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UPDATE: As of April 3, the Telegraph appeared to have removed the People's Daily Online site in its entirety. As of April 7, the Telegraph also appeared to have removed China Daily's China Watch feature. A spokesperson for the Telegraph did not return a request for comment
When medical authorities in China claimed they’d cured more than 750 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, using pseudoscience, one major British newspaper made sure there was space for China's party line on the story.
“Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus,'” declared the March 3 headline, in the online version of the Daily Telegraph. Without any evidence, the article claimed that the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine had tested an unidentified “prescription” on 804 patients, and that "by the end of 14 February," it had proven "effective in 94 per cent of the cases."
The article was published in a section of the Telegraph’s site called People’s Daily Online, a self-contained “advertisement feature” promising "all the latest stories about contemporary China’s dynamic development, diverse culture and world-leading infrastructure," complete with a home page and sections for news, opinion, business, and sports, among other topics. But beyond a boilerplate disclaimer waiving responsibility, nowhere does the site disclose any information about its sponsor.
People’s Daily is the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China. Its "advertisement feature" on the Telegraph's site is part of a global propaganda campaign that positions the country as a leader in fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 44,000 people worldwide.
The Telegraph is one of dozens of newspapers around the world that have struck deals with China in recent years. According to one report, the paper received £750,000 annually to carry a supplement called China Watch from Chinese state-run newspaper China Daily, a relationship which, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, had led to accusations that the British newspaper had softened its editorial line on Beijing.
The Daily Telegraph and the People's Daily did not return requests for comment. At least 16 articles were taken down Wednesday, after BuzzFeed News began asking questions.
Online archives show that the People's Daily Online began running stories about the coronavirus in February, shortly after China's President Xi Jinping “called upon Chinese media to publish stories casting [China's response] in a positive light,” as Axios reported. Since then, it has run more than 50 paid articles in the Telegraph praising the Chinese government and attacking its foreign adversaries. Unlike the Telegraph’s own coronavirus coverage, much of which is hidden behind a paywall, all of the People's Daily Online content is free to read.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House and expert on Chinese media, said that exploiting foreign media to reach a mainstream audience is a common strategy of China's propaganda apparatus, known as “borrowing a boat to reach the sea."
“The form that has gotten the most attention are the print versions of the China Daily's China Watch supplement in major newspapers in the US, UK, and elsewhere,” Cook told BuzzFeed News. “But many of these supplements also have online versions, which are arguably more insidious because they are even harder for readers to distinguish from the host outlet's reporting.”
In one article, “Groundless attack on coronavirus fight belies US failures,” a Feb. 7 opinion piece attributed to Li Da (the name of one of the Chinese Communist Party's founding members, who died in 1966), the People's Daily Online denounced “American media and politicians,” which “are in no position to criticise how China has set about combating the epidemic for the good of all people,” and whose “ridiculous remarks reflect the evil intentions that show a lack of morality.”
The article criticized an unidentified New York Times story that reportedly predicted significant losses to China’s economy. According to the People's Daily Online, that story “slandered the Chinese government” because “any practice that points fingers at other countries’ efforts goes against the future of mankind and indulges the virus."
The article also cited a since-updated Jan. 28 BuzzFeed News story that originally said people should worry more about the flu. Leveraging that story to downplay the severity of the virus, the People's Daily Online urged its US critics to "please look at the American people suffering from the influenza before you create any nonsense,” adding, “It is hoped that you still have at least something of a conscience.”
Other recent articles from the People's Daily Online include “‘Onlookers’ in coronavirus epidemic should stop their gloating," "Pompeo’s recent remarks about China another despicable lie," and "Coronavirus outbreak is not an opportunity to score points against China," all self-explanatory.
The People's Daily Online doesn't hide its association with the Chinese government. Its site describes itself as a “propaganda and reporting” outlet that takes “important instructions” from “the leading comrades of Xi Jinping ’s Central Committee."
While historically known for its "mastery of bore-you-to-tears bureaucratese," according to Foreign Policy magazine, the People's Daily Online's recent articles more closely resemble that of its English-language subsidiary Global Times, whose “saber-rattling” editorials have earned it the nickname “China’s Fox News” from Chinese political journalist Michael Anti.
According to Cook, this new, more aggressive style of rhetoric started leaking into the public discourse last year, with Chinese media and state officials adopting “Russia-style tactics” to achieve their goals.
“It's definitely something that has taken off steam amid the coronavirus outbreak,” Cook said. However, “for a British audience, this type of more aggressive rhetoric seems counterproductive. I don't see it really convincing people.”
Dean Sterling Jones is a blogger and freelance writer based in Ireland.