China’s Influence on Taiwan’s MediaChina is using various tactics to pressure media outlets in Taiwan to self-censor and avoid ‘sensitive’ topics such as human rights, Tibet, Taiwan and the Falun Gong
A number of publications in recent years have sought to document and analyze the infiltration of Taiwanese media by China. Among these efforts, an article by Hsu Chien-Jung titled “China’s influence on Taiwan’s media” (Asian Survey 54:3, May-June 2014) is arguably one of the most important.
Hsu’s research, which is based on his interviews with dozens of key persons from the media industry in Taiwan, helps readers to understand how China strategically influences Taiwan’s media from a comprehensive and evidence-based perspective.
Hsu argues that China has been steadily expanding its influence on Taiwan’s media since Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008. An important contribution of Hsu’s research is that it systematically summarises the three ways by which China seeks to control Taiwanese media.
First, China has been flexing its economic power to co-opt some Taiwanese media. By facilitating the acquisition of media outlets in Taiwan pro-Beijing tycoons, China has managed the ownership, editorial content, coverage, and criticism of China in various media.
Secondly, China has applied pressure on Taiwanese media owners who have invested or intend to invest in China, thus compelling the media outlets under their control to side with China or at a minimum self-censor on any issue related to China.
Thirdly, Chinese government agencies have published various types of advertorials passing off as as “hard news” in Taiwanese media. Such placement tactics facilitate political influence by providing a source of advertising revenue, while turning Taiwan’s media into a virtual propaganda agent of the Chinese government.
The evidence Hsu uses to support his research has a broad range. Circulation figures are used to examine market shares of various media, which allows for the further analysis of an outlet’s development trends and changing political orientation. Hsu studies not only the cases involving overtly pro-Beijing and pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) media such as the Want Want China Times Group, but also others, including Formosa TV (FTV) and SET, which originally sided with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and were Taiwan-centric but later surrendered their political posture to Beijing’s wishes, ostensibly in order to protect their business relations with China. Hsu’s research demonstrates that some traditionally pro-DPP media are engaging in self-censorship under pressure from Beijing, warning signs of deteriorating freedom of the press and speech in Taiwan.
In addition, Hus’s research examines recent protest movements against declining media freedoms, such as the Anti-Media Monopoly protests in 2012-2013 and the Sunflower Movement against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in 2014. By including an analysis of the latest policy changes and mass protests, Hsu ensures that his paper is up to date.
Throughout his study, Hsu uses interesting anecdotes as evidence, and a good share of the information is made public for the first time. As mentioned above, an important contribution of this paper is that it does not exclude analysis of media that have upheld a pro-Taiwan or pro-DPP stance. Although analysts will not be overly surprised when reading Hsu’s description of how the China Times changed its position from being a pro-KMT to a pro-China newspaper under Beijing’s influence, they may be astonished to discover that traditionally pro-DPP media have also been modifying their views according to Beijing’s will. In fact, Hsu’s paper provides a lot of details about how the latter media have willingly censored themselves in exchange for profits in the Chinese market. For example, SET’s popular talk show program Big Talk News (Xinwen) was not permitted to discuss such “sensitive topics” as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan and Xinjiang issues, as well as Falun Gong. Moreover, SET finally axed the program in 2012 because of “pressure from Beijing” and “SET attempts to break into the Chinese TV market.”
Based on his analysis of these facts, Hsu concludes that Chinese influence and manipulation through content control and financial leverage have compelled some Taiwan media outlets to eschew criticism of China. To sum up, increasing and closer cross-strait economic ties have put China in a dominant position with respect to the Taiwan media.
Hsu’s research is part of a wider story. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party began to carry out its “overseas propaganda scheme” in 2009. The campaign is obviously a long-term, carefully plotted national strategy, and the party seems keen to guarantee its success at any cost. Since the scheme was initiated, the party has invested astronomical amounts of money buying or influencing overseas Chinese-language media with the purpose of “quietly easing the way for the transmission of Chinese values.” Commenting on the scheme, a senior Chinese journalist said, “The party gets more extravagant as it spends people’s wealth.”
We have witnessed in recent years a deterioration of freedoms of the press not only in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but in Western countries as well. In August 2014, Deutsche Welle fired Chinese dissident journalist Su Yutong as the German outlet reportedly wanted to please Beijing by pursuing a “new direction” for reporting on China issues. Apparently Su “does not fit into the direction” proposed by the editors.
This is just one of many examples of a trend that is likely to intensify as China continues to exert influence on the free flow of information globally.
Zaijun Yuan is political researcher based in Canberra, Australia.