Campaign to Discredit BBC Revealed as Media Conditions Inside China Continue to Deteriorate

A newly published report by the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative (ASPI) has documented how Chinese diplomats and other state-affiliated public figures engaged in a coordinated effort to discredit and undermine U.K.’s public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (). According to the report, the effort came after the BBC published a report alleging systematic rape in Xinjiang’s detention camps, as well as the decision by the U.K.’s media watchdog to revoke the broadcasting license of Chinese state-owned television broadcaster CGTN. ASPI’s Albert Zhang and Jacob Wallis explained how Chinese diplomats and state media accounts coordinated unified narratives about the BBC on social media networks including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, describing the level of coordination and sophistication as previously unseen in international disinformation efforts:

[…] The coordinated approach to counter and undermine the BBC highlights several features of the CCP’s increasingly agile propaganda and disinformation apparatus. There’s clear temporal and narrative alignment across diplomatic and state media messaging as well as among pro-CCP influencers and patriotic Twitter accounts, from which we can infer a level of coordination and a willingness to target international audiences.

While not intended to be comprehensive, this report provides a snapshot of the CCP’s coordinated response targeting the BBC, which leveraged YouTube, Twitter and Facebook (all platforms unavailable to citizens in mainland China) and was broadly framed around three prominent narratives:

1. That the BBC spreads disinformation and is biased against China
2. That the BBC’s domestic audiences think that it’s biased and not to be trusted
3. That the BBC’s reporting on China is instigated by foreign actors and intelligence agencies.

The report also analyses some of the secondary effects of this propaganda effort by exploring the mobilisation of a pro-CCP Twitter network that has previously amplified the Covid-19 disinformation content being pushed by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and whose negative online engagement with the BBC peaks on the same days as that of the party-state’s diplomats and state media. [Source]

The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison reported on further details from the report, including how the effort appeared to mobilize the same network of accounts that supported China’s coronavirus disinformation network:

Posts reached wider audiences through “the mobilisation of a pro-CCP Twitter network that has previously amplified the Covid-19 disinformation content being pushed by China’s ministry of foreign affairs,” the report said. “Negative online engagement with the BBC peaks on the same days as that of the party-state’s diplomats and state media.”

The increasing aggression and sophistication of China’s international information campaigns have been thrown into focus by the pandemic, as Chinese officials have shared and promoted conspiracy theories about the origins, and sought to discredit investigations into its early spread.

Australia’s foreign minister has accused China of spreading disinformation that “contributes to a climate of fear and division”, while the European Union faced allegations that a report about Chinese disinformation over Covid-19 was watered down in response to pressure from Beijing. [Source]

The report highlights how Chinese diplomats and state media co-opted language such as referring to the BBC as the “Biased Broadcasting Corporation,” a term historically used by the BBC’s domestic critics, and leveraged third-party content produced by websites such as The Grayzone, a fringe website associated with the political left that has previously published Xinjiang denialism. Bloomberg ’ Jamie Tarabay reported that the use of language and sympathetic foreign publications suggests that state propagandists’ understanding of international social media is becoming increasingly complex and authentic:

Beijing’s online advocates have “become a lot more like the Russians, who are very skilled at making their messages look genuine and authentic,” said John Lee, a Sydney-based senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based research group.

“It used to be a group of bloggers based somewhere in China, inserting themselves into conversations happening around the world,” he said. “Now it’s clearly people who understand the conversation very well and are tapping into it quite effectively.” [Source]

Chinese authorities’ attempts to discredit the BBC come as the latest annual report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) suggests a continued deterioration in conditions for foreign journalists in the country. The FCCC, which annually surveys foreign journalists reporting in China, wrote that for a third straight year, not a single correspondent said conditions for reporting had improved:

Foreign correspondents were targeted in alleged national security investigations and told the y could not leave the country. China cancelled press credentials and refused to renew visas, resulting in the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago.

[…] The coronavirus pandemic allowed China an opportunity to create more restrictions for foreign press in the name of public health.

Authorities cited health concerns to deny access for foreign journalists to certain areas, notably in , even though they remained open to other people, both foreign and Chinese. Significant pressure was exerted on foreign journalists and sources seeking to report on the pandemic itself. [Source]

In February, The Wire China’s Katrina Northrop wrote a longform report recounting the recent history of foreign correspondents in China, and how some of those remaining are reacting to their roles as some of the last foreign journalists in the country:

Last December, when Alice Su touched down in Xinjiang, in northwest China, she was immediately picked off her flight by the police.

[…] Some level of interference has come to be commonplace for journalists in China, but the stakes for Su on this trip were higher than ever. Su is one of the few American reporters left with on-the-ground access to the world’s most populous nation and its second biggest economy. An escalating tit-for-tat between Washington and Beijing over journalist visas had nearly wiped out the American press corps in China in the past year. And as she watched her peers forced out, Su says her priorities changed.

“I better go for the big stuff,” she says. “Feeling like I have limited , I may as well make the most of it.”

[…] “It is so important to remind people that what is happening in Xinjiang is real,” says Su. “It is important to show up.” [Source]

Northrop also noted how Hong Kong, a formerly popular outpost for international media outlets, has quickly lost its status as a safe haven for journalists after the passing of its National Security Law. Since last year, foreign correspondents there have also been facing issues obtaining visas–in October 2020, Irish journalist Aaron Mc Nicholas was denied a visa by the Hong Kong Immigration Department to work for local media outlet Hong Kong Free Press. This week, in a further sign that press freedom in Hong Kong is increasingly squeezed, local media outlet Apple Daily reported that the newly appointed head of public broadcaster RTHK told staff that all programs must be reviewed by him in person from now on:

“If you can’t pass my impartiality test, your program can’t go on air,” [Patrick Li,] the former Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs said during the editorial meeting, according to a source that spoke to Apple Daily on condition of anonymity.

There has never been a director of broadcasting who would make such an order, the source added.

Li’s order came on the fourth day he took charge of RTHK, replacing veteran journalist Leung Ka-wing who resigned as the director of broadcasting last month after six years in the job.

Unlike Leung, Li has no experience in journalism, with employees reportedly questioning whether he could run the broadcaster in accordance with RTHK’s charter, which guarantees editorial autonomy from the authorities. [Source]

RTHK, historically closely modeled after the U.K.’s BBC, was in recent years voted as the city’s most trusted source of news. But it came under intense scrutiny from the government after being criticized by pro-Beijing critics for its alleged pro-democracy bias. After Beijing banned the BBC in February, RTHK followed in dropping BBC programs. “Hong Kong is part of China and Radio Television Hong Kong is a department of the HKSAR Government. The decision has nothing to do with news operations,” RTHK reported its then-director of broadcasting as having said.

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