Opinion

Chinese agents posed as journalists in US. And the US just did something about it

Kounalakis
Kounalakis

China’s television network and news wire service have long worked as intelligence gathering operations around the world and in the United States. The American government just did something about it.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced that the China Global Television Network (CGTN) and the Chinese Xinhua news service must now report to the U.S. government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This is a big move. A move that was a long time coming.

My book, “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering,” is a primer on how news organizations operate in the world and how non-Western journalistic organizations take advantage of open societies like the United States. While Western journalists are usually neither spies nor diplomats, the same cannot be said about both Russian and Chinese global news networks.

China just got its notice to register under FARA while Russia’s broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik were forced to register as foreign agents earlier this year. I began noting Russian and Chinese media organizations’ growth, activities, and direct challenge to American media’s global primacy a few years back. The challenges have since grown.

In my book, I explain how Chinese state-owned news networks use their presence and power to perform both diplomatic and intelligence operations.

On the diplomatic side, Xinhua and its foreign bureaus have been de facto embassies, performing multiple tasks usually reserved for trade missions, cultural representatives, or ambassadors in places like Hong Kong before the handover, for example, as well as parts of Latin America.

On the intelligence gathering front, the Chinese news organizations use Western practices of investigative reporting, access, brand equity, and credibility – often granted by their unwitting employees, reporting subjects, and regular commentators and guests who are host country nationals. A number of my Hoover Institution colleagues and I have consistently refused to appear or provide analysis on either the Russian or Chinese television network programs.

The Trump administration’s general antipathy towards China’s trade practices and state behavior is culminating in a full-spectrum economic and political confrontation with the People’s Republic. The FARA move is another White House reaction to China’s unfair media and industrial practices that include trade “dumping” to achieve advantage and primacy in certain industries, such as solar panels. Equally irksome is the long-accepted Chinese practice of restricting Western journalists’ visas, open access, distribution, and audience in the PRC.

China uses its global news networks to extend and project its power with great success around the world, in particular on the African continent. With a headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and with a clear mission to ally with African leaders, develop African infrastructure, and dominate African media, China and its government-underwritten journalistic operations pursue state-driven political agendas. CGTN’s Nairobi Center headquarters (the only other foreign CGTN broadcast center is located in Washington, DC) is a launching pad of pro-Chinese, pro-China business, and pro-regime reporting and messaging that is reinforced with all-expense paid trips and media training for African journalists in Beijing.

Chinese journalism training does not teach the public advocacy tools to check government that I learned at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Rather, it is a combination of propaganda training, China-state indoctrination, and outright editorial directive learning that places China’s party-state and China-Africa state relations in a privileged position and their promotion as sacrosanct. The media becomes the message.

The bad news? Not only are China and Russia using their growing state-owned and operated news organizations as diplomatic and intelligence gathering institutions but, concurrently, the West’s media capacities are dramatically diminishing. The old news business model is collapsing, which means that Western news organizations no longer expend as many resources to send foreign correspondents abroad or to open foreign news bureaus.

Western journalists do not operate as either formal intelligence agents (with a few exceptions) and do not engage in formal state diplomacy on behalf of the United States or European nations (except in some extraordinary circumstances, such as CBS’s John Scali during the Cuban missile crisis). Western journalists and global news networks do their reporting, condense and analyze their findings, and produce their news product for mass consumption. It is available to everyone. Americans, Europeans, Chinese and Russians alike. In the intelligence business, this publicly available, but officially useful information is called “Open Source” intelligence (OSINT).

With fewer and fewer Western journalists overseas, the amount of Western-oriented OSINT diminishes while Chinese and Russian globally available news, information, and perspectives are both ascendant and increasingly dominant.

The really bad news? American policymakers, analysts, and citizens are relying more and more on amplified and official, if often masked, Russian and Chinese-generated news, analyses, and social media to make decisions about politics and foreign policy.

Making Russian and Chinese global news networks register under FARA is just one step in the right direction. Saving and enhancing Western news organizations and journalistic practices is also necessary to combat this troubling trend.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering.”
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