Semafor is paying a think tank that serves as a front for the Chinese Communist Party's global influence operations to promote its China initiative, the media startup's cofounder confirmed this week.
Semafor CEO Justin Smith revealed in a March 5 letter that the outlet will pay the Center for China and Globalization to retain speakers and audience for its "China and Global Business" initiative. The Chinese think tank—which Semafor says will help it facilitate "high-level conversations involving powerful Chinese figures"—is part of China's "united front" system, which works to influence foreign government officials, policymakers, and journalists to promote positive views of Beijing.
While Smith, the former Bloomberg Media CEO who reportedly maintains a close personal relationship with Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, insists Semafor will retain "100 percent editorial and commercial control" over the initiative, the participation of prominent "united front" organizations raises questions about Semafor's journalistic ethics and independence, and national security experts are raising questions about whether the U.S.-based media outlet can escape the CCP's influence.
"There's lots of money to be made for partnering with the Chinese Communist Party. No doubt the executives at Semafor are realizing this," said Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. "Unfortunately, that money comes with a price: exposure to CCP malign influence."
This isn't Smith's first bite at the China partnership apple. He served as Bloomberg Media's CEO as the company sought to curry favor in Beijing, expanding services for U.S. customers and allowing them greater access to Beijing's currency market. He once held a private dinner at his Washington, D.C., home for Qin, while Semafor hosted Qin at a reception last April after the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
During Smith's time at Bloomberg, an editor reportedly killed a story about the extravagant wealth and lifestyle of senior CCP officials. That story, a senior Bloomberg News editor said, could jeopardize the company's relationship with the Chinese. The reporter behind that investigation was fired.
And Michael Bloomberg himself is notorious for his dovishness toward Beijing: He apologized to CCP authorities last November after former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson called the Chinese government a "coercive autocracy" at a Bloomberg event. Bloomberg also came under fire in 2019 when he told Firing Line host Margaret Hoover that Chinese president Xi Jinping was "not a dictator."
According to Smith, Semafor's China initiative will be "exclusively underwritten" by its corporate partners, with no funding from the Chinese government. But at least two Chinese Communist Party members serve on the advisory board for the journalism initiative. Three "united front" organizations are represented on the board, including the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, which describes itself as "a chamber of commerce led by the Communist Party of China."
Chinese state media reported on Tuesday that Semafor's China initiative is a "series of forums" to "focus on … cooperation and constructive topics between China and the United States." Semafor only received a passing mention in the article, while the forums were pitched as a quasi-diplomatic effort to cool Sino-American relations.
"To ensure the success of the first launch of the series of forums, the organizer plans to start with economic issues and expand to other fields when the time is ripe," the story said.