The Chinese New Zealand Herald is in the spotlight for publishing and then retracting an article which made a number of debunked and controversial claims about the recent protests in Hong Kong.

The city has been hit by intense street protests this week over a controversial extradition law, which would allow people to be extradited from the territory and tried in mainland China, where they would be unlikely to receive a trial free from political interference. 

Media sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have attempted to downplay the protests, saying the controversial law is actually widely supported.

The story, which comes from the international edition of the People’s Daily, a CCP-controlled newspaper and website, claimed recent protests in the city had been stirred by “foreign anti-China forces”. It also used a much-debunked website to allege at least 860,000 people had signed a petition in support of the extradition law.

Hong Kong-based bloggers and journalists have reported many of the alleged “supporters” of the joint action were fake. They discovered part of the code for the supporter counter on the website had been written to automatically add eight supporters per minute, leading to allegations of fakery

That code is now private, and the number of supporters added to the counter has stabilised. 

China Daily, another state-run outlet, also used the petition to claim widespread support for the extradition law. 

Joshua Wong was one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The 22-year-old rejoined protestors after being released from prison on Monday. Photo: Thomas Coughlan

The protests that rocked Hong Kong this week are the largest since the Umbrella Movement brought the city to a standstill for more than 70 days in 2014. Organisers claim more than 1 million people took to the streets, although Hong Kong police say the figure is closer to 240,000.

Protestors fear China will use the law to extradite and persecute Hong Kongers who oppose greater integration with China.

Since Britain handed back control of the territory in 1997, the city has technically been a part of China. However, the terms of the handover stipulated that Hong Kong would enjoy the privileges of “one country, two systems” for 50 years. 

One country, two systems, means Hong Kong preserves aspects of British control like an independent judiciary, the rule of law and a free press. Recently, there has been disquiet at the fact China appears to be eroding one country, two systems before the 50-year term has expired. 

The extradition law appears to implicitly violate this agreement as the mainland does not have a free and independent judiciary.

Chinese Herald in the spotlight 

The article was published by the Chinese NZ Herald on Wednesday, and was removed on Thursday evening, after an activist group known as Celebration Bots sent a complaint to The Herald and the Media Council.

Member of Celebration Bots Howard Kanner said the article was widely circulated in Hong Kong and mainland China, and associates in the countries said they were not aware of any pro-extradition demonstrations.

Kanner also had conversations with NZME shareholders about the article but said the discussions were confidential.

“We’ve seen People’s Daily distribution with Chinese language papers throughout the globe, but rarely a nationally renowned paper in the western world, which is concerning. It looks like NZME/Herald is trying to guarantee readership in China now, hence why they’re not blocked,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Newsroom was added to the list of sites blocked by censors within China amid a CCP crackdown on foreign media. Other blocked publishers include The Guardian, Washington Post, NBC, HuffPost, the Toronto Star and The Intercept website. The New Zealand Herald, Stuff and NBR have not been blocked and can still be seen in China.

“Some editors might not be politically sensitive but the editorial team don’t believe in making everything political either.”

In response to questions about the syndication of the article in question, Chinese NZ Herald editor in chief Kenny Lu said the publication valued the neutrality of news reporting.

In response to the decision to publish, and then retract, the People’s Daily article, he said:

“When editors introduce fully authorised articles from other press, they also reserve the right to reverse the introduction when lack of balance is found. Those articles would be cancelled asap to avoid confusing consequences.

“Some editors might not be politically sensitive but the editorial team don’t believe in making everything political either.”

Lu did warn about the accuracy of the Google translated version of the article, saying the algorithm used made the headline of the article “dangerously misleading” in English.

Chinese NZ Herald is an NZME joint venture, with Chinese Herald publisher and director Lili Wang owning a 50 percent stake, and NZME Publishing holding the other half.

NZME declined to comment.

The Chinese Herald has come under scrutiny in the past for what some have described as self-censorship, by omitting stories which showed the CCP in an unfavourable light.

Earlier this year, Stuff revealed the Chinese Herald edited translated articles from the NZ Herald to cast a better light on the Chinese government. It also omitted articles that discussed the Chinese government in a negative way, in one case taking a much more sanitised version from a Chinese wire service.

Last week, Newsroom reported the website’s publisher, owner and director Lili Wang, travelled to China last year to attend a media conference, where the Chinese state and affiliated organisations called on overseas Chinese-language media to help promote the CCP’s agenda.

The forum was hosted by state-run media The People’s Daily, along with the Hainan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the provincial government.

Chinese NZ Herald publisher and owner Lili Wang attended a media conference in China where foreign media were called on to promote the Belt and Road policy. Photo: Supplied

And since her trip, the Chinese Herald has published one article about China expert and Canterbury of University professor Anne-Marie Brady. The article, published in March, was about a Parliamentary Select Committee’s initial decision to decline Brady’s request to make a submission on its inquiry into foreign interference.

The Chinese Herald has always refuted suggestions of self-censorship, or being a mouthpiece for the CCP.

In the past Lu has told Newsroom the small editorial team could not cover every story, and on the issue of Brady, would not publish unverified allegations.

“Given the small size nature of our editorial team (we have only limited editors covering all topics and all columns), we cannot deliver tailored gowns for Ms Brady to conveniently dress her own agenda,” he said.

Studies have found the CCP uses overseas Chinese-language media as part of its external propaganda strategy.

The Center for International Media Assistance said the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council actively engaged with overseas Chinese language media through the China News Service – “an important arm of the Chinese government in disseminating its propaganda among overseas Chinese”.

In March, Newsroom spent time with organisers of the Umbrella Movement. One, Joshua Wong, was released from prison on Monday after being sentenced to two months in jail for charges relating to the first protest. He went straight back out to join the protestors.

Another, Nathan Law, is still free and was involved in the latest round of protests. 

Leave a comment