Beijing on the Potomac

Paper that broke Watergate partners with Chinese Communist Party

March 15, 2012

An advertising partnership between the Washington Post and a Chinese government propaganda outlet is raising questions about the propriety—and legality—of an American news outlet publishing foreign propaganda under its masthead.

At issue is the Post’s China Watch publication, a print and online advertising supplement that purports to deliver the news about China. The site hosts numerous articles and feature pieces that portray the Chinese government—particularly its human rights record—in a glowing light.

Some journalism experts and China observers say the partnership crosses ethical boundaries and misleads unassuming readers about the Chinese government’s lackluster record on a host of important issues.

The China Watch website, which features the Washington Post’s official masthead, looks like many other online news sites, containing videos, articles, and slideshows. However, a small block of text in the website’s right-hand corner offers a disclaimer: "A Paid Supplement to The Washington Post."

Journalism experts believe that the Post should explain to readers the precise nature of its relationship with China.

"They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?" asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"It raises some ethical issues for the Post," said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.

"There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch," she said. "The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers."

"Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda," said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. "It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters."

China Watch’s content is chiefly produced by China Daily, an English-language newspaper that takes an uncritical look at the People’s Republic of China and toes the Communist party line on a range of issues, including the economy and politics.

Many of the links on China Watch carry the reader directly to China Daily’s website. That site operates under a China-based domain name, meaning that its content is heavily regulated by Communist Party censors.

Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, said that he has no problem with the business relationship—so long as the content is clearly denoted as advertising.

"I don't object to the Post selling advertising space to those who have different viewpoints than I do, as long as—as is the case here—the material is clearly labeled," Hiatt told the Free Beacon. "Anyone reading our editorials on China, human rights, the importance of democratic development in China both for Chinese people and for the world, will know that our point of view is quite different in many cases from that of the Chinese Foreign Ministry."

Hiatt further noted that "no one on the business side of the Post has ever expressed any opinion to me about our editorial line, or tried to influence it in any way, and I similarly have no objection to their selling advertising."

However, the paper’s ombudsman recently took the newsroom to task after it published a heavily doctored transcript of an interview with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in which, according to the Post, the Chinese government "provided questions and answers of its own."

The interview and subsequent correction led Ombudsman Patrick Pexton to refer to the article as "more press release or propaganda than news."

Pexton, who pointed to the Post’s financial relationship with the Chinese, criticized the paper for permitting the Communist government to dictate and alter its questions to Jinping.

"So, The Post submits written questions—already a far cry from a live face-to-face unscripted interview with journalists—and the Chinese say, thanks, but we don’t like your questions, so we’ll provide our own questions and answers. Take it or leave it," he wrote. "The Post took it. I think it should have left it."

A representative in the Post’s online advertising department hung up on a Washington Free Beacon reporter who called to inquire about rates for a Post-branded site.

The Post’s communications director, Kris Coratti, defended the newspaper’s advertising policy: "The section is clearly labeled as advertising so that our readers know it is not Washington Post news content. As for what's in the ads, we have always given advertisers wide latitude to have their say, whether the advertiser is a business, person, or a group.  We have accepted the China Daily ads for many, many years under these standards."

China Watch’s content also raises questions about whether the partnership potentially runs afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which stipulates general guidelines about filing and labeling political propaganda.

"As a legal matter one gets into murky waters fairly quickly," said Bill Reinsch, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. "FARA was intended to address propaganda and lobbying, and, as always, there is a continuum of that kind of behavior, and drawing lines is difficult. Pieces that are overtly pushing a foreign government’s line fall at one end of the spectrum, but what about material that could best be construed as ‘information’?"

Reinsch said that the Post’s deal with the Chinese wades into uncharted legal terrain.

"It’s an interesting question and one that is rarely asked, I suspect because the media is not all that excited about investigating itself," he said.

It’s an issue that the USCC could find itself debating in the years to come, Reinsch said.

China’s critics on Capitol Hill said China Watch illustrates a much larger problem.

"The Chinese have used our own free market and profit system, and twisted that to support the Communist Party in China," an aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), an outspoken critic of China, told the Free Beacon.

The advertising deal is just one cog in China’s PR machine, added Yates.

"There is a very well established pattern where Chinese entities exercise influence over American thought leaders," said Yates, president of DC International Advisory, a political consulting group. "And they’re publishing in what used to be seen as the paper of record in the nation’s capital."

Post reporters "should be concerned because what it does is equate what they’re doing with the propaganda product," added Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a think-tank focused on Asia.

Others raised questions about what exactly the Chinese government is receiving for its money.

"What do they get? Traffic information? Identity information?" wondered Yates. "All kinds of things will leave a trace that you are reading something, sharing articles, leaving comments. Who gets that information?"