The efforts launched by the Chinese government to capture global imagination and shape the narrative about China is an open secret. Towards that end, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to influence individual journalists and media organisations in its bid to alter global perception about China. In recent times, such efforts have only been accelerated.
From 2016 at least, the foreign ministry of China has hosted at least a hundred journalists from leading news networks in Asia and Africa. The journalists have received quite significant allurements such as plush apartments, a monthly stipend worth Rs. 50,000 and free tours twice a month to different Chinese provinces. The journalists also received language classes and degrees in international relations from a Chinese University.
Such journalists cannot undertake individual trips without government supervision and hence, cannot really report independently on the human rights issues in the country. Three Indian news networks which participated in the programme were The Indian Express, Jansatta and the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).
The objective of the programme was not unknown to anybody. One journalist reportedly said that that if they wanted to complete the programme, then they must write only positive stories about China. Indian Express correspondent Narendra Apurva, a participant in the programme, claimed that he was “never pulled aside or frozen out” while reporting extensively on the Doklam dispute between India and China.
Apurva further stated, “Each lecture was a serious eye-opener: for instance, the guy who spoke on environment pulled no punches and told us how bad water pollution here is. If we were to come back as correspondents to China, these classes have already given us an edge over anybody who comes in new.”
Indian mainstream media, in recent times, has carried propaganda articles by Chinese mouthpieces to further the Chinese agenda on contentious issues. Hindustan Times, for instance, on its 13th of December, 2019 edition carried two articles by one Yuan Shenggao under the sponsorship of China Watch Daily, a Chinese government mouthpiece. The articles were titled “Decades of progress highlighted” and “Unparalleled change experienced within a space of generation”.
In the first article, the author claimed, “Seventy years of development has made Tibet a place where people can enjoy economic prosperity, social stability, good ecology, ethnic unity and religious freedom, according to a top official of the autonomous region in the southwest of China.” It added, “The Party secretary said the residents in Tibet enjoy freedom of religion and their legal religious activities are protected by the law.”
In the second, it was claimed, “In the seven decades since the founding of the People’s republic of China, the Tibet autonomous region has created history that previous millennia cannot match. There have been many significant events since 1949, including the peaceful liberation, democratic reform, foundation of the autonomous region, reform and opening-up.”
The author added, “Tibetan residents, freed from serfdom seven decades ago and later becoming masters of their own fate, are beneficiaries of and witnesses to the great changes taking place in the plateau region that has been dubbed “the roof of the world.”” Needless to say, this is sheer propaganda.
The Tibetan Policy Institute condemned the Hindustan Times for carrying such propaganda pieces. It said, “Indian newspapers should be careful not to become a mouthpiece of one of the most repressive and aggressive regimes who has kept India on toes through its intermittent border incursions all these years.” One would have expected Indian media to be aware of due to the most basic sense of nationalism but quite clearly, it is much too much to expect such decency from the Indian media.
These are not the only occasions when the Hindustan Times has peddled Chinese propaganda. On the 5th of November, 2019, it published a propaganda article penned by the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong. Weidon said in the article, “China appreciates India’s position. It hopes and believes that India, as a responsible major country, will stick to its position, honour its commitments, resist interference on Tibet-related issues and promote the healthy and stable development of China-India relations.”
Months later, China is involved in a very critical border conflict with India in Ladakh. During the conflict, the Press Trust of India (PTI) carried water for the Chinese establishment which earned it a great rebuke from the Indian masses as well as from the government. However, months after Prasar Bharti said that it would be reviewing its relationship with the PTI for peddling Chinese propaganda during times of conflict, there has still not been any constructive action on that front.
It is unclear whether these news networks received any payment from the Chinese regime for running its propaganda on their platform. Only very recently, an Indian journalist, Rajeev Sharma, was arrested by Indian authorities and booked under the Official Secrets Act for stealing state secrets and smuggling sensitive information to the Chinese regime.
It ought to be borne in mind that the Chinese Communist Party has not been targeting only Indian media. It has managed to acquire influence over American media as well. It has been revealed that China Daily, a government mouthpiece, paid over $6 million to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), $4.6 million to the Washington Post, $2,40,000 to Foreign Policy, $50,000 to the New York Times, $34,600 to The Des Moines Register and $76,000 to CQ-Roll Call in the past four years.
The possibility that the Chinese regime adopted a similar approach towards Indian media cannot be negated. In fact, in 2017, Hindustan Times did publish 4 pages of Chinese government propaganda in its ‘supplement’ or as it is known in media parlance, ‘advertorial’, sponsored by China Daily, the same entity that had bought space in the western media outlets. It is not far fetched to assume that such payments would influence the coverage of the newspaper.
We are well aware of the extent of negative press that the current Indian government receives in the Western press, especially the WSJ, WaPo and the NYT. It cannot be said the extent to which Chinese patronage affected their coverage of India. Similarly, the politically partisan coverage of the Indian media is also a matter of a grave concern.
Therefore, there is an urgent need for the ruling dispensation to investigate the extent of the ties between the Chinese regime and Indian mainstream news networks. It does not bode well for Indian national interests if a hostile country wields disproportionate influence over our media. The media controls public discourse. If the Chinese manage to exert influence over significant sections of the media, the consequences could be devastating.