The image above, from Xi Jinping’s visit to CGTN in 2016, states the reality of PRC state media all too clearly: “the CCP is CGTN’s daddy.”
Five years later, how come so many PRC state media personalities on Twitter are going to such great lengths to hide their Chinese state affiliations? Is it because they oppose the CCP? Enquiring minds want to know.
Before I address this question, I need to present a brief interlude on terminology: I propose the term “state media artist” for people who work for PRC state media.
Here’s why: out of respect for the profession of journalism, as a matter of principle I refuse to refer to such people as “journalists.” There is after all a notable difference between journalists who take it as their calling to hold government accountable and “journalists” whose calling is to protect a totalitarian state from even the slightest hint of accountability. State media “personalities,” another option, sounds a bit too individualistic and interesting. I briefly considered using the term “state media worker,” but eventually set this aside as it sounded a bit too dignified.
Eventually, I settled on state media artist.
I know what you are thinking: Kevin, that sounds way too hip. You’re opening the door for Dialogue host Yang Rui to drop an R&B album under the name “The artist formerly known as Yang Rui.”
Let me explain: the idea of a state media artist is derived from the description of Subway workers as “sandwich artists.” The term, officially endorsed by Subway, has an element of irony in its colloquial use, insofar as what sandwich artists do is at the end of the day really not all that artistic: they put together pre-packaged ingredients according to your order.
This also just so happens to be precisely what state media does: throwing together pre-packaged narratives according to the state’s orders. Hence, state media artists.
There is however another layer of symbolism here: just as Subway is mainly a restaurant for people who can’t get their lives together sufficiently to make a sandwich on their own, so no one with the ability to access additional sources of information should be getting their news from state media artists.
Absolutely no offense is intended to the original sandwich artists of Subway, whom I love, insofar as they are not laundering talking points for a totalitarian regime and bake really delicious cookies.
Now that I’ve cleared that up that, let’s get to the meat of this state media sub.
In order to differentiate between, for example, people who are tweeting their genuine opinions and people who are on the payroll of a genocidal government, Twitter has over the past year introduced an official label for state media artists: “state-affiliated media.”
I personally have some objections to this term: discussing CGTN or Xinhua, “state-affiliated” really seems a bit too generous, and arguably even misrepresentative. Why not “state-controlled”?
Yet while I feel that the “state-affiliated media” label is far too generous for the spokespeople of a government currently engaged in genocide, clearly a number of PRC state media artist disagree. Studies have shown that the state-affiliated media label has had a negative impact on PRC media’s engagement on Twitter. [https://hongkongfp.com/2021/01/21/how-twitters-state-affiliated-labelling-led-to-a-drop-in-the-impact-of-chinas-state-media/]
As a result, I have noted a growing trend of Xinhua, CGTN, and CRI artists’ accounts on Twitter proactively obscuring their links to state-controlled media. My opening question about these accounts opposing the CCP was of course a joke, yet it opens onto a deeper truth: the eagerness of state media artists to distance themselves from the reputation shattering outlets for which they work, presenting officially crafted talking points as the spontaneous ruminations of a “journalist in Beijing” who will help you get past your biases and see the “truth” about China.
I’m not about to fall for this nonsense, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who will. As such, this week I will profile a few of these accounts. Depending upon the response, I might turn this into a series.
1. Miao Xiaojuan
This account really caught my attention. Miao is verified with a blue check mark on Twitter, while at the same time actively obscuring her state media links.
Her bio says “Journalist, producer. Chinese national, global citizen. Traveled a lot. Lived in U.S. & Belgium. Based in Beijing now. Always up for new places and challenges.”
Somehow Miao forget to mention that she works for Xinhua. Here’s a video of Miao getting way too excited about the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Considering how passionately she apparently feels about the Chinese Communist Party, I have a difficult time understanding why Miao is so eager to disguise her affiliation with the Party on Twitter.
And considering how a quick google search reveals her affiliation, I do wonder why Twitter has verified Miao, but not given her a “state-affiliated media” label.
2. Anna Ge
Anna Ge is the host of the World Today show on China Radio International, who describes herself as follows in her bio: “Host of World Today, Journalist in Beijing. Lived and worked in Canada, Caribbean Islands, UK & Kenya. A dancer, dreamer, traveler. Views my own.”
Among the views that are “her own” just so happen to be a number of CCP talking points.
The diversity of Ge’s Twitter content illustrates how these accounts work: she tweets relatable, nonpolitical content mixed in with silly CCP talking points. For example, on July 20, she wished all of her “Muslim friends” a blessed Eid. The very next day, July 21, she retweeted a CGTN story entitled “The Uyghurs are just fine.” Indeed, a blessed Eid to you, Anna.
On August 15, Ge tweeted a video of a “breathtaking dance show” at the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang. Four days later, she boosted the ridiculous state-organized petition, supposedly signed by 10 million people, calling for Canada to immediately release Meng Wanzhou.
Ge’s show World Today is incredibly consistent, confronting in recent months such hard hitting topics as “why the CCP regards serving the people as its abiding mission,” “is the US politicizing the probe into COVID origins,” the extremely loaded question “a community with a shared future or a world divided among geopolitical fault lines,” and my personal favorite, “how should Canada go about reckoning with its historical atrocities.”
3. Tian Wei
Anyone who has had the unique misfortune of watching CCTV-9 over dinner will undoubtedly recognize Tian Wei. I seem to remember her as the state media artist who would occasionally fill in for the artist formerly known as Yang Rui on the reliably cringe-inducing show “Dialogue.”
Tian Wei describes herself in her bio as follows: “based in Beijing, former Washington correspondent, now anchor of TV show World Insight, Young Global Leader @wef, China National Mental Health Ambassador.”
Tian has basically named every affiliation that she has except CGTN! It’s almost like Deng Xiaoping joining Twitter and describing himself as Honorary President of the All-China Bridge Association.
4. Xu Yawen
Xu describes herself in her bio as a “journalist based in Beijing. A foodie, love reading, hiking and kayaking.” Total normie stuff.
Xu neglected to mention that she is a journalist for China Radio International.
Now, you might have noticed that thus far every account I have uncovered is owned by a young female. I can already imagine everyone on Twitter who hates me using this to maximum advantage: “look at Twitter bully Kewin Corrico picking on poor young female POC journalists!”
That is, however, not what is happening. If I was uncovering the people who followed these accounts, for example, the majority of account owners would be men.
The gendered nature of this split reveals a crucial fact about these accounts: CCP controlled media is using young female journalists as appealing eye candy to package such extremely unappealing messaging as the benefits of China’s “authoritarian advantage” (yes, Xu actually wrote this)
5. Tibet Facts
The Tibet Facts account is classic CCP propaganda: I know it when I see it. The account advertises itself as giving followers a chance to see “the real Tibet,” but actually just posts a bunch of pictures of buildings and landscapes: a Tibet devoid of those troublesome people!
When human beings are occasionally featured in their feed, they are of course invariably dancing or riding horses.
A recent series of super creepy photos from this account featured people smiling with the comment “This is Tibet. You look beautiful when you smile.”
I found this Tibet Facts account particularly annoying, not only because it is such a blatantly unsubtle attempt to beautify the horrors of Han Chinese colonization in Tibet, but also because it appeared among “promoted tweets” in my feed.
Twitter famously banned all political advertising. The problem with such a policy is, of course, this question: how does one define what is political or not? And once one has answered that question, how does one prevent determined groups working around this definition so that they can use this platform to spread their hateful messaging?
I would much rather see a politician in a democratic country use Twitter to advertise than to see this platform, banned in China, providing a forum for anonymous Chinese state interests to float baseless propaganda about people’s “happy lives” in Tibet.
So, what is happening here?
Obviously aware of the burdensome associations that accompany the terms “Xinhua,” “CCTV,” “CRI,” and “state-affiliated media,” there is a growing cohort of state media artists who are using Twitter to present their CCP talking point as spontaneous everyman perspectives from a random “journalist in Beijing” who wants to help readers move beyond their bias to better understand “the real China.”
The deployment of young and plausibly attractive faces for the purpose of marketing dictatorship on social media apps banned in China is a fascinating new front in CCP propaganda work that requires further research.
So, what can be done?
First, I propose that Twitter should be more proactive in labelling state-affiliated media accounts. This sampling shows that there is an apparent desire among state media artists to obscure their identities and affiliations so as to avoid this label and make their official opinions appear more organic. If one guy with a bunch of other work can trace this many accounts, I assume Twitter could do better on this front. I also consider “state-affiliated” a bit too generous: why not “state-controlled”? The term is 100% accurate for all of the media covered here.
Second, I propose that Twitter take a close look at promoted tweets, as well as its policy thereon. It is ridiculous to claim that no political advertising is allowed, while at the same time allowing anonymous accounts that launder the talking points of a genocidal state to promote their content on this platform. If the only people able to place political advertising on Twitter are people who are willing to lie about their identities, this ban will do more harm than good.
In conclusion, if you are scrolling through Twitter late one night and see a tweet from a “journalist in Beijing” who wants to show you “the real Xinjiang,” please do slide into my DMs.