China's CGTN airs propaganda in the US on live TV

CGTN America is part of the international arm of China Central Television, Beijing's main domestic propaganda organ.
CGTN America is part of the international arm of China Central Television, Beijing's main domestic propaganda organ.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/CGTN AMERICA

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It broadcasts forced confessions to American audiences. It avoids subjects that displease Beijing. It cuts away when wind musses the hair of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

China Global Television Network America, which reaches 30 million households in the United States, is an arm of China's propaganda machine. It is controlled by the Communist Party and serves as part of what Xi has called Beijing's "publicity front."

But when US authorities asked about those ties, CGTN America argued that the Chinese government does not tell it what to broadcast.

That contention, made in February in a filing with the US Department of Justice, may not get a warm reception in Washington. In the wake of Russian influence in the 2016 election, US officials are trying to get a clearer picture of efforts by China and other countries to build influence in the United States and are stepping up enforcement of long-unused foreign influence laws.

The claim by CGTN America, an overtly state-owned organisation, is a direct challenge to that effort.

"They have put the Department of Justice into a position of looking utterly ridiculous and toothless if it simply walks away from this type of false claim," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.

"This is right up there with Pravda claiming to be a health magazine," he added, referring to the onetime official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"On its face, it doesn't hold."

Amid increased scrutiny, China's state broadcaster this week recalled the director-general of CGTN America, one of her deputies and more than a dozen other employees back to China, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The leadership shake-up is the first since the director-general, Ma Jing, set up the organisation in Washington seven years ago. The reason for the transfers is unclear.

CGTN America is part of the international arm of China Central Television, Beijing's main domestic propaganda organ. It runs a typical newsroom except when it comes to stories about China, said four current and former employees, who asked for anonymity to protect their careers.

Some stories, like the 2012 escape from China of activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng or 2014 protests in Hong Kong calling for freer elections, were covered only briefly days after the news broke, three of them said.

Employees were rebuked when a report mentioned Falungong, the religious group that Beijing considers a cult, they said. Images of the flag of Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims, are banned from broadcasts.

CGTN made the filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, at the urging of the Justice Department. FARA requires those doing publicity work for foreign-controlled groups to submit government disclosures.

In its filing, Ma sought to separate CGTN from China's government and wrote that the group enjoyed editorial independence from any state control and operated like other media organisations.

"CGTN America is not engaged in 'political activities,' as that term is defined for purposes of FARA, and has elected to file this registration statement out of an abundance of caution and in the spirit of cooperation with US authorities," Ma wrote.

US officials have stepped up their requests that foreign-controlled groups make FARA filings in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Two years ago RT America, a Russian-backed broadcaster, made a similar filing at the urging of the Justice Department.

Chinese companies and organisations in general have come under greater scrutiny as the trade war has intensified, including the deals they strike to buy up US firms and technology. Some US officials contend the companies can pose a security risk.

As part of its demands that CGTN America make a filing under FARA, the Justice Department in a December letter to the broadcaster said it put Xi in a positive light and had attempted to influence the American public during the recent trade dispute.

"Reporting China's policy positions and presenting them in a positive light are primary reasons for CGTN's existence," the letter said.

CGTN America did not respond to emailed requests for comment. U.S. officials sometimes challenge filings, requiring registrants to disclose more data about their relationships with foreign governments.

Unlike the Russian influence campaign, which is designed to split Americans, the Chinese propaganda effort tends toward the sunny side. Recent broadcasts on CGTN America extolled traditional Chinese medicine and China's economic rise, while its website offers a link to its panda coverage.

China's influence push may be ham-handed compared with Russia's, but it is well-funded. Official Chinese media spend heavily to advertise on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that are banned within China.

China Daily, an English-language, state-controlled newspaper, buys advertising inserts in American newspapers, including The New York Times.

Based in a glassy office building four blocks from the White House, CGTN America employs about 180 journalists - many of them Americans - devoted to covering the United States.

It broadcasts seven hours of programming a day through cable and satellite providers like AT&T and Comcast. Its employees cover a wide variety of topics, from news to features to business, and occasionally win awards for their coverage.

The sudden transfer of top leaders and at least a dozen staff members caught some employees by surprise, said two people familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the moves. They said CGTN America announced the shake-up in a meeting with staff Monday.

The recalls' effect on the status of the broadcaster's filing with US authorities is unclear. CGTN America and Ma did not respond to emailed requests for comment. CCTV did not respond to a faxed request for comment. The Justice Department did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Ma's argument to US authorities that CGTN did not take orders from Beijing might not have gone over well back home.

"If CGTN is claiming to have editorial independence, it's deviating from the requirements of the system," Zhan said. "It's very politically incorrect."

Current and former CGTN employees say CCTV editors in Beijing often dictated plans for covering China. American employees sometimes pushed back, they said, and Ma allowed some flexibility when Beijing's orders didn't specifically forbid or dictate content.

But three people interviewed said they had little choice but to air propaganda clips when Beijing said so.

For instance, in November CGTN America was told to broadcast a piece that played down China's imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of members of the Uighur ethnic minority group. The Times and others have reported that the mostly Muslim Uighurs are held against their will, often in dismal conditions, and subject to an indoctrination programme designed to discourage Islam.

The piece that aired portrayed the camps as successful vocational training and anti-terrorism centers and Uighurs as grateful. CGTN America employees packaged the clips with context citing international criticism, but the video nonetheless ran, at times without their framing.

Other times there was less recourse. CGTN has broadcast the televised confessions of people accused of a wide variety of crimes in China, with those confessions sometimes touted internally as "exclusives" by editors, one former employee said.

Human rights groups say China forces people to make false, televised confessions to serve its own propaganda needs.

CGTN broadcast the confession of Peter Humphrey, a British private investigator who was imprisoned in China in 2013 and accused of illegally obtaining and selling Chinese citizens' data.

Humphrey, who has since been released, said he had been drugged, chained to a chair, locked in a cage and then made to read out a statement written by police in front of the cameras.

The anchor who presented the footage, James Chau, is now a goodwill ambassador with the World Health Organisation. He declined to comment.

The news organisation "collaborates with the security and police organs to extract forced confessions from prisoners under extreme conditions of duress," Humphrey said, adding that the confession was packaged to "distort reality, intrude on privacy and fairness, and humiliate me."

Chinese leaders get different treatment, said three current or former employees. During a 2014 visit by Xi to Greece, a clip that showed him getting off the plane with unruly hair was eradicated from broadcasts, one current employee said.

One CGTN America show, "The Heat," is occasionally edited if it is too critical of China, two of the people said.

"CGTN wouldn't exist or have any significant funding if it weren't for the Chinese government," said Sarah Cook, a senior analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group in the United States.

"And of course that comes with editorial strings attached."

The Chinese government's power over CGTN was underscored by a 2016 event at state media facilities in Beijing in which Xi said official media and publicity broadly were "crucial for the party's path."

A group of CGTN employees in Washington attended via video conference. They had been kept after midnight several days in advance to prepare, without being told why, according to two of the people.

When Xi greeted them, the group waved and, in a rehearsed moment, called out in unison, "Good morning, President Xi." The moment became a source of tension internally, these people said.

"Media analysts say this is very much about cultivating a more robust image for the Chinese leader," CGTN America anchor Roee Ruttenberg said in the channel's coverage of Xi's appearance, "through all of the different outlets that in theory fall under his control."