Australian media outlets have signed a series of controversial deals to publish content produced by the Chinese media, prompting concerns about Chinese efforts to influence Australian public opinion.
The six deals were signed during a visit late last month by the head of the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Bureau, Mr Liu Qibao, whose trip to Australia went unreported at the time by the domestic media.
Mr Liu was accompanied at the signing ceremony on May 26 by the Acting Secretary of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Gary Quinlan.
It did not take long to see the results of the deals.
On May 27, one of Australia's biggest media companies, Fairfax Media, published an eight-page lift-out called "China Watch" in its three main newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review.
Times are tough, especially for newspapers, and we can only assume that's why Fairfax Media has recently agreed to take money from the Chinese for spreading their propaganda
ABC'S MEDIA WATCH PROGRAMME
COMMITTED TO QUALITY JOURNALISM
This commercial printing agreement is dealt with no differently than other advertising content.
Our commitment to providing independent, quality journalism - including on matters relating to China - remains absolute and unchanged.
A FAIRFAX SPOKESMAN, defending its deal.
The lift-out - which will be published on a monthly basis - included an article condemning the Philippines for taking China to an international tribunal over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea. The article carried the headline "Manila has no leg to stand on".
Other articles promoted the benefits to Australia of the recent free trade deal between Canberra and Beijing. The lift-out noted on the front page that its content was prepared by China Daily, an English-language broadsheet, and involved no editorial input from Fairfax Media reporters. But the remainder of the lift-out included no such notices to readers. Typically, such lift-outs feature banners on each page notifying readers that it contains sponsored content.
Commentators in Australia said the deals marked a "propaganda coup" for Beijing, noting that Australian media outlets were struggling financially and their independence is under threat.
"Times are tough, especially for newspapers and we can only assume that's why Fairfax Media has recently agreed to take money from the Chinese for spreading their propaganda," said national broadcaster ABC's Media Watch programme on Monday.
Fairfax defended the deal, saying it was "clearly labelled and is not dissimilar in nature to other agreements we have entered with other clients".
A spokesman told The Straits Times: "This commercial printing agreement is dealt with no differently than other advertising content. Our commitment to providing independent, quality journalism - including on matters relating to China - remains absolute and unchanged."
Aside from Fairfax Media, Sky News Australia also signed a deal to distribute content on Australia-Chinese business.
A spokesman for Sky News told The Straits Times: "Australian News Channel (Sky's parent company) has entered into an arrangement with People's Daily online relating primarily to business and trade content."
Others signing deals included publisher Weldon International and the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.
According to China Daily, the Chinese outlets involved in the deals were Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, China Radio International, People's Daily website and Qingdao Publishing Group.
China has reportedly set up similar arrangements with media outlets in Britain and the United States.
Professor Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University, said the deals appeared to be part of a plan by the Chinese Communist Party to "shift domestic public opinion in Australia on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea".
"The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations," he told The Australian Financial Reviewlast week.