China the press is increasingly tightly controlled, abroad, Beijing has sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the free press to its advantage.