Semafor Says It Wants To Fix the 'Crisis of Trust in News.' It Just Partnered With a Chinese Communist Influence Group.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith / Getty Images
Semafor cofounder Ben Smith / Getty Images
March 1, 2023

Semafor, a popular media startup, has interesting new partners in its quest to fix "the crisis of trust in news": a consortium of Chinese Communist Party front groups, soft-on-China business leaders, and one organization that calls itself a "chamber of commerce led by the Communist Party of China."

The online news outlet is partnering with the Center for China & Globalization for a "China and Global Business" initiative that will launch in Beijing later this year. The center is part of China's united front system, which the Communist Party uses to influence "universities, think tanks, scholars, [and] journalists." Semafor's initiative will bring together a number of CCP allies and Americans known for dovish views towards Beijing, among them John Thornton, a prominent Brookings Institution donor with longstanding ties to Chinese government officials.

Semafor's "ambitious" new initiative calls into question its claim to be a global news platform whose goal is "addressing the crisis of trust in news." Media watchdogs have long been concerned about corporate and foreign influence on American news organizations, particularly with China's aggressive attempts to influence American news outlets. The New York Times and Washington Post have ended advertisement deals with Chinese state-run media outlets over the optics of those relationships and the potential that foreign influence might shape editorial coverage.

Ben Smith, the cofounder of Semafor and a former Buzzfeed editor, says the China initiative is aimed at counterbalancing "hawkish" views in Washington toward China, with an advisory board that represents a "diversity of opinion" on the topic of U.S.-China relations. But a glance at the advisory board's members calls that claim into question as well.

Advisory board member Wang Huiyao, the founder of the Center for China & Globalization, is a Chinese government adviser and official at organizations that helped develop China's controversial "Thousand Talents" program, which the FBI says Beijing uses to steal trade secrets from American companies and create national security risks for the U.S. government.

Chen Deming, a former Chinese minister of commerce and advisory board member, has been a Chinese Communist Party member since 1974. Another adviser is former Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai, who in that diplomatic role has defended Beijing's human rights record. In 2018, he dismissed concerns about China's oppression of Muslim Uyghurs, saying that China was merely "trying to reeducate most of them, trying to turn them into normal persons [who] can go back to normal life."

Other Chinese advisory board members include the chairmen of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce and the China Public Diplomacy Association, both of which are linked to the CCP's United Front Work Department. The Guardian reported that the the China Public Diplomacy Association organized training sessions where "foreign reporters are schooled not just on China, but also on its view of journalism." The All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce describes itself as "a mass organization and chamber of commerce led by the Communist Party of China."

On the American side are business leaders, academicians, and former diplomats known for supporting closer ties to China.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a former Biden State Department official, has criticized the United States' "obsession" with China. She recently asserted that the national security threat of China's spy balloon last month was "blown wildly out of proportion." Susan Thornton, a former State Department official and Semafor adviser, came under fire during the Trump administration for what Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said was her "troubling record of undermining America's allies like Taiwan, failing to stand up to China's efforts to impose its authoritarian will beyond its borders," and "downplaying human rights abuses in China."

John Thornton, the namesake for the Brookings Institution's China Center, chairs the Silk Road Finance Corporation, a CCP-backed investment fund that develops projects for Beijing's controversial Belt & Road Initiative, the Free Beacon reported. He has also been a consultant for China's Confucius Institutes, which Beijing uses to wield influence at American high schools and colleges.

It is unclear whether the Center for China & Globalization and the other Chinese advisers are funding the Semafor initiative. Smith, the Semafor cofounder, referred questions to Semafor's spokeswoman, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The controversial partnership is also not the first for Semafor in its short existence. The company recently announced plans to repurchase Sam Bankman-Fried's investment in the website after his indictment for defrauding investors in his cryptocurrency exchange. Bankman-Fried reportedly invested $10 million in Semafor.