Semafor's China Initiative Counts CCP 'Chamber of Commerce' Executive as an Adviser

Zeng Yuqun's involvement in the media startup's project is 'concerning,' experts say

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith / Getty Images
Semafor cofounder Ben Smith / Getty Images
March 3, 2023

A Chinese billionaire on the board of Semafor's China initiative works as a senior executive for Beijing's "Chamber of Commerce" and has ties to other Chinese Communist Party front groups.

Zeng Yuqun, the chairman of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., is on the Chinese advisory board for Semafor's China & Global Business initiative. The media startup's "independent news initiative," which launched in March, claims to offer an alternative to Washington's "hawkish" consensus on Beijing. Contemporary Amperex is a major player in the CCP's effort to dominate the green-technology supply chain and receives considerable subsidies from Beijing.

According to Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the director of the Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at the Heritage Foundation, Zeng's involvement in Semafor's project "shows that this publication has concerning ties with Beijing."

"It's concerning for a media outlet to be receiving financial backing from a company with deep CCP ties," said Furchtgott-Roth, who served as an economic adviser under three presidents.

Zeng is not the first controversial figure to partner with Semafor. The company received a sizable investment from former billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, the embattled Democratic Party donor who now faces prison time for allegedly defrauding investors in his cryptocurrency firm. Bankman-Fried poured roughly $10 million into Semafor as part of the media startup's $25 million funding round. Semafor said in January it plans on repurchasing Bankman-Fried's interest in the company.

Zeng serves on two organizations in China's "united front" system, which the CCP uses to wield influence across the globe. He is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the leading united front organization. In December, Zeng was elected vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, which describes itself as "a chamber of commerce led by the Communist Party of China."

Zeng's firm has come under fire from American politicians. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin (R.). recently killed a proposal from Contemporary Amperex and Ford to open a battery plant in his state, calling the Chinese company a CCP "Trojan horse."

It is unclear who is funding the new Semafor initiative. Semafor cofounder Ben Smith declined comment.

But Semafor cofounder and CEO Justin Smith cultivated ties to the CCP when he was CEO of Bloomberg Media Group. During his tenure, the news outlet reportedly ordered a journalist to end his investigation into the wealth of senior CCP officials. That reporter was subsequently fired.

Bloomberg Media Group's parent company, Bloomberg L.P., did considerable business in China. The group sells millions of dollars' worth of Bloomberg Terminal subscriptions to Chinese firms and in 2015 launched an initiative to give American firms easier access to the Chinese currency market.

Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, failed presidential candidate, and CEO of Bloomberg L.P., apologized last November to China after former British prime minister Boris Johnson at a Bloomberg event called the Chinese government a "coercive autocracy." Bloomberg, who serves as an adviser to President Joe Biden's Defense Department, has defended CCP leadership, going so far as to dispute the consensus that President Xi Jinping is a dictator.

Semafor said the initiative is aimed at presenting a "diversity of opinion" on U.S.-Sino relations. But much of its advisory board consists of CCP members, CCP front group officials, and pro-China business leaders.

Wang Huiyao, the founder of the Center for China & Globalization and a Semafor advisory board member, is a Chinese government adviser and architect of China's controversial "Thousand Talents" program, which Beijing uses to steal trade secrets from American companies and create national security risks for the U.S. government.

Two Chinese Communist Party members, former minister of commerce Chen Deming and former ambassador Cui Tiankai, serve on the initiative's advisory board.

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, also serve on the board. 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."

Semafor in its short existence has forged other ties to China. The outlet hosted then-Chinese ambassador Qin Gang at an event held following the White House Correspondents' Dinner last April. Qin was interviewed at Semafor's Africa Summit in December. Alibaba, the Chinese cloud computing giant, sponsored Semafor's eCommerce forum in January. The company has come under fire for providing facial recognition software to the Chinese government to track Muslim Uyghurs.