In August, foreign ministers from 10 nations blasted China for building artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. As media around the world covered the diplomatic clash, a radio station that serves the most powerful city in America had a distinctive take on the news.
Located outside Washington, D.C., WCRW radio made no mention of China’s provocative island project. Instead, an analyst explained that tensions in the region were due to unnamed “external forces” trying “to insert themselves into this part of the world using false claims.”
Behind WCRW’s coverage is a fact that’s never broadcast: The Chinese government controls much of what airs on the station, which can be heard on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
WCRW is just one of a growing number of stations across the world through which Beijing is broadcasting China-friendly news and programming.
A Reuters investigation spanning four continents has identified at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries that are part of a global radio web structured in a way that obscures its majority shareholder: state-run China Radio International, or CRI.
Many of these stations primarily broadcast content created or supplied by CRI or by media companies it controls in the United States, Australia and Europe. Three Chinese expatriate businessmen, who are CRI’s local partners, run the companies and in some cases own a stake in the stations. The network reaches from Finland to Nepal to Australia, and from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
At WCRW, Beijing holds a direct financial interest in the Washington station’s broadcasts. Corporate records in the United States and China show a Beijing-based subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned radio broadcaster owns 60 percent of an American company that leases almost all of the station’s airtime.
China has a number of state-run media properties, such as the Xinhua news agency, that are well-known around the world. But American officials charged with monitoring foreign media ownership and propaganda said they were unaware of the Chinese-controlled radio operation inside the United States until contacted by Reuters. A half-dozen former senior U.S. officials said federal authorities should investigate whether the arrangement violates laws governing foreign media and agents in the United States.
A U.S. law enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits foreign governments or their representatives from holding a radio license for a U.S. broadcast station. Under the Communications Act, foreign individuals, governments and corporations are permitted to hold up to 20 percent ownership directly in a station and up to 25 percent in the U.S. parent corporation of a station.
CRI itself doesn’t hold ownership stakes in U.S. stations, but it does have a majority share via a subsidiary in the company that leases WCRW in Washington and a Philadelphia station with a similarly high-powered signal.
Said former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt: “If there were allegations made about de facto Chinese government ownership of radio stations, then I’m sure the FCC would investigate.”
U.S. law also requires anyone inside the United States seeking to influence American policy or public opinion on behalf of a foreign government or group to register with the Department of Justice. Public records show that CRI’s U.S. Chinese-American business partner and his companies haven’t registered as foreign agents under the law, called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
“I would make a serious inquiry under FARA into a company rebroadcasting Chinese government propaganda inside the United States without revealing that it is acting on behalf of, or it’s owned or controlled by China,” said D.E. “Ed” Wilson Jr., a former senior White House and Treasury Department official.
CRI headquarters in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Washington declined to make officials available for interviews or to comment on the findings of this article.
Justice Department national security spokesman Marc Raimondi and FCC spokesman Neil Grace declined to comment.
Other officials at the FCC said the agency receives so many license applications that it only launches a probe if it receives a complaint. People familiar with the matter said no such complaint has been lodged with the FCC about the CRI-backed network in the United States.
BUILDING “SOFT POWER”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has chafed at a world order he sees as dominated by the United States and its allies, is aware that China struggles to project its views in the international arena.
“We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world,” Xi said in a policy address in November last year, according to Xinhua.
CRI head Wang Gengnian has described Beijing’s messaging effort as the “borrowed boat” strategy - using existing media outlets in foreign nations to carry China’s narrative.
The 33 radio stations backed by CRI broadcast in English, Chinese or local languages, offering a mix of news, music and cultural programs. Newscasts are peppered with stories highlighting China’s development, such as its space program, and its contribution to humanitarian causes, including earthquake relief in Nepal.
“We are not the evil empire that some Western media portray us to be,” said a person close to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing who is familiar with the CRI network. “Western media reports about China are too negative. We just want to improve our international image. It’s self-protection.”