• Foreign ministry’s information department sends letter and ‘evidence of overseas interference’ to dozens of overseas news outlets
  • Letter says foreign media have an important role to play in guiding ‘misled’ public opinion on the city
Beijing declared that its “most pressing task” is to “end the chaos and violence and to restore order” in Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee

Beijing has called on foreign media in China for "impartial" and "objective" reporting on the Hong Kong protests, sending letters to dozens of overseas news outlets in its latest effort to sway international opinion.

As Hong Kong enters a third month of unprecedented political and social unrest, Beijing declared that its "most pressing task" is to "end the chaos and violence and to restore order".

To do that, it has ramped up rhetoric against protesters through state and social media.

While China has effective control over domestic sentiment, it has struggled to sway global opinion, which has been overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Frustrated with what Beijing sees as biased reporting, the foreign ministry sent a letter on Tuesday to more than 30 overseas media outlets in Beijing, calling on them to take their "due social responsibility" to help "protesters ignorant of the truth to get back to the right path".

The letter, signed by Hua Chunying, the newly promoted head of the foreign ministry's information department, was accompanied by a 41-page dossier of news clippings to support the central government's position on Hong Kong affairs, including what Beijing said was evidence of "foreign interference" in the situation.

"Regrettably, however, there is still some coverage based on selective facts or no facts at all," a copy of Hua's letter obtained by the South China Morning Post said.

British broadcaster the BBC, American outlets including NBC, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, and Japan's NHK national broadcaster and Asahi newspaper were among those to receive the letter.

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The letter also said that foreign media had an important role to play in guiding "misled" public opinion in Hong Kong and restoring order in the city.

"Hong Kong is at critical moment," the letter said. "The call for rule of law, order and tranquillity represents the mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong. The pressing task is to stop violence, end chaos and restore order, where I believe the media have an important role to play.

"I hope that you and the media agency you lead will take up your due social responsibility and make reports that are neutral, objective, impartial and comprehensive, so that your coverage may help those protesters ignorant of the truth to get back to the right path, and help those who have been seriously misled to come to a rational and fair judgment."

The longest chapter in the dossier is devoted to what Beijing said was evidence of "foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs", citing reports from mostly Chinese state media outlets including CGTN, China Daily and Global Times, which claimed that protesters were supported and funded by Western governments and organisations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, a US non-profit organisation, which Chinese media reports alleged was backed by the CIA.

Yik Chan Chin, an assistant professor of media and communications at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, said: "The Chinese government has established effective control over domestic media after the Hong Kong protests showed signs of violence and posed a challenge to the central government's authority."

The situation overseas was different, she said, with media there focused on the actions of Hong Kong police instead of the violence from protesters.

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"China has felt that it is at such disadvantage," Chin said. "It cannot control the overseas media, and its own media outlets are not trusted by the mainstream Western world."

Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has urged state media to "tell the China story well" in the hope of boosting the country's soft power and cultural influence.

Hua Chunying, head of the Chinese foreign ministry's information department, sent a letter and 41-page dossier to foreign news outlets across China explaining Beijing's position. Photo: AP

But the protests in Hong Kong " along with China's year-long trade war with the US " have put China's ability to influence the way the international media tells the story to the test, despite its efforts to expand its propaganda campaign through social media platforms.

Beijing's efforts to expand its campaign overseas backfired this week. On Monday, Facebook and Twitter announced action against coordinated efforts by the Chinese government and those associated with it to manipulate information about the protests in Hong Kong.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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