China Daily’s Africa edition on a news stand in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Photo: AFP/ Tony Kraumba / via Getty Images

First, there was the trade war. Now, there is the “propaganda” war.

Earlier this week, the United States cracked down on China’s state-run media organizations in the country, branding them “foreign missions” and tools of Beijing’s “propaganda” machine.

The big five news groups, including Xinhua and China Global Television Network or CGTN, the international division of official broadcaster CCTV, were signaled out by the US State Department. So were China Radio, the English-language China Daily newspaper and the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.

“There is no dispute that all five of these entities are part of the [Chinese] party-state propaganda news apparatus and they take their orders directly from the top. We all know these guys have been state-controlled forever, but that control has gotten stronger over time, and it’s far more aggressive,” a Washington official said at a media briefing on condition of anonymity as reported by the AFP news agency.

Slightly more than 24 hours later, Beijing ordered three journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin, Chao Deng and Philip Wen, to leave the country within five days. 

A statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the decision was in retaliation for an opinion column entitled, China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia, which was published earlier in the month and written by Walter Russell Mead, a columnist and academic.

“The expression ‘sick man of Asia’ was a derogatory characterization of China’s weaknesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it was torn by internal divisions and exploited by foreign powers,” the New York Times pointed out in covering the story.

Still, many critics believe this was a tit-for-tat response to the State Department’s action. But that might be too simplistic.

I spent two short stints working for China Daily on the business desk in Beijing and I can categorically state that the newspaper was purely in the propaganda business. The censors, not senior editors, controlled the narrative and tone via Beijing’s Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China.

By 2016, the vice-like grip continued to tighten after President Xi Jinping visited the headquarters of the CCTV network and the People’s Daily, and made it clear that journalists “must give absolute loyalty” to the CCP.

For China Daily, that resulted in a shake-up of senior Chinese editors and a refocus of the core message of Xi and the Party.

“[Under] Xi’s leadership, a firmer grip on information control [was brought in], both in traditional media and the internet. When Xi visited CCTV and the People’s Daily, he forcefully emphasized that all media in China “bears the party surname,” Sally Xiaojin Chen, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, wrote for The Conversation, an academic website, nearly four years ago.

Since then, Xi’s administration has pumped more than US$1 billion on an annual basis in ramping up its global media presence, a study by Reporters Without Borders revealed.

In China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order, RSF investigated Beijing’s strategy to “control information beyond its borders,” a project “that poses a threat to press freedom throughout the world.”

“In the spirit of the Beijing regime, journalists are not intended to be a counter-power but rather to serve the propaganda of states. If democracies do not resist, Beijing will impose [its] propaganda, which is a threat for journalism and democracy,” Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, said last year.

A research document by Freedom House also found that China Daily’s spending in the US soared from $500,000 in the first half of 2009 to more than $5 million in the second six months of 2019. But then, pushing the Party line has never been cheap in the propaganda war.