To the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand, China mutes critics and feeds talking points

Independent Chinese media outlets go out of business and are replaced with Beijing-friendly voices.
By Jane Tang for Asia Fact Check Lab
2023.08.19
To the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand, China mutes critics and feeds talking points Su Wende in the office of the Mandarin Pages newspaper that he founded in Auckland, New Zealand.
Radio Free Asia

Su Wende’s Mandarin Pages newspaper thrived in New Zealand for years – until blacklists and advertising boycotts driven by China’s consulate cut the Chinese-language daily to a weekly. 

Chen Weijian’s New Times Weekly was hit by the same tactics and then driven out of business by a lawsuit.

The Auckland publishers clashed with a force that was named among top concerns by New Zealand’s intelligence agency in its annual security threat report: the targeting of ethnic Chinese communities by people and entities linked to Beijing. 

The report followed a similar one in March from Canada’s intelligence agency that listed China among foreign actors that “monitor, intimidate and harass diaspora communities” and “attempt to silence dissidents and promote favorable narratives.”

A steady stream of government and media reports about China’s influence and information operations in Western countries has shed light on covert Chinese police stations in major cities, harassment of places that host dissidents and media disinformation campaigns.

The reports on China’s influence machine – confirmed to Radio Free Asia’s Asia Fact Check Lab by multiple Chinese media figures in New Zealand – show how Beijing deploys cash, aggressive diplomats and boycotts to produce China-friendly press coverage and deter critical reporting. 

The effort largely targets growing Chinese diaspora communities in Western democracies, and comes as the United States and allies are reassessing their economic ties to China over security concerns.

Blacklisted

In Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, Su Wende had dreams of establishing a news agency to serve the Chinese community. 

In 1987, after graduating college in Malaysia with a computer science degree, Su arrived at the University of Auckland to study business. Four years later, he founded the first free Mandarin newspaper in New Zealand: Mandarin Pages. 

The paper publishes news, information, translated articles and editorials. It generates revenue from classified ads.

“There were only 20,000 Chinese people in Auckland at the time, and we were printing 5,000 copies for every issue,” said Su.

In its heyday at the start of the century, Su’s paper was headquartered in a brightly lit building in downtown Auckland, with more than 20 employees. The newspaper quickly expanded from two to six issues a week and enjoyed what seemed like a never-ending stream of ads and unrivaled influence in the Chinese community of New Zealand.

Chen Weijian, a former Hangzhou printing house operator who fled China after the 1989 Tiananmen killings and  settled in New Zealand , where he founded the New Times Weekly in 1996. Credit: Radio Free Asia
Chen Weijian, a former Hangzhou printing house operator who fled China after the 1989 Tiananmen killings and settled in New Zealand , where he founded the New Times Weekly in 1996. Credit: Radio Free Asia

By the end of 2022, however, Mandarin Pages was down to three full-time employees and had relocated to an old one-story red-brick building in Auckland’s Chinatown. The publication maintained its print circulation of 5,000, but had shifted to a weekly. 

“Honestly, since the pandemic, the company’s been in the red,” he acknowledges. 

Part of Su’s struggle is shared by many print media outlets as they lose ground to digital outlets.

But for Mandarin publications reliant on Chinese immigrants, the biggest challenge comes from Chinese diplomatic missions. 

“In the last five years, I’ve pretty much been blacklisted by the embassy,” Su said. “It’s like a form of economic sanction.”

“The Mandarin Pages no longer gets ads from major Chinese companies like China Southern Airlines and the Bank of China,” he added. “It’s definitely hit us hard.” 

Su said the Mandarin Pages has been attacked on social media by pro-China voices as anti-Chinese Communist Party, a “separatist supporting Taiwan independence” and a supporter of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.

Mandarin Pages has also faced suspension on WeChat, China’s popular Twitter-like platform, for coverage of China’s interference in New Zealand politics. And in a hilarious run-in with WeChat, a classified ad listing for an “independent one-bedroom apartment” was rejected because “independent” is a politically sensitive word in China.

“Why do I keep going? I don’t want to see the United Front media supporting United Front work as the only voice in New Zealand and just defaming the West and New Zealand,” Su said, referring to the United Front Works Department, China's main external influence agency.

The Chinese Consulate-General in Auckland did not respond to RFA’s request for comment. 

Reuters quoted the Chinese Embassy in Wellington as saying it was "strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed" to the China-related content in the New Zealand intelligence report, which also listed Iran and Russia as countries of concern.

Sued out of existence

In 1991, Chen Weijian escaped to New Zealand through Hong Kong from Hangzhou, where he previously operated a printing house. He fled a tense political atmosphere in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

In 1996, Chen founded the New Times Weekly in New Zealand.

“As the first newspaper founded by mainland Chinese people in New Zealand, our keen understanding of mainland China politics and grounded perspective on the lives of Chinese immigrants allowed us to quickly expand our influence,” Chen told RFA.

“But after a few months, the consulate started to interfere with our operations,” he said. “They sent a list of journalists and writers that we weren’t allowed to publish.”

“I ignored them, but one of my partners from Hong Kong still had business in mainland China and believed that we should comply with the consulate’s wishes. We couldn’t agree, and so he backed out of the New Times Weekly.”

Chen Weijian looks at copies of his defunct New Times Weekly, which folded in 2011. Credit: Radio Free Asia
Chen Weijian looks at copies of his defunct New Times Weekly, which folded in 2011. Credit: Radio Free Asia

Chen and his younger brother, Chen Weiming, picked up the mantle.

“The counselor from the consulate-general in Auckland would visit us during weekends with alcohol in tow to convince us that the Communist Party of China is more open now than before,” Chen told RFA. “They encouraged us to visit China again and hoped that we could also publish articles painting China in a more positive light instead of simply criticizing.”

In 2001, the New Times Weekly clashed with the Chinese consulate in Auckland over coverage of the self-immolation of Falun Gong practitioners at Tiananmen Square. Thus began a series of painful sanctions against the news outlet.

“The consulate wrote to us, decrying what we published about the Tiananmen Square incident as lies and asking us to publish an explanation from the embassy regarding the self-immolation,” said Chen.

In a few weeks, the publication started unexpectedly losing advertisements. Chen later found out that the consulate had warned advertising agencies and Chinese communities “against advertising with New Times Weekly because that would be anti-China.”

The final straw was a 10-year defamation suit filed by the Chinese Herald, a pro-Beijing newspaper.

“On June 4, they posted several articles claiming that the (Tiananmen) massacre had made major contributions to the Chinese people and led to 20 years of stable economic growth,” Chen said. “We published an article criticizing the Chinese Herald for yielding to the Communist Party’s control, and they sued me for defamation.”

After a costly and time-consuming process, New Times lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay NZ$50,000 (about US$30,000) in compensation. 

In 2011, New Times Weekly closed.

Despite numerous attempts by Radio Free Asia to interview owner Lili Wang of the Chinese Herald, Wang politely declined to be interviewed.

Indirect pressure

Sun Jiarui, a 77-year old man from Beijing, left China 42 years ago and spent 25 years in Fiji. He founded a local Mandarin publication called the Fiji Daily before retiring to New Zealand in 2005.

Sun is better known by his pseudonym, the South Pacific Frog in a Well, under which he’s published several books, hosted Mandarin programs for Radio New Zealand Pacific and the BBC, and written columns for the Mandarin Pages.

“Self-censorship in the media, influence from the embassy, and reporting by ‘Little Pinks’…mean it’s no longer possible to criticize China on Mandarin media outlets in New Zealand,” he said. Little Pinks is a derisive term for China's army of nationalistic trolls and online commentators.

Sun Jiarui, who, left China 42 years ago and spent 25 years in Fiji before retiring in 2005 to New Zealand, where under the pseudonym "South Pacific Frog in a Well" he  has published books, hosted  Chinese-language radio programs , and written columns for the Mandarin Pages. Credit: Radio Free Asia
Sun Jiarui, who, left China 42 years ago and spent 25 years in Fiji before retiring in 2005 to New Zealand, where under the pseudonym "South Pacific Frog in a Well" he has published books, hosted Chinese-language radio programs , and written columns for the Mandarin Pages. Credit: Radio Free Asia

Over 10 years ago, Sun wrote an article criticizing Chinese diplomats for showing up late and behaving arrogantly during a local event. 

“The assistant editor responsible for typesetting was a student from mainland China. Right before publication, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Herald, known for his close ties with the embassy, called the Mandarin Pages requesting that we pull the article,” said Sun in an account confirmed by editors involved with the dispute.

“Through the incident, I learned that the embassy had deployed people to control the media,” Sun said.

‘Magic Weapons’

While Mandarin Pages struggles, however, the Chinese Herald has grown its staff and circulation.

One of the world’s leading scholars on China’s influence and propaganda outreach policy is a New Zealander named Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at Canterbury University. She has tracked how the Chinese Communist Party works with local Chinese-language media outlets or buys publications to exert its influence. 

“The leading Auckland Chinese language paper, the Chinese Herald has close personell links to the PRC consulate works with the All-China Federation of Overseas Chinese,” Brady wrote in a 2017 study. 

“The paper was originally totally independent, but like many other papers, it has been steadily 'harmonized' with Chinese media control agencies,” she wrote.

Brady’s report on  Chinese influence efforts, titled “Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping,” identified party links to influential Mandarin media outlets in New Zealand.

In early 2018, Brady's home and office were burglarized, and laptops and a burner phone were taken, while valuables were untouched, and her mechanic said the family car was tampered with.

Diverging views

As is the case in many countries in response to leader Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, nationalistic foreign policy and the COVID-19 pandemic, public opinion toward China in New Zealand has soured.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center in 2021 showed that 67% of New Zealanders hold negative views of China and up to 80% believe in speaking up against China’s human rights violations despite the country being New Zealand’s biggest trading partner.

“Around 10 years ago, the people of New Zealand saw China as a great opportunity, a rising nation about to become a part of the international community,” said Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center. 

”Around 2017, (China’s image) started changing.”

Chinese-New Zealanders sing and play ukuleles at the Auckland Chinese Community Center, where  immigrants from China and other  Asian countries socialize, play music,  and square off at mahjong or chess. Credit: RFA.
Chinese-New Zealanders sing and play ukuleles at the Auckland Chinese Community Center, where immigrants from China and other Asian countries socialize, play music, and square off at mahjong or chess. Credit: RFA.

But preliminary data from research by Taiwan’s Doublethink Lab seen by RFA shows that while over 70% of non-Chinese New Zealanders hold negative views of China, over 60% of Chinese respondents in the country expressed positive views of China. 

Doublethink Lab, a research outfit that tracks China’s global influence, has identified traits in people susceptible to the Chinese Communist Party’s information outreach: a low sense of belonging in New Zealand, participation in Chinese communities, systematic Mandarin learning, familiarity with Mandarin media in New Zealand and getting their news from Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. 

“For older generations of Chinese immigrants, the rise of China has given them renewed confidence,” said New Zealand author and ethnicity researcher Tze Ming Mok.

“To a certain extent, they’ve attached their self-worth to China: Anyone criticizing China is criticizing me.”

Restoring the glory

The majority of new Chinese immigrants rely heavily on WeChat and Mandarin communities for their information, making them soft targets for the Communist Party’s information warfare. 

Tze noted that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, very few senior Chinese immigrants were vaccinated because China’s social media platforms carried the narrative that “American vaccines are bad for Chinese people.”

In his decade in power, Xi has put great importance on targeting overseas Chinese, placing the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office under the United Front Work Department and ramping up the information outreach.

Xi’s notion of all Chinese “working together to restore the glory of China” seems to resonate with many members of the Chinese community in New Zealand, which over the past century has grown from 3,000 people, or less  than 0.3% of the national population, to 250,000, accounting for around 5% of the country’s 5 million people.

"There are a small number of states who conduct foreign interference in New Zealand but their ability to cause harm is significant," says New Zealand’s "New Zealand's Security Threat Environment 2023" report, citing China, Russia and Iran as the main perpetrators.  Photo: RFA
"There are a small number of states who conduct foreign interference in New Zealand but their ability to cause harm is significant," says New Zealand’s "New Zealand's Security Threat Environment 2023" report, citing China, Russia and Iran as the main perpetrators. Photo: RFA

When talking about sensitive topics such as human rights violations in Xinjiang and the destruction of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, senior Chinese immigrants echo the slogans, narratives and wording used by China’s official spokespeople and propaganda nearly word for word. 

“New Zealand should remain neutral. We can’t follow the U.S. into everything, like a puppet,” said Terry Wang, an 81-year-old second-generation immigrant.

“Look at Hong Kong: The city is filled with CIA operatives whose sole purpose is to create chaos. The U.S. selectively criticizes China for violating human rights in Xinjiang only when it serves their interest,” added Wang, repeating lines often heard at Chinese Foreign Ministry news conferences.

At the Auckland Chinese Community Center, where elderly long-time immigrants play ukulele and sing, or square off at mahjong, Kai Luey quickly cites the China Global Television Network, the global arm of China's state broadcaster, when asked where he gets his news on China.

“CGTN! It’s helped me learn more about China,” the 82-year-old said.

 

“China has made me very proud. They’ve brought tens of millions of people out of poverty and they’ve never invaded any countries even after their rise –  unlike the British and European colonizers,” Luey said. “They only have bad things to say about China.”

As he welcomes members to the mahjong room, Luey turns around and adds a chestnut from party propaganda: “Present-day China wouldn’t be possible without the Communist Party!”

Editing by Paul Eckert.

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Wangchuk
Aug 23, 2023 03:26 PM

The CCP employs an army of propaganda agents both domestic & overseas to spread the CCP's party line on all things related to China, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights, etc. The PRC spends billions of yuan on foreign propaganda & often targets Chinese people living abroad. The CCP want to spread its censorship from the PRC to the entire world.