Who is watching NZ’s Chinese-language media?

Analysis: Censorship among Chinese-language media is becoming a growing concern. New Zealand owes its Chinese community better scrutiny of what’s going on, writes Laura Walters.

Earlier this month, someone with knowledge of China’s embassy and consulate operations in New Zealand risked their safety to lay bare the facts about media censorship.

The person, who Newsroom has agreed not to identify, was not talking about media censorship within China, but censorship of New Zealand’s domestic media by Chinese state officials.

“The Cultural Attache leads a group at the PRC Consulate in charge of planning, coordinating and controlling the New Zealand Chinese media.”

The comment is short, but direct.

This information is not surprising to China-watchers and those with knowledge of what China calls its United Front work, but it’s an uncomfortable statement for New Zealand – a country whose media landscape is supposed to be a far cry from the censorship regime of the People’s Republic of China.

There is nothing new in the co-ordination and control of information consumed by Chinese diaspora communities, but a series of recent examples paints a concerning picture.

It also raises the question: who is keeping an eye on New Zealand's Chinese-language media.

Over the past year, Newsroom has been alerted to a number of examples of this censorship and self-censorship. Some of the examples are recent, and some date back years. But all raise questions about freedom of the press.

Last week, Newsroom reported on the Chinese New Zealand Herald’s operating model and permits, which experts say amount to the online publication being under the supervision and control of Beijing.

NZME – the publisher of the NZ Herald and the 50 percent owner of Chinese New Zealand Herald – said the permits were needed for WeChat, and the Chinese state-owned media company that secured the permits has no involvement in running the company.

But the publication’s editorial decisions tells a different story.

Earlier this year, Stuff reported the publication had edited articles translated from the NZ Herald to put a better light on the Chinese government.

In response, NZ Herald editor Shayne Currie said articles from the NZ Herald must be “fully and accurately translated”.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady has spoken at length about the Chinese Communist Party's United Front work, which includes control and supervision of diaspora media. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But just last month, the NZ Herald published a story about former trade minister Todd McClay's role in arranging a $150,000 National Party donation from Chinese racing industry billionaire Lang Lin.

The story was not immediately translated by the publication’s Chinese-language version. When it eventually was, quotes were missing from well-known China expert, and University of Canterbury professor, Anne-Marie Brady.

In June, Newsroom reported the website published and then retracted an article which made a number of debunked and controversial claims about the recent protests in Hong Kong.

And there have been reports of the Chinese New Zealand Herald’s owner and director Lili Wang attending state-sponsored conferences in Mainland China.

The issue of Chinese state influence and interference seems to be approaching its zeitgeist in New Zealand, thanks largely to the recent National Party donation scandals, the current Justice Select Committee inquiry into foreign interference, and a general growing awareness of China’s place in the world, and how the Chinese Communist Party operates in other countries.

But those who spoke to Newsroom said media censorship was long-running and far-reaching. 

“This incident, which happened ten years ago, is not an individual incident. It means that not every place in this democracy has freedom of speech."

In 2009, a regular columnist, with the pen name Mr Sun, attended a concert in Howick, along with the then-Consul General of the Auckland Consulate.

Mr Sun said the diplomat was 40 minutes late to the event and when she arrived, she lost her temper with the audience.

He wrote a column criticising her behaviour, and submitted it to the Mandarin Pages newspaper.

The column was ready to be printed, but the editor pulled the article at the last minute after pressure was put on the publication. The editor told Mr Sun the decision was made for his own safety.

“This incident, which happened 10 years ago, is not an individual incident. It means that not every place in this democracy has freedom of speech," he told Newsroom.

"Ten years later, the lack of freedom of speech in the Chinese community and Chinese media is disappointing."

Wellingtonians familiar with the local Mandarin paper the Homevoice say they have never seen the paper print anything that would be unacceptable to the Chinese government.

This paper also includes a regular column (Chopsticks & Politics) by National MP Jian Yang – best-known for his role in teaching spies at a military university in China.

National list MP Jian Yang has a weekly column in a Wellington Mandarin-language paper Homevoice. Those who read the paper say Homevoice sticks to what's known as 'the Xinhua line' - the line the CCP would endorse. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Some publications freely criticise the CCP, including so-called dissident papers the Epoch Times, and Beijing Spring. But publications that don't toe the line often struggle to secure advertising money.

In 2018, SkyKiwi's Wellington bureau chief Lily Wang - not to be confused with the Chinese New Zealand Herald’s Lili Wang - told Stuff the online publication was "careful" about "publishing sensitive information" as the publication's relationship with the Chinese Embassy was very important. But the publication's editorial director said the publication followed the same values and ethics as English-language media in New Zealand.

Freeman Yu said the censorship undermined New Zealand’s democratic system, and only exposed Chinese New Zealanders to one viewpoint.

The impact of this was seen during recent issues regarding Huawei’s 5G network. Yu said when he tried to comment on an online news site in support of the GCSB decision, he was blocked.

His anti-CCP stance has also seen him face attacks by columnist-turned-local body candidate, Morgan Xiao. In one instance Xiao called Yu an “anti-China son of a bitch”, and told him get out of New Zealand. The piece was published simultaneously by SkyKiwi, the Mandarin Pages and the New Zealand Chinese Daily News.

To add to all this, there were some concerning submissions to the Justice Select Committee earlier in the year, including an anonymous letter, where the author alleged Chinese officials in New Zealand ordered the foreign-language media not to report online attacks on Jacinda Ardern, or translate or publish stories about Jian Yang's past.

The author also alleged the Chinese government is directing and controlling the New Zealand-based Chinese media through a combination of incentives and punishments.

"It is not a matter of being anti any other country, or any other culture, but it was about freedom of the press - which was something New Zealand went to war for."

These are a selection of examples that paint a concerning picture about the state of the Chinese-language print media in New Zealand.

This also aligns with what experts, including Brady, have written about the CCP’s United Front work, and goals to influence, integrate and “harmonise” the overseas media with the Chinese media.

In a recent interview with Newsroom, Foreign Minister Winston Peters did not hold back in his condemnation of this behaviour by domestic media.

"To wantonly accept censorship from abroad… against the interests of all the local people is something that is to be thoroughly regretted," he said.

"It is not a matter of being anti any other country, or any other culture, but it was about freedom of the press - which was something New Zealand went to war for.

“But freedoms have to be upheld by those who hitherto have claimed those rights. It appears in this case, they’re not prepared to defend them, but rather worship the god of mammon, in the form of financial income," Peters said.

“They’re meant to be the eyes and ears of the public, they’re meant to be the fourth estate. They’re meant to be, without fear or favour, printing the truth.”

“The truth is, the role of the Media Council is not terrifically well understood by English-speaking New Zealanders… I suspect it is less understood by people who aren’t regular readers of our ordinary newspapers."

These examples and growing rumblings about the state of the Chinese-language media, suggests further scrutiny and greater public awareness is overdue.

Media Council chairman Raynor Asher said as well as dealing with complaints, the council was generally concerned about the conduct of, and about the wellbeing of, the news media in New Zealand. That included the issues of freedom of speech and good standards, and extended to domestic, foreign-language media, he said.

But while any foreign-language publication could become a member of the council but not many were. And there were only a limited set of examples where complaints had been made against non-English publications.

Newsroom is aware of a recent complaint to the council, against the Chinese New Zealand Herald, where the complainant said the publication’s coverage of the Hong Kong protests lacked balance. But for this to go anywhere, the Chinese NZ Herald would have to grant permission to the council to investigate and rule.

Asher said he knew this was a space to watch, but there were barriers to investigating foreign-language media.

It could be difficult to find someone to do a “respectable and proper” translation of articles, and the associated costs were high.

Meanwhile, the council did not have any specific information on whether the Chinese diaspora community was even aware, or understood, the council’s role.

“The truth is, the role of the Media Council is not terrifically well understood by English-speaking New Zealanders… I suspect it is less understood by people who aren’t regular readers of our ordinary newspapers,” he said.

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