Some Southeast Asians may notice that China pops up in their newspapers and Facebook News Feed more often this year, whether through translated news articles from official Chinese mouthpieces or op-eds defending China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities. But few of them may realize it’s no coincidence. The year 2019 was literally billed as a “ASEAN-China Year of Media Exchanges” by the government of Thailand, who chaired the annual summit of the 10-nation community in Bangkok earlier this year.
Throughout 2019, Beijing’s well-funded network of state-run news organizations have been pursuing an unprecedented level of cooperation with domestic media agencies in Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, where the author of this article is based.
Partnerships include the increasing number of news sharing agreements that allow pro-China content to be consumed by millions of news readers, with the aim of promoting China’s interests and challenging the “negative” news stories from largely Western media sources.
Advocates of the initiatives say they are necessary counterbalance to Western narratives about China, while detractors fear a more sinister intent by the Chinese authorities, whose growing influence has left a sense of unease in their path across the region.
China has long maintained a presence in Thai media. Xinhua and China Radio International (now part of the supercluster China Media Group) both run Thai-language content accessible to Thai audience. The English-language Nation also regularly publishes China Daily content because they both belong to the same news sharing network.
But what’s changed in 2019 is their aggressive outreach to mainstream Thai-language media, with a goal of having pro-China content routinely reproduced on those platforms under the model of Western wire services.
The most common method is memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that allow Thai media to republish content, including multimedia like photos and videos, from the Chinese news sources for free.
The program appears to be successful. In an initiative taken in 2015, Xinhua signed an MOU with an obscure news site called OPT News. As of the latest information available in November, at least 12 media now have MOUs with Xinhua.
The signatories range from savvy, social media-friendly sites popular with younger audience like Sanook and Voice Online, to Thailand’s third largest newspaper with, Khaosod — where this author works.
Even the Thai government’s public relations department itself has signed a similar partnership in November. The signing ceremony was presided over by none other than the premiers of the two nations, Prayut Chan-o-cha and Li Keqiang.
Per the agreement, Xinhua was able to disseminate to Thai audience news items that put China in a positive light and closely reflect China’s official stances; for example, Beijing’s take on unrests in Hong Kong and its attacks on Western media reports alleging widespread human rights abuses in the province of Xinjiang.
According to an editor at Sanook, 1.4 million of its readers have been exposed to Xinhua’s contents since they signed the partnership.
Another form of cooperation is an informal one, such as numerous media trips sponsored and funded by Chinese government entities, in which reporters were invited to visit China, interview high-ranking officials, tour government initiatives like the poverty alleviation programs, and publish news stories about them.
Personal connections between Thai media workers and Chinese diplomatic missions – cultivated by networks of mutual friends and aforementioned overseas trips – also come into play.
Chinese Embassy in Bangkok is known to have successfully solicited Thai news agencies to publish their statements as op-eds, which often involve a counterattack to Western media’s negative reports about China.
Much of the cooperation was coordinated by Thai-Chinese Journalists Association, a media guild whose aims include promoting “a better understanding of China” among Thai populace by introducing more content published by Chinese official news outlets to the audience.
“We have been campaigning for cooperation between Thai and Chinese media for five years now. Finally we see solid outcomes,” Chaiwat Wanichwattana said at a meeting between Xinhua and its Thai media partners last month. “China is playing a larger role in ASEAN, and it is inevitable that it is playing a larger role in Thailand as well.”
The ASEAN Situation
Thailand’s experience is hardly unique in the ASEAN context.
At a recent closed door seminar organized by a foundation in Tokyo, editors at prominent news media agencies from multiple Southeast Asian nations were invited to discuss the challenges they face in their respective countries. The delegates include representatives from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Soon after the discussions started, the participants discover a common theme: China’s escalation of its information campaign in their respective countries.
“The landscape has changed. The rise of China is very worrying,” one senior editor said at the meeting, which took place under an off-record agreement.
In Myanmar, a dozen social media platforms and media firms are known to have published pro-China news contents and information supplied by Chinese official news agencies. Hundreds of Myanmar journalists are also estimated to have visited China on state-sponsored programs.
In an interview, a founder of an independent news agency that covers Myanmar affairs extensively said China’s offensive charm is an attempt to reverse public opinions on controversial China-funded projects, like hydropower dams.
“Myanmar media, after political opening in the country in 2012, began to cover extensively on China projects including controversial ones in Myanmar,” Irrawaddy founder and editor Aung Zaw said. “Many coverage are critical of Chinese projects.”
He continued, “China subsequently applied its strategy to counter negative and critical coverage of China and Chinese projects in Myanmar. They buy up advertising spaces, bring editors and journalists, MPs, politicians and officials to China, showered them with gifts and five star treatments.”
Chinese presence is also growing in the Philippines, whose Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) currently has multiple partnerships with the Chinese state media, including news sharing agreements, rebroadcasts, joint production, and personnel exchanges.
“The cooperation between the Philippine media and Chinese media escalated to levels that are unheard of,” PCCO Secretary Martin Andanar was quoted as saying in November by an official news report.
Meanwhile in Cambodia, major government-friendly news outlets regularly broadcast or republish content supportive of China and its business interests in the country. Cambodia-China Journalist Association (CCJA) was also launched in May with a mission to further encourage “positive news” about China.
In the words of Xinhua’s Bangkok bureau chief, reasons for the surge of partnerships with Thai media are very simple: to dismantle Western media’s monopoly of information on China.
“A majority of knowledge Thai people have about China come from secondhand information through the Western media,” Ming Dajun said at a meeting in November. “If all of our news about Thailand in China were translated from Western sources, Chinese people wouldn’t have loved and understood Thailand this much.”
His comments are echoed by Chaiwat, the Thai-Chinese Journalists Association chairman, who criticized the Western narratives for their anti-China bias.
“I want more Thai media to receive news content directly from China, instead of Western sources,” Chaiwat said. “Nowadays, [Western media] reports about China include both straightforward and crooked ones. There’s a lot of distortion out there.”
Both Ming and Chaiwat do have a point – mainstream Western media does have a track record of publishing unsubstantiated claims in their China coverage, or pushing out overwhelmingly negative perspectives of China verging on Sinophobia, regardless of how outlandish the stories might be.
Take the purported “ban” on the character Winnie the Pooh in China, for example. Several seconds on China’s search engine would have easily revealed the story to be entirely false, yet the claim is regarded as a fact by millions of Westerners, thanks in large part to Western news outlets and social media who carried the debunked story.
But the goals of China’s information campaign in Thailand and its neighbors are likely far beyond picking a fight with Western media’s narratives; they are in fact deeply intertwined with Beijing’s stakes on geopolitics in the region.
If examples from Thailand’s neighbors could be of any lesson, it is to demonstrate that China’s publicity outreaches are laying the groundwork for a larger effort to improve public opinions in countries where Beijing is investing heavily in terms of financial or military capital.
At the very least, the campaign achieved its goal of “familiarizing” Southeast Asians with the Sinosphere of influence. As one senior Japanese editor put it at the recent meeting in Tokyo, news offensives by the Chinese outlets have already proven successful by educating local populace on key policies pursued by China.
Average Southeast Asians in 2019 tend to know more about the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s maritime claims on South China Sea than the Three Arrows economic doctrine pursued by the Japanese government, or what Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s peace initiatives are, the editor noted.
There are also widespread concerns that the rise of Chinese influence in Thai media may erode the very foundation of journalism itself in the long term – voices critical of Beijing or China’s business and political interests in Thailand might be drowned by China-friendly coverage, or they might be co-opted or intimidated into silence altogether.
Now that China’s ambitious year-long media gambit of 2019 has been concluded, it is certainly worth following up how the landscape of ASEAN media would be changed when the next year rolls in.