Chinese Network's Washington Bureau Registers as Foreign Agent

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. division of China’s state-owned broadcaster, China Global Television Network, has registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department.

CGTN America, which serves as the Washington bureau for the network, registered in response to a request from the U.S. government in September. Its ultimate parent, CCTV, a Chinese state-owned broadcaster, disputed the Justice Department’s characterization of its relationship with the Chinese government and Communist Party, but registered “out of an abundance of caution and in the spirit of cooperation with U.S. authorities.”

In its filing, CGTN America disclosed a budget between Dec. 1, 2018, and Jan. 31, 2019, of $8 million, including $5.7 million for “employment related expenses.” Its news operation employs about 180 people, according to the filing, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News.

As a registered foreign agent, CGTN America will be required to disclose its annual budget and expenditures and other information under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law mandates registration with the Justice Department by organizations and individuals that attempt to influence U.S. policy makers or public opinion on behalf of foreign governments.

The registration is just one example of the deeper strategic tensions playing out between the world’s two largest economies, even as President Donald Trump’s seeks a trade deal with China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Besides imposing duties on about $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, the two sides are jockeying over Beijing’s territorial claims in the Western Pacific and a U.S.-led effort to marginalize Chinese telecommunications firms over spying fears.

The Trump administration has also accused Beijing of interfering in U.S. elections. In an October speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence said, “There can be no doubt: China is meddling in America’s democracy.”

CGTN is part of a sprawling media complex under the direct supervision of the Communist Party’s central propaganda department, run by Politburo member Huang Kunming. Last year, CGTN was among several broadcast outlets, including China Central Television, merged by the party into one group whose name translates to “voice of China.”

‘Strategic Task’

Xi has placed new emphasis on the state media’s political agenda, telling a group of propaganda officials in August it was their “strategic task” to develop a “socialist ideology that has the ability to unite and the power to inspire the people.” During visits to media headquarters in 2016, Xi ordered the outlets to act as if “party” was their surname.

China often similarly accuses “external forces” of using their largely privately run media outlets to foment instability within its borders. In October, Huang urged a visiting delegation of Hong Kong media executives to “prevent external forces from turning the city into a base for interfering with the mainland.”

In a filing submitted with its registration, CGTN America said it enjoyed “editorial independence” from state direction or control, and cited awards it had won in journalism competitions in the U.S., including an Emmy.

The Justice Department also asked Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run wire service and one of the largest news organizations in the world, to register last September, but it has yet to do so. CGTN provides programming to audiences in more than 100 English-speaking countries, including the U.S., according to the filing.

Foreign Agents

The registration echoes those of U.S. partners of Russian media operations in the wake of the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election. Several U.S. contractors working with RT and Sputnik Radio were required to comply with the act. The Justice Department cited a January 2017 intelligence community assessment on Russian efforts to interfere in the election that called the media outlets “the backbone of the Russian government’s propaganda apparatus.”

The Russian government retaliated by designating the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and seven of their affiliates as foreign agents in December. The organizations had to disclose their sources of funding and other information.

The U.S. has required foreign media controlled by governments to register in the past -- the New York bureau of Tass, the wire service of the Soviet Union, was until 1992. The U.S. distributors for three other Chinese media outlets -- the English-language China Daily, the party-run People’s Daily Overseas Edition and the Xinmin Evening News -- are also registered under the act.

In May, a northern Virginia company that had broadcast French government-sponsored France 24, retroactively disclosed information as a foreign agent, although it had ceased its over-the-air broadcasts of the programming.

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