Author’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part article series in China Brief exploring methods by which Xinhua and other Chinese state-owned media organizations are seeking greater presence and influence for their propaganda material in English-language online media. The first article examined recent examples of “advertorial” advertising, in which Xinhua content has been hosted on the websites and promoted in the e-mail advertising of prominent English-language news and foreign affairs publications (China Brief, April 12).
Xinhua, the state news agency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), serves a role very different from that of its nominal counterparts in democratic states, such as Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, or Taiwan’s Central News Agency. Xinhua (新华 or “New China”) functions as the official mouthpiece of China’s ruling party: Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, reinforcing a long-standing party dictum, has declared that “journalism is the mouthpiece of the party and people” (新闻事业是党和人民的喉舌, xinwen shiye shi dang he renmin de houshe), possessing an “important mission to guide public opinion” (引导舆论的一个重要任务, yindao yulun de yige zhongyao renwu) (Renmin Wang, September 18, 2019). Operating abroad, the primary role of the PRC’s propaganda system is the imperative to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事, jiang hao Zhongguo gushi) by promoting the CCP’s narratives to international audiences.
According to research by the Center for Responsive Politics, the PRC’s declared expenditures on public opinion influence activities (including lobbying, public relations and media support) expanded dramatically in the United States in 2019-2020 and reached over $63.78 million in 2020. As a component of this, Xinhua has explored multiple avenues to “borrow foreign newspapers” (借用海外报刊, jieyong haiwai baokan) by inserting paid content into foreign publications, in both hardcopy and electronic form (China Brief, April 12). This practice continues—as evidenced by a spring 2021 legal filing indicating that Xinhua’s subsidiary China Daily had paid more than $1.96 million dollars over the preceding six months for “advertorial” advertising in five prominent North American publications, including $700,000 to Time magazine.
Moving beyond “advertorial” content, Xinhua has also undertaken more ambitious steps to forge broader business relationships with foreign news services and online news distribution outlets. This has received some limited attention: for example, in January 2019 a group of 14 Senators and Members of Congress issued a letter to the Associated Press (AP) requesting information on the company’s business relationships with Xinhua. An official response from the company noted that it was considering “the possibility for future commercial interactions,” but asserted that “AP’s business relationship with Xinhua is completely separate and firewalled from its journalistic coverage of China,” and that “AP’s business relationship with Xinhua is purely commercial in nature, and there is no planned change to the way AP interacts with Xinhua on editorial content” (AP, January 10, 2019).
Although these relationships must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, such business ties potentially offer the CCP’s propaganda apparatus an expanded set of opportunities to promote its content, disguising the origin of this material behind the banner of a reputable and supposedly objective news service. This article focuses on two case studies involving Microsoft News (MSN) and the Reuters News Agency, both of which have formed business relationships with Xinhua and other PRC state news agencies. These two companies are not unique in their relationships with Xinhua, and the efforts of Chinese state media entities to engage with and influence foreign news outlets are wide-ranging, well-funded, and global. However, these two limited case studies help illustrate how Xinhua and other state agencies have sought to leverage Western online media outlets to promote Chinese state narratives, often in subtle ways that might escape the notice of routine news consumers.
Hosting of Xinhua Content by Microsoft News
Microsoft has a business history in China dating back to the early 1990s, and its friendly relationship with the PRC government is reflected in the fact that the company’s search engine Bing and networking portal LinkedIn continue to operate in China (albeit in censored versions), even as many competing foreign information technology companies have been blocked from or forced to exit, the Chinese market (Bloomberg, August 3, 2020). While foreign tech firms such as Microsoft and Apple have faced controversies regarding their accommodations of PRC government policies, their business ties with China’s state propaganda apparatus have received far less attention.
Microsoft’s news aggregation service MSN has become a significant portal for the repackaging of Xinhua content, itself a component of broader propaganda campaigns aimed at English-speaking audiences. For example, throughout 2019 a major focus of PRC external propaganda was the U.S.-China “trade war,” with specific emphasis on themes such as: the need for a deal to end the trade disputes; the reasonableness of the PRC position; the benefits of Chinese-made products to American consumers; and the benefits of trade for constituencies in America. From at least 2019 to the present, MSN regularly served as a platform for the reposting of Xinhua content related to these themes, with a small-print Xinhua logo usually the only indication of the article’s origin.
In another recent example, Xinhua material hosted by MSN was used as a component of a broader propaganda effort to justify the PRC’s forcible annexation of Tibet. On May 21, the PRC State Council issued an official white paper titled Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity, which proclaimed:
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Tibet’s peaceful liberation, we are publishing this white paper to review Tibet’s history and achievements [and] counter the propaganda spread by a number of Western countries and their allies… In the new era, under the strong leadership of the [Communist Party] Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core… Tibet has eradicated extreme poverty. Enjoying a stable social environment, economic and cultural prosperity, and a sound eco-environment, the people now lead better lives and live in contentment. (PRC State Council Information Office, May 21).
An MSN-hosted article published the same week (see accompanying image) celebrated the PRC’s annexation of Tibet in 1951, asserting that, under CCP rule, “the people of Tibet have broken free from the fetters of invading imperialism for good, and embarked on a bright road of unity, progress and development… In the new era, Tibet is enjoying rapid and sustained growth thanks to social harmony and stability” (MSN News, May 27). Unlike many earlier examples, in this instance MSN made the Xinhua connection clear by including “Xinhua Headlines” in the article’s title. However, the underlying ethical questions surrounding the hosting of such material remain unchanged.
“Propaganda Laundering” Through International and Third-Party Media
This phenomenon becomes even more complex when online news services present Xinhua material that has first been hosted by another media outlet, and then repackage the content for distribution. In one such example from April 2021, the Manila Times appears as the source of an article about PRC military exercises around Taiwan. The article opines that “Taiwan secessionists insisted on making provocative statements and holding drills,” and that the United States had “voiced support to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.” As a result, “Taiwan secessionists and the US are leaving the Chinese mainland and the PLA with no choice but to enhance war preparedness” (Manila Times, April 10) (see accompanying image).
A casual observer might assume that an independent and objective newspaper from the Philippines is the source of this analysis. In fact, the true original source of the article—identified in much smaller print—is the English-language edition of Global Times, an outlet maintained by Xinhua for stridently nationalist news content and commentary (Manila Times, April 10). This example illustrates a wider phenomenon of “propaganda laundering,” in which Xinhua material is placed in an initial publication—whether through advertorial hosting fees, free publication rights, or other incentives—and then republished by an online distribution service as nominally objective material.
Xinhua’s Relationships with the Reuters News Agency
The venerable Reuters News Agency is another major Western news outlet that has formed a series of multi-layered business relationships with Xinhua. In September 2019, during the course of a visit to Xinhua’s Beijing headquarters by Reuters News President Michael Friedenberg, the two sides reportedly agreed to “expanding cooperation between the two agencies” and “enhanc[ing] communication and cooperation in areas of new technology, especially video and media [artificial intelligence] application[s]” (Xinhua, September 12, 2019).
The business relationships between Reuters and Xinhua, and other de facto agencies of the Chinese government, have grown since this meeting. In December 2019, the company’s commercial advertising arm Reuters Plus hosted an advertorial article and video featuring Paul Scanlan, chief technical officer of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group, speaking about the economic benefits and trustworthiness of 5G technology. A banner indicated in small print that the material was “paid for and posted by Huawei.”
The business relationship between Reuters and PRC state media saw further expansion at the “2020 European Media Partners Cooperation Online Forum,” a December 10 virtual conference hosted by China Media Group (CMG), a holding company for the PRC’s major broadcasting companies. At the forum, organized under the theme of “Mutual Trust Dialogue for Win-Win Cooperation,” Reuters announced a deal with China Central Television (CCTV) to create “China Business Video,” a service to provide Reuters subscribers with China-related financial news. Friedenberg stated that “We must recognize the power of partnerships in this new media ecosystem… [which] can take the form of collaborative journalism, industry coalitions, new commercial business opportunities, content-sharing or shared platforms” (CGTN, December 10, 2020).
Reuters has also amplified and republished Xinhua material, albeit with a different approach from that of the directly repackaged material presented by MSN. Over the past two years, Reuters has made a regular practice of overtly presenting PRC state media material, in the form of reporting on that material. A recent—and unintentionally ironic—example comes from this past June, following a May 31 Politburo study session on the theme of “international dissemination capability building” (国际传播能力建设, guoji chuanbo nengli jianshe) (Xuexi.cn, June 1). Reuters re-presented Xinhua’s coverage of the event as follows:
China President Xi Jinping said the country must improve the way it tells its “stories” to a global audience as it seeks to develop an international voice that reflects its status on the world stage, official news agency Xinhua reported. Speaking at a Communist Party study meeting, Xi said it was crucial for China to improve its ability to spread its messages globally in order to present a “true, three-dimensional and comprehensive China”, Xinhua said on Tuesday. China needed to develop an “international voice” to match its national strength and global status, Xinhua said, citing Xi. It also needed to strengthen propaganda efforts to help foreigners understand the Chinese Communist Party and the way it “strives for the happiness of the Chinese people” (Reuters, June 1).
This approach makes explicit that this material originated with PRC state media or government spokespersons, avoiding the ethical problem of repackaging state media content whose origin is more disguised. It is also straightforward and factual, reporting on what has been published or presented by PRC state sources. However, the format seems odd, with little value added by the Reuters reporting; instead, it raises suspicions that this narrative content has been repackaged in order to gain broader distribution and wider respectability under the Reuters brand.
In a statement made on May 11, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹) criticized U.S. “discourse hegemony,” and declared that “In the face of lies and rumors to smear and attack China, it is only natural to make our own voices heard.” Accordingly, “No one can deprive Chinese media like Xinhua their right to exchange and cooperation just because it is from China, a socialist country. Accusing Xinhua of engaging in exchange and cooperation with other agencies based on this alone is some sort of ideological bias and political discrimination” (Xinhua, May 12).
This effort to contest the “discourse hegemony” of the United States and other democratic countries has led the CCP and the state media agencies under its control to seek out an increasingly complex, multi-layered network of business relationships with international news agencies and news distribution services. The aim of these efforts is twofold: first, to seek wider dissemination and greater acceptance for Xinhua propaganda material by repackaging it under the trusted name of another outlet; and second, to enmesh foreign news outlets in profitable relationships that will force a gradual change towards editorial lines more amenable to CCP narratives. The first of these, as demonstrated by the examples in this article, is unquestionably happening. Whether or not the second goal is realized will be up to the companies involved, and to the level of critical readership among their audiences.
John Dotson has served previously as a U.S. Navy officer, as a staff member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and as editor of Jamestown’s China Brief. He is currently the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. focused on contemporary Taiwan issues and U.S.-Taiwan relations. The views expressed here are his own, and are not intended to represent those of any institution.
 This figure represents nearly $54.1 million in direct state spending, and an additional nearly $9.7 million by nominally non-state actors such as Huawei Technologies. These figures represent only expenditures reflected in Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, meaning that actual expenditures (to include support of PRC state-sponsored united front organizations, etc.) would be considerably higher. (Center for Responsive Politics, undated).
 Between November 2020 and April 2021, China Daily paid $272,000 in advertising fees to the Los Angeles Times; $291,000 to Foreign Policy; $371,577 to the Financial Times; $329,898.59 to Canada’s Globe and Mail; and $700,00 to Time, for a total of $1,964,475.59. See: Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing by China Daily Distribution Corp. for the six-month period ending April 30, 2021 (document dated May 24, 2021). https://efile.fara.gov/docs/3457-Supplemental-Statement-20210524-34.pdf.
 Approximately four weeks prior to publication, the author reached out to representatives of both MSN and Reuters to inquire whether the companies had received hosting fees, beneficial business arrangements, or other financial incentives in order to cooperate with Xinhua; as of the date of publication, no responses had been received from either organization.
 Apple News, for example, has been featured prominently on the English-language webpage of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP. For one example of this, see the following screenshot from an article warning against Taiwan “separatist” activities: links to multiple social media platforms are provided, as well a clear link to Apple News, placed alongside the headline. (Source: People’s Daily, March 9).
 Many examples could be cited of the parallel hosting of Xinhua content by MSN in this manner. Two such examples noted by the author were: “U.S. Long Beach Port Highlights Cordial Relationship with China” (Xinhua, November 16, 2019; MSN, November 16, 2019); and “Giant Christmas Store in U.S. Michigan Filled with Made-in-China Items” (Xinhua, November 18, 2019; MSN, November 21, 2019). As of the final preparation of this article in June 2021, the MSN links to these articles were no longer functional. The parallel screenshots from the latter article are copied below:
 At the end of the article, this line is also posted: “The Reuters editorial and news staff had no role in the production of this content. It was created by Reuters Plus, part of the commercial advertising group.”