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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The 2020 Census Paid Media Campaign, which sends U.S. taxpayer dollars to community media outlets to run ads about the upcoming census, included a Chinese state-run broadcaster on its list of media vendors.

Why it matters: After China's yearslong campaign to co-opt independent Chinese-language media in the U.S., Washington is now paying Beijing-linked media outlets in order to reach Chinese Americans.

What's happening: CCTV4, which broadcasts in Los Angeles and was listed as a media vendor for the upcoming census, is one of several channels of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) that broadcasts outside of China.

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has demanded that state media pledge "absolute loyalty" to the Chinese Communist Party.
  • All Chinese news outlets, state-owned or private, are subject to extremely strict media censorship and avoid topics that the party perceives as sensitive.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau and contractor TDW+Co were asked about CCTV4's inclusion on the list of media vendors.
  • After the publication of this article, CCTV4 was removed from the list. The Census Bureau then told Axios CCTV4 was mistakenly included on the list and it has never purchased advertising on CCTV4.

Driving the news: On Feb. 18, the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese state media outlets with operations in the U.S. as "foreign missions," a designation that requires the outlets to disclose personnel lists and real estate holdings.

  • The designated outlets include China Global Television Network (CGTN), which is how CCTV's English-language global operations rebranded itself several years ago.
  • CCTV4 is not currently designated as a foreign mission.

Background: Beginning in the 1990s, Beijing sought to expand its influence over independent Chinese-language media outlets outside of China as well.

  • Through buy-outs, subsidies, coercion, and other means, the number of independent Chinese-language news in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and elsewhere has vastly decreased.
  • News outlets that have resisted CCP pressure are usually linked to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Falun Gong, a religious group banned in China but well-known in Chinese diaspora communities abroad.

That puts the U.S. government in a bind.

  • They're constitutionally mandated to count every American resident via the census.
  • But if the U.S. government excludes news outlets with ties to Beijing, it won't be able to fully engage some Chinese American communities.

Details: The Census Bureau doesn't execute the paid media campaign itself. It gave the contract to a marketing firm called VMLY&R, which handles the more than 3,800 media vendors across the country selected to run census ads.

  • VMLY&R hired another firm, TDW+Co, to handle outreach to Asian American audiences.

What they're saying: "The 2020 Census Paid Media Campaign decision was made based on a careful and holistic evaluation of multiple criteria within the request for proposal (RFP)," TDW+Co founder Tim Wang said in a statement to Axios.

  • "The paid media campaign goal for all audiences is to maximize efficiency through unique reach, reducing multiple media vendors that reach the same people."

Several 2020 census media vendors have ties to Beijing.

  • Sky Link TV channels have four contracts to run ads related to the census. Their former parent company, GZ Television Media, is a Chinese state-owned media company.
  • Phoenix TV, which has 14 contracts with the census, is based in Hong Kong and has close ties to the Chinese government.
  • China Press and SinoVision, which together have 14 contracts with the census, are both known to have a very close relationship with the Chinese government's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office that is in charge of wooing Chinese diaspora communities.
  • These outlets are all known to adjust their news to fit Chinese government preferences.

Notable exclusions from the list of 2020 media vendors include two outlets affiliated with the Falun Gong, which strongly opposes the Chinese Communist Party. Both were census media vendors in 2010.

  • The Epoch Times, a newspaper distributed for free on street corners and convenience stories in many American cities, submitted a proposal for this year's census but was denied.
  • The Sound of Hope, a radio station in the California Bay area, was also excluded.

What the Census Bureau is saying: Last year, Team Y&R led the process where "media outlets were invited to submit proposals to be considered for participation in the paid media campaign," a bureau spokesperson told Axios in a statement.

  • "Those proposals were evaluated to determine how effective each media outlet would be in reaching audiences prioritized for the paid media campaign by the Census Bureau," the spokesperson said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that CCTV was removed from the list of media vendors after publication of this article, and with the Census Bureau's statement that CCTV4 was mistakenly included on the list of media vendors. The story was also updated to reflect that SkyLink was previously owned by GZ Media.

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