China Infiltrates Taiwanese Media
Taiwan's media is riddled with ads from the government of China, masquerading as news. Pan-blue or pro-green, Taiwanese news outlets are increasingly being painted red. Is the island's independent perspective for sale too?
China Infiltrates Taiwanese MediaBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 463 )
Phenomenon No. 1:
On Aug. 2 last year Mei Kebao, deputy secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Hunan Provincial Committee, arrived in Taiwan with a large delegation to participate in "Hunan Week 2010," a promotional event to boost exchanges between Hunan Province and Taiwan. That same day the Chinese-language China Times splashed the story titled "CPC Hunan Provincial Committee Chairman Mei Kebao and Delegation Arrive in Taiwan" across the front page of its China section. The headline of another major daily, the United Daily News, screamed "Hunan Week Is Here, A Golden Horde of 400 Flock to Taiwan." On Aug. 3 both newspapers awarded full-page coverage to the event.
These apparent "news" reports were actually advertorials that the Chinese government placed in Taiwan's media for money, yet they were not labeled for readers as paid content.
Wu Feng-shan, a member of Taiwan's top government watchdog, the Control Yuan, and a former media executive, is the one who exposed Beijing's involvement. As evidence Wu presents a secret document which states: Want Want China Times Culture Media Company (Beijing) commissions the United Daily News to create publicity through an article series and exclusive interviews on Hunan Province for a payment of NT$810,000 by the China Times. The deal is being treated as a "trade secret, not to be disclosed."
Phenomenon No. 2:
The Chinese government's suppression and blocking of online media reporting has begun to spread to the online presence of Taiwanese media in China. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was announced as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on October 8 last year, the United Daily News reacted with massive coverage. More than 20 articles about Liu and his fight for human rights in China filled the paper's first three pages. On Oct. 10 the paper still followed up on the topic with articles featured prominently on page two of the first section, incurring the wrath of the Chinese government.
Consequently, the paper's online version udn.com was shut down in China on Nov. 11. "That's China's way of warning you, of forcing you to declare where you stand," comments a longtime observer of Chinese media controls. It is hard to estimate how angering Beijing will backfire.
Phenomenon No. 3:
Reporters on cross-strait affairs are no longer professional or independent. Talking about his reporting experiences in China, a Taiwanese journalist posted in Beijing tells CommonWealth Magazine with barely contained anger that he lost his "professional pride" long ago.
"Now all the newspapers have commercial relations with China. The reporters working out of Beijing don't yet need to help solicit business, but we need to passively maintain relations with the Taiwan Affairs Office. We definitely can't assign blame, or challenge or question (the Chinese government)," the reporter laments.
Money has become a weapon to silence defiant media, and journalists engage in self-censorship for fear of upsetting Chinese authorities. "Slowly, 'little cops' have taken control of our minds'," the reporter contends.
"In the past when the media didn't take a single cent, journalists criticized what needed to be criticized and wrote what needed to be written under the premise of the shared goal of cross-strait peace. But now, if what they do displeases the Chinese authorities, the door slams shut, and the dog gets beaten," reveals Huang Chao-song, currently a professor at Shih Hsin University's Department of Journalism and formerly the general manager of China Times, who has had many years of substantial contacts with China. Ruminating on the Chinese government's increasingly egregious practice of placing paid content in Taiwanese media, Huang shakes his head in frustration.
Newspapers, online media, and radio and television broadcasters sell space for Chinese government propaganda that masquerades as news or entertainment programs. "The media have all become tinted," one government official sighs. While the media had a "blue" or "green" tinge in the past, depending on their domestic political preferences, they are now all stained "red."
Monitoring Taiwan's major Chinese-language newspapers, the non-profit Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence found 69 advertorials sponsored by China in the China Times and 30 in the United Daily News during the first nine months of 2010. "The lion's share appears as news reports, exclusive interviews, or features. It looks just like news, and is intended to mislead," asserts the foundation's executive director Lu Shih-hsiang.
Taiwan's media are all trying to grab a piece of the big China pie. A former media executive who did not want to be named notes that aside from the Want Want Group, the United Daily News Group and Eastern Multimedia Group have also established beachheads in China to conduct integrated marketing for their print and electronic media.
Their marketing staff tours province after province in China to expand personal connections, boost business and promote advertorials and infomercials on a variety of topics ranging from travel and sightseeing to investment promotion. When necessary, rival media even join hands to provide blanket coverage across different media formats in newspapers and on television.
Bowing to pressure from the Taiwan Affairs Office, Chinese provinces also eagerly seek exchanges with Taiwanese media. "The media are eager to boost sales, and the Chinese provinces are eager to show their achievements," observes the former media boss, who used to frequently organize events and discuss business in China in the past. Behind all these moves is the Taiwan Affair's Office, which wants to demonstrate its goodwill toward Taiwan and also regards the many agreements that Chinese provinces have signed during visits to Taiwan as its own achievements, he points out, sipping a cup of coffee.
While China threatened Taiwan with military force in the past, it has now switched to attacking with its monetary might. And while Taiwan's media lack self-discipline, the government takes a laissez-faire attitude.
Press Freedom For Sale
The Mainland Affairs Council did not notice that "pseudo news" sponsored by Chinese provinces had rapidly increased until after the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China went into force in July 2010. Wielding a stack of newspapers clippings, the council's Vice Chairman Liu Te-shun declares, "Although all these reports are dressed up as news, we regard them as advertisements."
But Control Yuan member Wu has a different story to tell. Wu springs up from the sofa with indignation as he relates what happened after the Mainland Affairs Council was asked to take corrective action.
The Mainland Affairs Council asked the Council of Labor Affairs, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the Ministry of Transportation and Communication to identify cases of paid news and to penalize them. "Many didn't even reply to the request. These government agencies simply ignored the Mainland Affairs Council, because the entire atmosphere is one of peaceful development," Wu explains.
For the sake of peaceful development, various cabinet agencies are ready to incapacitate themselves, holding still instead of taking action. In the past the government used to crackdown resolutely on (prohibited) advertisements for real estate projects in China, imposing high fines so that eventually no one dared to post such ads anymore. Lin Shu-fen (pseudonym), the retired vice general manager of a media company who has organized many cross-strait events, recalls that relevant cabinet agencies even checked ads for Communist propaganda.
But Lin points out that nowadays "advertorials even carry the reporter's name, so it's very difficult to decide whether it's news reporting or advertising." The media don't have to fear anything because they operate on the fringes of the law without breaking it.
While there is rampant use of advertorials and infomercials sponsored by China in the local media, the general public is unaware of this development. "The reports are so biased. They all portray the beautiful vision of urban economic development. What if a Taiwanese entrepreneur believes that these reports are true, invests there, and fails? Who is going to take responsibility?" Chang Chin-hwa, a professor at the National Taiwan University Graduate School of Journalism, asks with grave concern.
As press freedom is subverted, it is also being sold off. "News reporting in Hong Kong has a number of prohibitions, and in China there are even more. Journalists there all wonder why we sell our freedoms so lightly, given that they can't get the freedoms they covet so much," laments a journalist, who has just ended his assignment as a Beijing-based correspondent, a look of despair flashing across his face.
After working as a "reporter" for more than ten years, he realized that the realities of today's news business increasingly force him to betray the ideals that he had when starting his career as a young reporter.
"It's mind-boggling," he sighs, elaborating that the Taiwanese media not only sell out their editorial independence, but also open the door wide to a country that has not yet completely renounced its hostility toward the island. Some people are wondering whether the media's next move after selling editorial space and airtime will be selling their editorial standpoint.
The Taiwanese government, with its lax regulatory controls, is allowing China to enter Taiwan like a no man's land and spend huge wads of money to buy up the domestic media. "The normal development of cross-strait relations means exchanges between two sovereign countries. Given that we are a sovereign country, what is permitted and what isn't should be made very clear. That's what we call regulatory control. That's government," exclaims Wu, unable to hide his outrage over the government's indifference.
As the Control Yuan could not tolerate watching China's increasing influence on the domestic media anymore, it notified the Mainland Affairs Council to take corrective measures, demanding that paid news be controlled, as regulated by law. Certain service providers from China such as investment solicitors, real estate developers and agents, as well as marriage brokers, are banned from advertising in Taiwan based on Article 34 of the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area and the Regulations for Advertising Goods, Labor and General Services of the Mainland Area in the Taiwan Area.
But some also argue that these regulations should be amended, given the rapid increase in cross-strait exchanges. "The media are taking the road of ‘advertorials' because there are too many restrictions (on advertising) in Taiwan," Lin Shu-fen points out. She believes that the regulations, adopted in 2003, are outdated and no longer match current needs.
Shih Hsin University's Huang Chao-sung also advocates that advertising be allowed if cross-strait trade relations are to be normalized under ECFA. But no matter whether the law is amended or not, Huang still insists, "News is news. We can't be vague about that, and we must not make any concessions."
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz