Feb 26, 2020

Axios China

By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got an exclusive story about Chinese state media and the 2020 census, the risk of prescription drug shortages amid the coronavirus outbreak, and more. All in 1,669 words, a 6-minute read.

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1 big thing: Scoop — The Census Bureau is paying Chinese state media

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Census 2020 Paid Media Campaign, which sends U.S. taxpayer dollars to community media outlets to run ads about the upcoming census, is including a Chinese state-run broadcaster as one of its 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 has won a contract to run ads about the upcoming census, is one of several channels of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) that broadcasts outside of China.

  • All Chinese news outlets, state-owned or private, are subject to extremely strict media censorship and avoid topics that the party perceives as sensitive.

Background: 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.

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

  • They're constitutionally mandated to count every American resident via the census.
  • 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."

CCTV4 Los Angeles is not the only 2020 census media vendor with ties to the Chinese government.

  • Sky Link TV, whose channels have four contracts to run ads related to the census, is owned by GZ Television Media, a Chinese state-owned media outlet.
  • 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.

Notable exclusions from the list of 2020 media vendors include The Epoch Times and the radio station The Sound of Hope — two outlets affiliated with the Falun Gong, which strongly opposes the Chinese Communist Party. Both were census media vendors in 2010.

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.
  • When asked if the bureau has a rule against partnering with foreign government-run media outlets, the spokesperson did not provide a response.

Read the full story

2. Coronavirus stress tests drug industry's dependence on China

A Hong Kong commuter wears a face mask. Photo: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It's unclear whether the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus will actually result in prescription drug shortages, but it has undoubtedly highlighted the potential vulnerabilities of having the supply chain for American drugs so dependent on China, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports.

Driving the news: About 150 prescription drugs — including antibiotics, generics and some branded drugs without alternatives — are at risk of shortage if the coronavirus outbreak in China worsens, per two sources familiar with a list of at-risk drugs compiled by the Food and Drug Administration.

  • China is a huge supplier of the ingredients used to make drugs that are sold in the U.S.
  • The FDA declined to comment on the list, but said in a statement that it's "keenly aware that the outbreak could impact the medical product supply chain" and has devoted additional resources toward identifying vulnerabilities to U.S. medical products.

What they're saying: In response to Axios' reporting, Sen. Josh Hawley will send a letter to the FDA calling the degree of U.S. reliance on China for drugs "inexcusable."

  • "It is becoming clear to me that both oversight hearings and additional legislation are necessary to determine the extent of our reliance on Chinese production and protect our medical product supply chain," Hawley writes.

Flashback: Lawmakers have voiced concerns before. Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Adam Schiff — who chair the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee and the Intelligence Committee, respectively — wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last year.

  • "Depending on any single supplier for such lifesaving goods would be troubling, but when that supplier is China at a time of rising tensions and conflict, it's a national security issue that demands the attention of the administration and Congress," they wrote.

Go deeper: Brace yourself for a coronavirus outbreak

Bonus: Tracking the coronavirus outbreak
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

Read more: The latest developments in the coronavirus outbreak.

3. China slaps 10-year sentence on kidnapped Swedish citizen

After a five-year saga that provoked an international outcry, a Chinese court has sentenced Swedish citizen Gui Minhai to 10 years in prison for "providing intelligence overseas."

Background: In 2015, Chinese authorities secretly kidnapped Gui, a Hong Kong-based Swedish citizen known for writing and selling books critical of China’s leaders, from his apartment in Thailand and brought him to mainland China.

  • This “extraordinary rendition” — a cross-border kidnapping that Chinese officials have perpetrated upon occasion — sparked fears in Hong Kong and led to the severe deterioration of Sweden-China relations.

Of note: Particularly alarming is the court's claim that Gui had reapplied to become a Chinese citizen in 2018, several years into his forced disappearance.

My thought bubble: Given the circumstances, it seems highly likely that Gui was forced to reapply for Chinese citizenship. If so, that marks an alarming escalation of China’s unofficial policy of “extraterritoriality,” imposing its view that former Chinese nationals still belong to the motherland.

4. Between the lines on Chinese strategy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This week's phrase: "Borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean." (借船出海)

What it means: Placing Chinese Communist Party messaging and approved content into media outlets abroad, either overtly or covertly.

  • Beijing has vastly expanded the global footprint of its official state media organizations, but understands that overt propaganda has limited appeal and reach among many foreign audiences.
  • The party has thus sought to "borrow" established foreign media outlets as a "boat" for amplifying and legitimizing Beijing's message.

How it works: "In its simplest form, this involves paying for Chinese propaganda supplements to appear in dozens of respected international publications such as the Washington Post," Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin wrote in The Guardian.

  • "The strategy can also take more insidious forms, such as planting content from the state-run radio station, China Radio International (CRI), on to the airwaves of ostensibly independent broadcasters across the world, from Australia to Turkey."
  • It can also mean quietly buying up news outlets abroad, as the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV tried to do to two Los Angeles radio stations in 2013 — only to be blocked by the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Why it matters: As Beijing seeks narrative dominance around the world, "borrowing a boat" is a key strategy it uses to influence skeptical audiences and to sidestep government scrutiny.

5. What I'm reading

Red scare: GOP congressman accuses California pension official of working for China (Axios)

  • “The most important thing to know is the charge against Meng is mostly baseless. And, even were Banks' theories corroborated, it still doesn't make much sense,” Axios’ Dan Primack writes.

Silicon Valley censorship: Apple may be forced to disclose censorship requests from China (The Guardian)

  • "Two major shareholder groups backed a proposal that would force the tech firm to make new human rights commitments," The Guardian writes.
  • Apple has complied with numerous Chinese government requests to make certain apps unavailable in China.

Policing DNA: American company sold DNA sequencers to security officials in Xinjiang, documents show (ChinaFile)

  • "In 2015, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps [XPCC] Public Security Bureau announced it planned to purchase equipment from the U.S.-based biotechnology company Promega for the purpose of analyzing DNA and adding it to a national database," ChinaFile writes.
  • The XPCC Public Security Bureau was placed on a U.S. export ban list in October 2019 for its role in running mass detention camps in northwest China.

Scholars and Spies: Chinese military turns to U.S. university to conduct covert research (WSJ)

  • "The recent indictment of the researcher, who is accused of lying on her U.S. visa application to conceal she is a lieutenant in the Chinese military, shows how U.S. universities’ openness to international collaboration in cutting-edge research leaves them vulnerable to potential exploitation," the Wall Street Journal writes.
  • Useful resource: Check out the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's China Defence Universities Tracker, a database of Chinese universities with military ties.
6. 1 book thing: To understand China today, look to the Mongols

Credit: HarperCollins

China's road to its empire, and the expansive borders it claims today, started not with Han Chinese dynasties in 221 BC but with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, historian Timothy Brook argues in a new book.

  • "Great State: China and the World," published by HarperCollins and slated for release on March 17, argues that the Mongol concept of the "great state," or yeke ulus, was adopted by China's subsequent dynasties and would later define China's relationship with its neighbors and the world.

China today is "burdened by the fact that it has often been an expansive and an aggressive power towards its neighbors," Brook tells me. "China is stuck with parts of the Eurasian continent that it really doesn’t want and doesn’t benefit from."

  • "All of its major problems — its inability to deal with Tibetans, Uighurs, Vietnam, border anxiety with India and Russia — all of this was the heritage of its experience as a Great State," Brook says.

This thesis is unlikely to be popular in China, because it contradicts three widely-held beliefs:

  1. China's unification in 221 BC under the Qin emperor, who was of Han ethnicity, was the key historical moment that laid the early foundations for China as we know it today.
  2. Chinese civilization absorbed non-Han nomadic invaders such as the Mongols, influencing and gradually swallowing their culture — not the other way around.
  3. Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia have always belonged to China and are an indelible part of its territory.

"China today is far more the successor of the Mongol age than the Qin," Brook writes.

  • The great state mandate "entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the entire world, incorporating all existing polities and rulers into a system in which military power is paramount."
  • "This was the Great State, and this is what China became."
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian