Spies, ‘fake news’ and CGTN fuel China-UK war of words

Tensions escalate as Beijing and London go toe-to-toe on a raft of controversial issues

Spies, “fake news” and one all-mighty political row.

In an escalating diplomatic dispute, Beijing has threatened to take action against the BBC. The move came after China’s state-run broadcaster CGTN had its license revoked in the United Kingdom.

A report that three Chinese spies were expelled from Britain during the past 12 months has only added to the toxic atmosphere. They were working in the country on visas normally granted to accredited journalists, The Daily Telegraph in London exclusively revealed.

“Their true identities were uncovered by MI5, [the British intelligence agency,] and they have since been forced to return to China,” the London-based newspaper said, citing a UK government source.

Relations between Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party and Boris Johnson’s government were already strained on a raft of issues. They included the Beijing-imposed crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

Systematic human rights violations in the region of Xinjiang have also triggered outrage in London amid allegations of “rape, sexual abuse and torture” by the BBC on Wednesday.

In response, Jia Chunyang, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the state-controlled and ultranationalistic Global Times that this was another example of “fake news.”

Internment camps

Up to 1.5 million Uighur Muslims have been held in Xinjiang internment camps with Beijing being accused of forced “sterilization and abortion.” 

China has denied the claims, despite condemnation from human rights groups and major global democracies such as the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and of course, the UK.

“My judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uighurs and that hasn’t changed,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a media briefing, according to a US State Department transcript, last month.

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Flashpoint issues have also revolved around CGTN, the television arm of China’s propaganda campaign. Back in 2019, the US operation was registered as a “foreign agent” with the Justice Department as the Donald Trump administration tightened the screw on state-backed media.

At the time, the news outlet was caught in a war of words between Washington and Beijing. “There can be no doubt: China is meddling in America’s democracy,” US Vice-President Mike Pence said in a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington four months earlier.

Even with President Joe Biden in the White House, American policy towards China is unlikely to change. It will simply be more coordinated.

UK regulator

Still, the decision by the UK regulator Ofcom will pose a new set of challenges in Sino-British relations. After a length inquiry, the Office of Communications concluded that the “Communist Party” had ultimate editorial responsibility for CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV.

“Our investigation showed that the license for China Global Television Network is held by an entity which has no editorial control over its programs. We’ve provided CGTN with numerous opportunities to come into compliance, but it has not done so,” an Ofcom spokesperson said on Thursday.

“We now consider it appropriate to withdraw the license for CGTN to broadcast in the UK. Crucial information was missing from the application, and we consider that CGTN [should] be disqualified from holding a license as it is controlled by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” the spokesperson added.

Less than 24 hours later, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, accusing the UK of “blatant double standards and political oppression.” It came after CGTN expressed “strong opposition” to the findings.

“We urge the UK to immediately stop political maneuvers and correct its mistakes,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing on Friday. 

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“[Ofcom] oppresses the coverage of CGTN in the UK, politicizes technical matters and severely damages the Chinese media’s reputation. China reserves the right to make necessary reaction to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese media,” he added.

Access to BBC broadcasts in the world’s second-largest economy is tightly controlled by a CCP government obsessed with dictating the news narrative. The fear now is that Beijing will move to pull the plug on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Chinese bureau and start revoking work visas for its journalists.

The usual suspects have waded into the row, including Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin. He has been a vocal supporter of Beijing’s hardline “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after a jingoistic Chinese action movie. 

Intelligence agencies

“I highly suspect that the BBC has been closely instigated by the intelligence agencies of the US and the UK. It has become a bastion of the Western public opinion war against China,” he said on Twitter.

The US social media site is actually banned in the country, blocked by the Great Firewall. But it has become the overseas propaganda tool of choice for Xi’s regime. So has CGTN.

Millions of dollars have been pumped into the network with bureaus springing up across the globe. Yet behind the glitzy presentation and flashing graphics, the message is controlled by the Party. 

President Xi has made sure of that after a seminal address to senior media executives in 2016.

“All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” he said as reported by Xinhua, the official news agency of the CCP.

In a sentence, Xi laid the foundations for CGTN by outlining the broader policy for covering “news” with Chinese characteristics.