Analysis: Alarm over biased edits to news stories at RNZ have prompted apologies and an investigation from the national broadcaster.
However, far more striking examples of partiality have been discovered in our review of some of New Zealand’s leading Chinese-language publications, which claim to have a huge readership.
Much of this content is controversial and would be unimaginable in the pages of most of our newspapers.
Grounds for concern come in the form of slanted content on topics sensitive to Beijing; an opinion piece that appeared to contain emotionally-charged calls to side with China over New Zealand on criticism of human rights abuses; and a front-page article encouraging readers to vote for a candidate during the 2020 election.
These examples sit within a wider pattern of content that seems to align with the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred narrative on key issues. These tendencies (more than we can list in a single article) appear to amount to a pervasive bias on a select range of topics – a trend that can be balanced out with higher-standard journalism, yet blends in seamlessly with anodyne, day-to-day reporting.
Why this matters
These discoveries are significant, because the two sites we whose content we have studied: The Chinese Herald and Skykiwi.com, represent some of the dominant news outlets (judged on sheer numbers alone) in New Zealand.
The publications have claimed to have enormous domestic reach. Skykiwi has boasted of being the most influential Chinese media in the country, receiving more than 800,000 followers across its social media accounts, including WeChat. The Chinese Herald, which also promotes itself as a leading Chinese-language publication, claims to have around 140,000 unique users visiting its website each week, of whom 70 percent are “local Chinese people”.
Both these figures, if accurate, suggest an astonishingly high level of influence inside New Zealand, potentially influencing the views of hundreds of thousands of Kiwis.
“Since our establishment in 1994, the Chinese Herald has diligently served the Chinese community by conducting interviews with Chinese immigrants and sharing their unique stories with our readership.”
– The Chinese Herald
The reach of these Chinese-language news outlets is perhaps exceeded by the influence of CCP-regulated, heavily censored social media apps like WeChat and Weibo. Such apps have an outsized influence on Chinese-speaking communities, cornering the market for family communications between persons in the mainland and overseas, while functioning as a well-documented tool of propaganda and mass surveillance.
Consequently, the Chinese-language public sphere in New Zealand seems distorted by pro-CCP perspectives, a state of affairs that may not allow the space for full community representation, airing of dissent and debate, or sufficient space for genuinely independent voices. Chinese New Zealanders are underserved by this ideologically impoverished media landscape.
‘Don’t you want to pick her?’
A particularly noteworthy example of problematic media content was published by the Chinese Herald in the weeks prior to New Zealand’s 2020 election. The article reached the front page one of its September print editions, was shared to popular social media platform WeChat and featured in the ‘news’ section of its website.
The lengthy piece focused on National Party list candidate Nancy Lu, a long-time member of the Blue Dragons group (which has since rebranded itself as “Chiwi Nats”) set up to encourage Chinese New Zealanders to support the party. The article seems to resemble promotional copy, bearing the headline: “Interview with Nancy Lu, the National Party’s ‘promising Chinese newcomer’ – who is behind the shining resume?”
In the article, the author sketches out Lu’s biography while describing the candidate in fulsome terms, asserting that “for a long time, contributing to and giving back to society has been in her blood”, adding that she was “an outstanding politician”.
Most problematically, the article appears to encourage readers to vote for her.
The article concludes with the message: “Indeed, those who have known Nancy Lu believe she is well-suited for a political career and trust she can do it well.
“Nancy Lu has the courage to explore, and the determination to take risks. She has excellent communication skills and professional competence. She is such an outstanding young Chinese lady, don’t you want to pick her right away?”
Questions to the Chinese Herald about the meaning of this statement did not receive a response, although the newspaper did answer other queries. The Electoral Commission said it was “satisfied based on the information received that it falls within the exemption for editorial content and that there is no breach of the election advertising rules”.
Lu declined to comment, while a National Party spokesman said “it is our recollection, and that of Ms Lu, that the article was an unpaid editorial as a result of an in-person interview after Ms Lu’s selection as a candidate last year”.
Elsewhere in the Chinese-language press, Lu received generally favourable attention, including in a ‘column’ provided to Skykiwi by then-National MP Jian Yang who expressed his hopes that readers would back her.
Lu was also the subject of a feature-length profile in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily – the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, in August 2020. Its promotional style echoed features of the Chinese Herald piece.
The Chinese Herald, it should be noted, has run features on other political candidates, from both minor and major political parties, although the authors of this piece have found no examples of similar appeals to readers to ‘pick’ those people.
Both Chinese Herald owner Lili Wang and Vicky Lu, a New Zealand-based publisher of the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, have made substantial donations to the National Party as shown through official disclosures.
The Lu article in the Chinese Herald has raised eyebrows for reasons other than its messaging, given her apparently close ties to Yang.
As reported by New Zealand’s Asia Media Centre in October 2020, the former politician told a Chinese-language outlet he had begun to prepare Lu to enter politics without National being aware of it. “I have trained her as a candidate for a long time. I have never revealed it, not even to my colleagues,” he informed his audience.
Revelations in 2017 that Yang allegedly concealed his past in China’s military intelligence sector, training spies for the People’s Liberation Army, have attracted intense speculation about his relationship with Beijing.
‘Only when our motherland is strong can overseas Chinese live with dignity’
Problematic content was also found in Skykiwi’s platforming of opinion.
In August 2020, the website featured an opinion piece by an anonymous author which criticised New Zealand’s decision to join with countries from the Five Eyes security alliance to condemn China’s security crackdown against Hong Kong.
“I can’t help but praise the greatness of the motherland, and I strongly support it,” the writer said, going on to appeal to “the Chinese” to “stand in the same camp united against outsiders.”
Elsewhere, the anonymous author seemed to invoke threats posed to the diaspora community over differences between the two countries, asserting that Chinese New Zealanders would suffer more than anyone from disagreements.
In contrast, the writer said that “we know that only when our motherland is strong can overseas Chinese live with dignity”.
As if to affirm the narrative of diaspora vulnerability, the article highlighted screenshots of comments taken from WeChat users, including one (apparently from a mainland Chinese nationalist) which said: “Chinese immigrants are treated as less than human, worse than blacks.”
The author also argued the relationship was on “the verge of death” and advised it was best to “keep a good relationship with China. If [New Zealand] cannot do it, at least, pray that China is not made into an enemy.”
They advised New Zealand should not follow the path of the United States in confronting Beijing, but should “recognise the situation and give up illusions”.
There are further examples of stories or issues, widely reported on in the English and Māori-language media, that were ignored, presented from a narrow perspective or de-emphasised.
For example, this year, Skykiwi published a news piece covering the dismissal of a Chinese official accused of threatening the family of a prominent Chinese-Canadian politician who was outspoken on rights abuses by Beijing.
The story, which was a scandal in Canada, received cursory attention in an article which simply reprinted the dismissive response of China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, who said the allegations were “lies” from “politicians and the media.”
The piece, which was reposted from one of China’s mainland publications, did not contain any wider reporting despite the broader story concerning extremely serious allegations of intimidation of a prominent member of the Chinese diaspora.
Going back in time, similarly skewed content on other sensitive issues can be found.
In May 2019, the Chinese Herald produced an article on Huawei’s limited access to New Zealand’s 5G networks framing the restrictions in emotive and dramatic terms, mentioning under the headline that “some employees cried on the spot” when they heard the news that “GCSB rejected the Huawei proposal submitted by Spark without specific reasons”. This statement, arguably, could be seen as designed to directly tell its readers what to think – and feel – about the Huawei situation. The story was adapted from a Newshub piece.
In other cases where sensitive issues were addressed, the editors all but reproduced company or state media copy. For example, when reporting on the Tencent ban by the United States in September 2019, the Chinese Herald’s reporting (after a brief introductory paragraph) simply contained the content of a statement by the corporation.
The Chinese Herald advised Newsroom that this was a repost based on breaking news and does not reflect their editorial view.
We have also found less egregious, yet questionable editorial decisions: such as the move by Skykiwi to carry three articles over three successive days focusing on damaging allegations about former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, which coincided with her visit to Taiwan in August last year (Links to archived articles: here, here and here).
Skykiwi has also taken content from outside providers that carry uncontested and unproven allegations concerning Russia, such as a story, published in May this year, amplifying the Kremlin’s claims that the west wants to dismember Russia and turn it into “dozens” of smaller countries, despite no evidence existing for such a plot.
These are not isolated examples of what seem to be biased news filtering. The Chinese Herald has also in the past run, and then retracted, articles that have made misleading claims about protesters in Hong Kong and edited translated articles to make them less critical of the Chinese Government.
Editors in the sinophone media scene who spoke to the New Zealand Herald’s Matt Nippert in 2019 shared their experience of being summoned to the Auckland consulate by Chinese officials who disliked their content, and described a culture of “self-censorship.”
How to evaluate?
The above cases are just a limited sample, but nonetheless provide a preview of wider patterns that suggest a propagandistic tendency on some topics. In those cases, the two publications have repeatedly allowed their pages to be spaces that amplify deformed narratives (including on aspects of the pandemic), with little evidence found of contrary views occupying any room in its coverage, let alone equal space.
Such distortions in leading community media are not without consequences. Our analysis of the content of popular Chinese-language publications suggests that a meaningful swathe of the electorate may have been exposed to highly biased content, with a resulting impact on public opinion, perhaps even influencing their voting decisions.
Chinese-language publications have the right to report or carry content as their editors see fit, within the broad provisions of New Zealand’s media regulations. However, in light of the trends identified in this analysis, it is an open question whether or not these outlet should, as a matter of ethics, be platforming certain perspectives through what seems to be a singular, and ultimately narrow, lens.
Skykiwi was emailed and asked to provide a response for this story, but did not respond.
The Chinese Herald replied to requests to comment with the following statement:
“It is crucial to emphasise that our intent is not to engage in partisan promotion of any political candidate or party. The Chinese Herald maintains a commitment to presenting political candidates from all parties in an unbiased manner. Notable individuals such as Naisi Chen (Labor Party), Julie Zhu (Green Party), Peter Chan (New Zealand First), Wetex Kang (The Maori Party), Raf Manji (Opportunity Party), and Elliot Ikilei (New Conservative Party) have been featured in our publication. For comprehensive information regarding our coverage, we encourage you to visit our official website. “
“Since our establishment in 1994, the Chinese Herald has diligently served the Chinese community by conducting interviews with Chinese immigrants and sharing their unique stories with our readership. Our collaboration with the Electorate Commission shows our unwavering commitment to encouraging Chinese people to vote, irrespective of their political views.”
“Regarding the Huawei article in question, it is important to clarify that our reporting was based on information published by Newshub. The specific statement you cited, ‘some employees cried on the spot,’ was attributed to Huawei’s New Zealand spokesperson, Andrew Bowater. We derived this information from the following link. We kindly request that you refrain from drawing biased conclusions and ensure the accurate representation of our reporting.”
“Furthermore, we would like to address the Tencent article you referenced, which was not an original piece but a repost. It is important to note that, at the time, it was a brief breaking news item. We emphasise that this repost does not reflect our stance on the matter. We kindly urge you to consult your translator to locate the original publication for a more accurate understanding of the topic.”
► Portia Mao contributed translation for this article