Microsoft helped Chinese state-run media outlets disseminate propaganda as part of previously unreported partnership agreements, documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon show.
The nation’s second largest corporation signed collaboration deals with state-run Chinese media outlets including China Daily and People’s Daily, the latter of which is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese government. Summaries of the deal state Microsoft would provide China Daily with technology that lets the paper target potential readers and gave the People’s Daily access to an artificial intelligence bot specially designed to be controlled and censored by the Chinese Communist Party.
The deals have not been widely reported outside of China, nor have the financial terms been disclosed. A spokeswoman for Microsoft said both agreements "expired years ago and were not renewed." But experts say the fact that Microsoft inked the deals at all is a major win for the Chinese Communist Party.
"These are major propaganda outlets that publish outright falsehoods attacking the ideas of democracy, attacking the very concepts that undergird our society, and yet an American company is working to spread this," said Geoffrey Cain, policy director at the Tech Integrity Project, which fights Chinese Communist Party influence in American tech companies. "The purpose of all this is to show the Chinese Communist Party that it’s firmly on the side of China and the Chinese system," Cain added.
Both the China Daily and the People’s Daily are widely considered propaganda tools for the Chinese Communist Party. China Daily is published by the party’s Central Propaganda Department. The State Department in 2020 determined the People’s Daily’s parent company was "substantially owned or effectively controlled" by the Chinese government. In an announcement for the designation, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo referred to the paper as one of the "mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party."
Microsoft struck the agreement with China Daily in September 2016, according to a news release from the outlet. China Daily said Microsoft would provide technology to help enable the outlet to target and profile users and establish the "Media Smart Cloud Innovation Technology Laboratory."
The mission of the "Media Smart Cloud Innovation Technology Laboratory" is unclear, although it appears related to the Chinese New Media Laboratory. A Chinese media scholar wrote in 2019 that the Chinese New Media Laboratory "provides data support for research on [China’s] international communication effects."
The announcement of the deal was met with fanfare in Beijing, where executives from Microsoft and China Daily came together for a signing ceremony and photo op.
A senior Microsoft executive in China said at the time that it was "an honor to launch a strategic cooperation with China Daily," which Microsoft hoped would bring about "the success of the digital transformation of China’s media industry through integration and innovation."
"In today’s world of deeply integrated media development, new technologies, new methods, and new applications, China Daily must take content construction as the foundation, support it with advanced technology, and use continuous innovation to strengthen itself," China Daily’s deputy editor in chief said.
The largest English-language Chinese news outlet in the world, China Daily regularly pushes pro-Beijing talking points and stories critical of the United States. The paper has taken positions critical of the U.S.-Israel relationship and called Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a result of Washington’s "animosity towards Russia."
"Microsoft isn’t immune from these sorts of arrangements just because they’re an American company," said Jake Denton, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center. "It’s kind of an angel deal with the devil scenario. Microsoft loves the idea of access to the Asia market but it comes with a catch. In this case, it’s helping the Chinese government’s propaganda campaigns."
Microsoft extended its services to the People’s Daily with a similar partnership launched in June 2018, according to a release from the paper. As part of the agreement, Microsoft embedded its artificial intelligence chatbot Xiaoice into the People’s Daily English edition. The paper said Microsoft’s artificial intelligence bot would give English-speaking readers a "window" into understanding China.
Unlike Azure, the Microsoft artificial intelligence chatbot offered to companies in the West, Xiaoice’s responses are all approved by the Chinese government. China censored Xiaoice after the bot generated criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party. Microsoft spun Xiaoice off as an independent entity in 2020 but still holds shares in the company.
"Microsoft does not want to anger the Chinese Communist Party and access those 1.2 billion potential consumers," said Cain, author of The Perfect Police State, an exploration of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance regime. "Microsoft has made huge inroads in the Chinese government over the last two decades. That takes a lot of political posturing to win over Chinese Communist Party officials."
Since the 1990s, Microsoft has entered into dozens of partnerships or cooperative agreements with various Chinese government entities, records show. The firm opened Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing in 1998, its largest research lab outside of the United States.
Microsoft has roughly 9,000 employees in China and says it wants to surpass 10,000 employees by the end of the year. An executive wrote on the Chinese app WeChat last year that Microsoft hopes to "deepen the fertile ground for scientific research … [and] help to cultivate digital talents and join hands with Chinese innovation to go global."
Efforts to "cultivate" Chinese talent include the "Great Wall Project," which was first established in 2002 in conjunction with China’s Ministry of Education. A 2008 press release from the Chinese government said the goal was to train "a total of 50,000 information technology teachers." Microsoft, the statement said, would "provide support to 1,000 innovative classrooms designated by the Ministry of Education."
There is virtually no evidence Microsoft will reconsider its sprawling business relationships in China any time soon. In 2021, Microsoft China president Joe Bao called the country the "most dynamic and innovative place in the world."
"Every country in the world is looking to China as a role model for how to emerge from a pandemic today," Bao said.