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March 9, 2018

Covert Coverage: Xinhua as an Agent of Influence in the United States

(Xinhua President Cai Mingzhao addresses the audience at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Source: CNN)

By Emily Weinstein |

“Xinhua serves some of the functions of an intelligence agency by gathering information and producing classified reports for the Chinese leadership on both domestic and international events.”  

                                    —-U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission 

In the United States, concerns over Xinhua and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global reach surfaced in late 2017, after the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) published its 2017 annual report in which it accused Xinhua and other Chinese state media entities of involvement in spying and propaganda. Since its establishment, Xinhua has acted as both the “throat and tongue” as well as the “eyes and ears” of the Chinese Communist Party. It first emerged in 1931 under the name Red China News Agency (红中社), which ran the newspaper Red China (红色中华报).[i] Its original motivations, although partly associated with the development of the newspaper industry, were predominantly politically motivated. Red China News Agency and its newspaperwere tasked with legitimizing the agency’s status as a media outlet as well as promoting the politics and ideology of the early Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The agency and newspaper were renamed Xinhua (新华) and New China (新中华报) respectively in 1937, but maintained a shared organizational structure until 1939. More than half a century later, Xinhua has developed into a formidable state-run media outlet with a global reach. In the U.S. specifically, its offices in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, and at the United Nations in New York are troublesome considering the organization’s collection capabilities and access. Through China’s vast media censorship and Party control, Xinhua has the ability to undermine U.S. soft power and foreign policy messaging by portraying China’s troubling actions as justified, thereby inaccurately influencing international and domestic audiences. 

I.     Domestic Mission and Structure

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China) in 1949, Xinhua became the country’s only legitimate national news agency. It has since been regarded as a state-owned news authority in charge of carrying out at least three missions: 1) present the voice of the government, with exclusive rights to cover the Party and the government’s official documents, leaders and activities, 2) implement centralized control over its branches within and outside the country, and 3) guide domestic news organizations to follow the Party’s principles in order to maintain control over public opinion.[ii] 

Since 1949, Xinhua has continued to maintain close ties to Party and government organizations as a means to carry out its three missions. Domestically, the two main entities responsible for overseeing Xinhua News Agency are the State Council Information Office (国务院新闻办公室) and theCentral Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China (中共中央宣传部).[iii] Notably, the current vice minister of the Central Propaganda Department, Jiang Jianguo (蒋建国) is dual-hatted as the Director of the State Council Information Office. Moreover, ties are visible within Xinhua’s current leadership, as the three highest-ranking officials have previous connections to these organizations:

Xinhua Position  Name  Party Connection  Government Connection 
President  Cai Mingzhao (蔡名照)  Central Office of Foreign Propaganda—Deputy Director (2001-2009), Propaganda Department—Vice Minister (2009-2014)  State Council Information Office—Deputy Director (2001-2009), Director (2013-2014) 
Editor-in-Chief  He Ping (何平)  18th and 19thCentral Commission for Discipline Inspection[iv]—Member  N/A 
Secretary-General  Liu Zhengrong (刘正荣)  CCPPD’s Public Affairs Work Bureau—Director (1990-1996)  State Internet News Center/China Network[v]—Director, State Internet Information Office—Director of Policy and Regulation Bureau (2014) 

II.     Overseas Mission and Structure

After Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “Reform and Opening Up” (改革开放) in 1978, the CCP began to focus on external propaganda work as a foreign policy tool. This began with the establishment of the External Propaganda Leading Group (对外宣传领导小组) in 1980. This leading group was under the joint sponsorship of the State Council and the CCP Central Committee, and later merged with the State Council in 1991 to form the State Internet Information Office (中央网信办公室).[vi] According to Propaganda and Ideology Work of the New Era (新时期宣传思想工作), external propaganda work is oriented towards four missions: 1) tell China’s story to the world, publicize Chinese government policies and perspectives, and promote Chinese culture abroad; 2) counter what is perceived to be hostile foreign propaganda; 3) promote unification and counter Hong Kong and Taiwan’s (Republic of China, ROC) independence proclivities; and 4) propagate China’s foreign policy.[vii] 

So how exactly does the Chinese government achieve these four missions? In conjunction with the other organizations similarly subordinate to the CCP Central Committee, the Propaganda Department is able to exercise its power both domestically and internationally. Of particular relevance is the United Front Work Department (中共中央统战部, UFWD), which is tasked with the surreptitious mission of collecting information, both domestically and internationally, in order to co-opt and control non-CCP elites. In recent years, the UFWD has developed an expansive global presence, despite the fact that there is little public acknowledgement of its influence, as it operates relatively quietly, often under the guise of other organizations. In other words, it is likely that many Chinese organizations operating internationally have unidentified connections to the UFWD. 

Evidence of this connection can be seen in examining the history and role of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua, which was established in 1947. In addition to acting as a news agency, it played a quasi-diplomatic role both during and after British control of the colony. During British rule, the island’s headquarters served as a de facto embassy because the PRC did not officially recognize British sovereignty over Hong Kong. During this time, the CCP used the local Xinhua office to assist in establishing a strong alliance with Hong Kong’s middle class and business elites, as well as to push its united front efforts for “patriotic” reunification.[viii]  

Following Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” concept, the Xinhua Hong Kong Branch was renamed the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) (中央人民政府驻香港特别区联络办公室). This decision was made by the State Council, who also renamed the Xinhua branch in Macau in a similar fashion. Following its official renaming in January 2000, the Hong Kong branch underwent a reorganization. The essence of the news agency was redirected under Xinhua News Agency, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Branch Co., Ltd. (新华通讯社香港特别行政区分社有限公司), while the remainder of its duties and responsibilities were subsumed under the new Liaison Office.  

According to Jiang Enzhu (姜恩柱), acting director of the Liaison Office from 2000-2002, this renaming was natural, as the Central People’s Government would now require a representative office in Hong Kong. The main duties of this new office included the following, all of which were functions that Jiang stressed had been previously performed by the former Xinhua News Agency Hong Kong Branch:  

  • Maintain contact with the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the HKSAR’s PLA Garrison;
  • Help relevant governmental departments on the mainland manage organizations and enterprises in Hong Kong;
  • Promote cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland in areas such as education, science, technology, culture and sports;
  • Further develop exchanges between the mainland and Hong Kong;
  • Assist the Central Government in dealing with matters related to Taiwan.

Although the Liaison Office no longer acts as the official Xinhua branch in Hong Kong, it is important to note that the office’s duties (as highlighted above) remained the same throughout the entire transition. This indicates that Xinhua has a more significant connection to the Party and the government than a traditional news outlet would. This relationship is disquietingly significant because it makes Xinhua’s role as a credible news source, regardless of whether or not it is independent or state-owned, more questionable. Additionally, the current Liaison Office is of particular concern due to its connections to the UFWD. The Hong Kong and Macau Liaison Offices are listed as being directly tied to the United Front’s Third Bureau—the Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Overseas Liaison Bureau (港澳台、海外联络局). In Hong Kong, the Liaison Office has remained active in local legislative and District Council elections, often coordinating the campaigns of pro-Beijing candidates, mobilizing support to vote for what the CCP paints as “patriotic” political parties, clandestinely organizing electoral campaigns, and openly criticizing pro-democracy elites in Hong Kong.[ix] It is also responsible for collecting and analyzing information about Hong Kong, which it then sends back to relevant organs in Beijing with policy suggestions. Furthermore, due to Xinhua Hong Kong’s resources and previous function, perhaps the two entities continue to collaborate in regard to their historically-shared responsibilities.  

Thus, it is likely that Xinhua assists in providing and functioning as a type of collections entity in Hong Kong, as well as in other locations throughout the world. From 2009 to 2011, Xinhua opened 40 new foreign bureaus, bringing its total number of foreign subsidiaries to 162, with a goal to reach 200 by the year 2020. As Xinhua continues to expand its foreign reach, other global leaders are beginning to express concern over the role that Xinhua and the Chinese media play in their own domestic spheres. 

III.     Intelligence Agency Function in the U.S. 

Since their missions are so inherently different, it can be hard to imagine a news agency acting in the same capacity as open-source intelligence (OSINT) departments within the U.S. intelligence community and military. However, with regards to intelligence agency capabilities, Xinhua and its unique structure and capacity stand out among the rest. One of Xinhua’s most troubling aspects is its internal publication system, which, when compared to an intelligence agency, theoretically acts as the analysis and reporting instrument. Within Xinhua, there are three types of secret document publications that are circulated only within the Communist Party: 

Name  Length  Frequency of Publication  Classification  Audience  Type of Material 
国内动态清样 (“Final Proofs on Domestic Trends”)  2-6 pages on a single topic  Once-twice daily  “Top Secret”  Central leadership, ministerial-level officials, secretaries of provincial Party committees, provincial governors  Major event in China or policy proposal from party leadership; important channel for senior Party cadres to obtain timely news about China; copies must be returned to sender within set period and recipients held politically responsible if copies are lost 
内部参考(“Internal Reference”)  40-50 pages  Twice a week  “Highly Secret”   District or divisional officials and officers  Only official source of classified information about China for middle-high level cadres; discusses major national events and important speeches 
内参选编(“Selected Internal Reference”)  30-40 pages   Weekly  “Secret,” but has become non-classified since mid-1990s  County and regimental-level officials and officers, rural township heads, town mayors, section-level cadres, battalion-level officers  Selections from “内部参考” 

These three publications are circulated internally within the CCP, similar to that of any daily intelligence briefing or report in the United States Intelligence Community. They provide the top CCP leadership with the most relevant information on China collected by Xinhua reporters both domestically and internationally. The fact that Xinhua is able to amass this type of information and produce these types of high-level internal reports while legally residing in the United States is extremely problematic and deserves immediate attention. 

IV.     Conclusion

In order to combat the Xinhua problem, experts have argued that Xinhua journalists operating in the U.S. should be required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Originally created in 1938 to combat German propaganda efforts before World War II, FARA “requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.” According to testimony provided by Sarah Cook, FARA should have the capacity to encompass foreign state-owned media operating in the U.S., meaning that Xinhua journalists should theoretically fall under this requirement category. However, because compliance with FARA is unacceptably low and rarely enforced, individuals working for agencies such as Xinhua who are likely collecting intelligence are not encompassed under FARA. For example, China Daily, another English-language newspaper run by the CCP and the Chinese government, is already registered under FARA, but only its top executives are required to disclose their employer. This is problematic, as it leaves a “loophole” for lower-level individuals acting as reporters to fly under FARA’s radar. 

In response to the USCC’s report, experts and leaders in Congress have advocated for a variety of methods to combat Xinhua’s international collections capabilities. In 2016, the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act was signed into law by President Obama, calling for expansion of the Global Engagement Center at the State Department to enable greater interagency cooperation on this issue. Many have also called on the FCC to reexamine its regulatory framework and enhance transparency by labeling content or media outlets owned by foreign governments. On the congressional side, leaders have already begun to hold congressional hearings regarding China’s influence operations in the United States, and they should continue to examine the role of Chinese United Front work within U.S. borders. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is also working to overhaul FARA and ensure that the loopholes being exploited by Xinhua reporters, and other foreign entities, are more closely monitored and eventually closed. 

The United States and China are locked in a strategic competition in multiple domains—economic, diplomatic, and military. Values and ideas are what drives these domains, and Beijing’s efforts to shape perceptions in foreign countries presents a threat to the equity of this rivalry. Similar to the nightmarish effect of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the Chinese have the capacity to skew the international system in a way that best adheres to the CCP’s desires, which often run counter to U.S. national interests. Along these lines, Peter Mattis argues that in order to combat Beijing’s political warfare, it is crucial to start with the CCP. The Communist Party’s actions require further scrutiny on the part of the United States and other global leaders in order to increase understanding and awareness of Chinese media and propaganda campaigns. 

Emily Weinstein was an intern at the Project 2049 Institute where she focused on Chinese domestic and international influence operations, CCP organizational structure, and Chinese foreign policy. She is pursuing her MA in Security Studies at Georgetown University. 

[i]Xin Xin, “A developing market in news: Xinhua News Agency and Chinese newspapers,” Media, Culture & Society Vol. 28(1): pg. 47-48 January 2006. 

[ii]Ibid, pg. 49.  

[iii]David Shambaugh, “China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy,” The China Journa,lNo. 57, January 2007, at 

[iv]The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) is one of the departments directly subordinate to the CCP Central Committee. It has many internal offices that work directly with the Propaganda Department. In 1993, it became collocated with the Ministry of Supervision under the State Council.  

[v]The China Internet News Center (中国互联网新闻中心), also referred to as China Network (中国网), is a national new website under the leadership of the State Council. It was founded in 1997.  

[vi]David Shambaugh, “China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy,” pg. 47. 

[vii]“Propaganda and Ideology Work of the New Era (新时期宣传思想工作),” Central Propaganda Department Cadre Bureau Writing Group (中共中央宣传部干部局组织),August 2008. 

[viii]Cindy Yik-yi Chu, “The Long History of United Front Activity in Hong Kong,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2011, pg. 4, at 

[ix]Sonny Shiu-Hing Lo, “The Dynamics of Beijing-Hong Kong Relations: A Model for Taiwan?” Hong Kong University Press, 2008, pg. 10-11, at