Chinese media outlet Trump cited as “propaganda” spent over $15.7 million on U.S. influence since 2017

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(Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Before chairing a United Nations Security Council meeting September 26, President Donald Trump took to Twitter.

President Trump expressed admonition that “China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers made to look like news,” tweeting about a four-page supplement in the Des Moines Register purchased by China Daily. China Daily is a Chinese government-run media outlet that has spent more than $15.7 million on U.S. influence since 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch data calculated from spending reported in Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) disclosures.

In remarks later that day before the General Assembly of the United Nations, where China’s foreign minister was also present, President Trump took that reproach step further. “We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election,” President Trump said of China, claiming that the United States has “found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration.”

At a press conference after the U.N. Security Council meeting, President Trump buckled down on the claim, telling a reporter, “We have evidence. We have evidence. It will come out. I can’t tell you now, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, that I can tell you.”

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, denied President Trump’s claims. “We did not and will not interfere in any country’s domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China,” he said while speaking before the United Nations General Assembly.

Against a backdrop of an escalating trade war between China and the United States, tensions between Beijing and Washington have continued to escalate.

A senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters on September 27 on the condition of anonymity echoed President Trump’s stance that “China is actively interfering in our political system,” noting that “China has spent billions of dollars on propaganda, here and throughout the world, crowding out or even posing as independent news sources.”

By Sunday, a week after the four-page ad touting the mutual benefits of U.S.-China trade ran in the Des Moines Register, Terry Branstad U.S. ambassador to China and the former longtime governor of Iowa penned an opinion piece in the Des Moines Register claiming that China is “doubling down on that bullying by running propaganda ads in our own free press.’”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry defended against charges that China is interfering in U.S. elections, pointing out that many foreign governments and other entities have paid for supplements in American news publications that portray their country in a positive light.

China Daily’s history of influence

Disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) the law that governs most foreign influence disclosure requirements analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics show that it is not uncommon for foreign government-owned media outlets to run advertising supplements in U.S. newspapers.

China Daily has a long history of disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, dating back to 1983, according to FARA disclosures on file with the Department of Justice made available through the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool.

FARA carves out an exemption for “bona fide news or journalistic activities,” but requires that at least 80 percent of the media outlet’s officers and directors are citizens of the United States and no foreign principal owns, directs, supervises, controls, subsidies, finances, or determines policies of the media outlet.

As one of the top 10 foreign principals spending on influence in the United States, China Daily has spent over $15.7 million to influence U.S. policy and public opinion since the beginning of 2017 more than 75 percent of total spending on behalf of Chinese interests during that time period.

Last year alone, China Daily spent more than $12.6 million to influence policy and public opinion in the United States. China Daily has continued to spend millions more on U.S. influence in 2018, according to China Daily’s most recent Supplemental Statement disclosure which covers a six month period ending on April 30, 2018.

Much of that spending is attributed to printing costs or other operating expenses and facilitating of partnerships with American news outlets, according to recent FARA disclosures filed by China Daily reviewed by the Center for Responsive Politics. China Daily has routinely run supplements in American news publicans, listing supplements placed in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in its most recent Supplemental Statement disclosure filed in compliance with FARA.

Many of the supplements placed on behalf of foreign media outlets are designed to look like regular news articles that promote the country’s interests but are required to include labels that the materials were distributed on behalf of a foreign principal.

Weeks earlier, the U.S. Justice Department ordered FARA registration by two other leading Chinese state-run media outlets that had not previously filed disclosures as foreign principals under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (previously CCTV America)

Outside of being listed among contacts alongside other media outlets, CCTV America’s only prior foray into FARA disclosures came in 2012 when the company hired Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide for public relations work surrounding the channel’s launch in the United States. Now, the U.S. Justice Department has reportedly ordered the broadcasting network to register as a foreign agent.

Following increased scrutiny by lawmakers and government officials, a January 2018 letter sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions by a bipartisan coalition of senators led by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explicitly called for an investigation into the Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network months before the U.S. Justice Department reportedly ordered the outlets to register as foreign agents under FARA.

Escalating focus on foreign media

The heightened scrutiny on Chinese government-run media outlets operating in the United States comes amidst a broader U.S. government push towards stronger regulation of foreign media and a resurgence of FARA enforcement.

In March of this year, a coalition ofU.S. senators and members of Congress sent another letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for an investigation into whether Al Jazeera should register as a foreign agent under FARA due to its ties to the Qatari government.

The U.S. Justice Department has already ordered multiple outlets to register as foreign agents to be in compliance with FARA. In November 2017, a U.S. production company responded to a U.S. Department of Justice request to register as a foreign agent of RIA Novosti, the Russian government entity that administers global broadcasts of Russian state-funded television network Russia Today (RT).

The content producer and broadcasting partner of Sputnik, another Russia government-backed media outlet, also registered as foreign agents following pressure from the U.S. Justice Department.

FARA disclosures filed by foreign agents registered to act on behalf of RT and Sputnik note that each organization “respectfully disagrees that FARA should apply.”

After T&R Productions the U.S. production company that produces RT content registered as a foreign agent, RT was stripped of its congressional press credentials. A letter from the Executive Committee of the Congressional Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery reportedly stated that the decision “was taken in response to the registration of RT’s operating company, T&R Productions.”

Russian authorities wasted no time after the move, threatening their own crackdown on international media outlets operating in Russia. In September 2018, Russian State Duma’s information policy committee head Leonid Levin announced that Russia is gearing up to adopt the new “foreign agent” media outlet law during the fall session.

A new U.S. rule requiring foreign media outlets to submit reports to the Federal Communications Commission disclosing their relationships with foreign principals was announced by the FCC on September 4, 2018, pursuant to the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA) signed into law by President Trump on August 13. The rule imposes additional reporting requirements on foreign media outlets that would already be considered foreign agents under FARA and produce or distribute videos for U.S. consumers on platforms with multiple channels of video programming like Internet-based services, satellite, cable or other television broadcasts — that must be met by an initial deadline of October 12, 2018.

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