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The influence environment

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A survey of Chinese-language media in Australia

What’s the problem?

In the past two decades, Australia’s Chinese-language media landscape has undergone fundamental changes that have come at a cost to quality, freedom of speech, privacy and community representation. The diversity of Australia’s Chinese communities, which often trace their roots to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Taiwan as well as the People’s Republic of China, isn’t well reflected in the media sector.

Persistent efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to engage with and influence Chinese language media in Australia far outmatch the Australian Government’s work in the same space. A handful of outlets generally offer high-quality coverage of a range of issues. However, CCP influence affects all media. It targets individual outlets while also manipulating market incentives through advertising, coercion and WeChat. Four of the 24 Australian media companies studied in this report show evidence of CCP ownership or financial support.

WeChat, a Chinese social media app created by Tencent, may be driving the most substantial and harmful changes ever observed in Australia’s Chinese-language media sector. On the one hand, the app is particularly important to Chinese Australians and helps people stay connected to friends and family in China. It’s used by as many as 3 million users in Australia for a range of purposes including instant messaging.1 It’s also the most popular platform used by Chinese Australians to access news.2 However, WeChat raises concerns because of its record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing’s objectives. Media outlets on WeChat face tight restrictions that facilitate CCP influence by pushing the vast majority of news accounts targeting Australian audiences to register in China. Networks and information sharing within the app are opaque, contributing to the spread of disinformation.

Australian regulations are still evolving to meet the challenges identified in this report, which often mirror problems in the media industry more generally. They haven’t introduced sufficient transparency to the Chinese-language media sector and influence from the CCP. Few Australian Government policies effectively support Chinese-language media and balance or restrict CCP influence in it.

What’s the solution?

The Australian Government should protect Chinese-language media from foreign interference while introducing measures to support the growth of an independent and professional media sector. WeChat is a serious challenge to the health of the sector and to free and open public discourse in Chinese communities, and addressing it must be a core part of the solution.

The government should encourage the establishment and growth of independent media. It should consider expanding Chinese-language services through the ABC and SBS, while also reviewing conflicts of interest and foreign interference risks in each. Greater funding should be allocated to multicultural media, including for the creation of scholarships and training programs for Chinese-language journalists and editors. The government should subsidise syndication from professional, non-CCPcontrolled media outlets.

On WeChat, the government should hold all social media companies to the same set of rules, standards and norms, regardless of their country of origin or ownership. As it does with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the government should increase engagement with WeChat through relevant bodies such as the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the eSafety Commissioner, the Australian Electoral Commission and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The aim should be to ensure that WeChat is taking clear and measurable steps in 2021 to address concerns and meet the same sets of rules, standards and norms that US social media platforms are held to. This effort should be done in tandem with outreach to like-minded countries. If companies refuse to meet those standards, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate in Australia.3

The government should explore ways to amend or improve the enforcement of legislation such as the Broadcasting Services Act 1995 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 to increase the transparency of foreign ownership of media in any language, regardless of platform.

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ADF

Australian Defence Force

ACSC

Australian Cyber Security Centre

IEC

the International Electrotechnical Commission

IEEE

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

IoT

Internet of Things

IoTAA

Internet of Things Alliance Australia

ISO

International Organisation for Standardization

USB

universal serial bus

IIOT

Industrial Internet of Things

ASD

Australian Signals Directorate

CCP

Chinese Communist Party

MERICS

Mercator Institute for China Studies

PRC

Peoples Republic of China

VPN

virtual private network

AI

Artificial Intelligence

SCS

Social Credit System

BRI

One Belt, One Road initiative

CETC

China Electronics Technology Group Corporation

NGO

nongovernment organisation

RFID

radio-frequency identification

CFIUS

Committee on Foreign Investment in the US

SVAIL

Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

UTS

University of Technology Sydney

ATO

Australian Taxation Office

COAG

Council of Australian Governments

DHS

Department of Human Services

DTA

Digital Transformation Agency

FIS

Face Identification Service

FVS

Face Verification Service

TDIF

Trusted Digital Identity Framework

NUDT

National University of Defense Technology

PLAIEU

PLA Information Engineering University

RFEU

Rocket Force Engineering University

STEM

science, technology, engineering and mathematics

UNSW

University of New South Wales

ZISTI

Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute

AFP

Australian Federal Police

ACIC

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission

NATO

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

A4P

Action for Peacekeeping

ASEAN

Association of Southeast Asian Nations

C-34

Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations

CTOAP

Peacekeeping Training Centre (Timor-Leste)

F-FDTL

Timor-Leste Defence Force

MFO

Multinational Force and Observers

MINUSCA

UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic

MINUSMA

UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali

MONUSCO

UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

PNGDF

Papua New Guinea Defence Force

PNTL

National Police of Timor-Leste

RAMSI

Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands

RFMF

Republic of Fiji Military Forces

RPNGC

Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary

RSIPF

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force

UNAMI

UN Assistance Mission for Iraq

UNAMID

UN–African Union Mission in Darfur

UNAMIR

UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda

UNAVEM

UN Angola Verification Mission

UNDOF

UN Disengagement Observer Force

UNIFIL

UN Interim Force in Lebanon

UNIKOM

UN Iraq–Kuwait Observation Mission

UNIOGBIS

UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office for Guinea-Bissau

UNISFA

UN Interim Security Force for Abyei

UNOSOM

UN Operation in Somalia

UNMHA

UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement

UNMIBH

UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina

UNMIK

UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

UNMIL

UN Mission in Liberia

UNMIS

UN Mission in Sudan

UNMISET

UN Mission of Support to East Timor

UNMISS

UN Mission in South Sudan

UNMIT

UN Integrated Mission in East Timor

UNOTIL

UN Office in East Timor

UNSMIS

UN Supervision Mission in Syria

UNTAC

UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia

UNTAES

UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium

UNTAET

UN Transitional Administration in East Timor

UNTSO

UN Truce Supervision Organization