'Economist' Runs Chinese Coronavirus Propaganda Disguised as News

Chinese outlets flout federal disclosure laws in disinformation campaign

March 26, 2020

The Economist is running Chinese propaganda from an outlet that is violating U.S. law to spread the message that Chinese president Xi Jinping has done a masterful job handling the coronavirus pandemic.

The propaganda advertorials, which are ads designed to look like news stories, come from the Beijing Review, an entity backed by the Chinese Communist Party. The outlet has never registered with the Department of Justice as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and does not include a legally required disclaimer that the ad is being pushed by a foreign nation.

"President Xi [Jinping] leads the battle against COVID-19 outbreak toward victory," an advertorial published in the March 21 edition of the Economist reads. "China has rolled out 'probably the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history.'"

The Chinese government has routinely placed propaganda articles intended to mimic news reports. Most Chinese official mouthpieces, however, are registered as foreign agents in the United States and include the necessary disclaimer in their publications. The Beijing Review does not, making the dissemination of its materials in the United States the most egregious violation of law thus far.

The State Department has sharply condemned the advertorials, which China pays American media to disseminate, arguing that the outlets that published the advertorials are complicit in the spread of Chinese influence in the United States.

"This Administration has been very clear that all Americans need to become familiar with, and guard against, the Chinese Communist Party's tools of influence and interference in our politics," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. "When media organizations host ads from PRC [People's Republic of China] state media, they are helping the PRC to propagandize the American people."

Beijing Review is an English-language weekly magazine published by the China International Publishing Group, China's largest foreign publishing company that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. The magazine, which claims to have a circulation of more than 70,000 per issue, has published advertorials in the Economist since at least 2018, according to the Economist's own reporting.

Neither Beijing Review nor the China International Publishing Group is registered with the Department of Justice, according to FARA public records. And the advertorial that appeared on March 21 did not have the legally required "conspicuous statement" that the information is disseminated on behalf of a foreign power. Neither entity responded to requests for comment.

Dr. Ben Freeman, a director at the Center for International Policy, said that the Chinese propagandists violated the law. He raised concerns that the lack of the legally required disclaimer could mislead and misinform readers.

"Without this statement, readers can be easily tricked into believing that they're just reading another article in the Economist, when in fact they're reading the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "That deception—propaganda being passed off as journalism—is precisely what FARA is meant to stop."

It remains unclear when the first CCP propaganda appeared in the pages of the Economist. The outlet did not respond to request for comment.

The Economist advertorial is just one of the publications that have published this type of propaganda. The Wall Street Journal has also published more than a dozen Chinese propaganda articles about the coronavirus on its website since January. Many of the articles in the Journal downplay the pandemic's impact on the Chinese economy while touting the regime's successful response. Some of the advertorial headlines include: "China's Virus Containment Wins Praise"; "Epidemic Impact to Be Limited"; "Apple CEO: China Getting Outbreak Under Control." The Journal did not respond to a request for comment.

China has intermixed the ads in the Economist and the Journal with aggressive accusations targeting the United States as part of its larger propaganda campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak. As part of this propaganda blitz, China's foreign ministry and other officials recently pushed a lie that the virus actually originated in the United States—a claim that was later disavowed by China's ambassador to the United States.

Dr. Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said China's decision to deploy aggressive lies against the United States "isn't just business as usual," but a serious escalation to a "new and different" type of a disinformation campaign. He said that while China's more outlandish claims are unconvincing, the more soft-spoken Chinese advertorials, including those in the Economist, may find a more receptive audience in the United States.

"Some of the Chinese messaging that is most effective in my view is the messaging that takes a slight twist … and uses something that is a little bit true," he said. "I think some of the comments about how China handled the disease well, early on—we all know that's not true. But if you're not following this closely, maybe it will add some doubt in your mind."

Despite the claims espoused by Chinese propagandists, China's botched initial response to COVID-19 exacerbated the outbreak. Chinese authorities ignored mounting signs of an imminent public health emergency for weeks and punished doctors who spoke up. The cover-up wasted valuable time that could have gone toward containing the virus: One estimate found that 95 percent of coronavirus cases worldwide could have been avoided if China launched a serious response to the outbreak.

China has routinely published its propaganda articles in the pages of major newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Journal for at least the last three decades. A Free Beacon review found that China Daily, an official communist party mouthpiece, had flouted FARA laws as it published more than 500 pages of propaganda articles in major U.S. outlets. In response, Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and 34 other members of Congress called for a Justice Department probe into China Daily in February.

"This is a longstanding practice at American news outlets and it infuriates me," Banks told the Free Beacon. "So to see this sort of propaganda now, right after the Chinese Communist Party has expelled American journalists and jailed Chinese whistleblowers for accurately reporting on coronavirus—it defies belief."