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China News Outlet Closure Reflects Political Sensitivities Over Beijing, Leadership Says

FILE - The China-focused English-language media company China Project announced in November 2023 that it will be shut down due to funding shortages.
FILE - The China-focused English-language media company China Project announced in November 2023 that it will be shut down due to funding shortages.

Depending on who is asked, the now-defunct China Project news outlet is either an agent of Beijing, an anti-Chinese media brand, or the victim of a bad business model.

The allegations leveled at the English-language news website over its seven years of operation reflect what analysts say is a shift in the media environment in favor of China hawks, which also makes covering the country all the more challenging.

The mixture of a massive state-led economy, poor human rights record, authoritarian government and the threat of war over Taiwan has fostered an environment in Washington where being "tough on China" is the default.

But some analysts say the more confrontational political climate and China's heavy restrictions on reporters inside its borders means risking losing out on a more complete understanding of the country and its people.

In the case of The China Project, which announced its closure last month, its senior leadership say accusations from both sides weakened the site's ability to keep going, as investors pulled out and one former employee filed a whistleblower complaint that alleges links to Beijing.

"It's just so tough to tell the truth about China, both in Beijing and in Washington," the site's last editor in chief, Jeremy Goldkorn, told VOA.

Jonathan Hassid, a political science professor at Iowa State University, says The China Project's shutdown may underscore the tense relations between Washington and Beijing.

"It shows the closure of the middle path between being pro-China and anti-China — that there's a way to evaluate China on its own merits without necessarily thinking about it in comparison with the United States," Hassid told VOA.

Based in New York and founded in 2016, the website and its flagship podcast Sinica have for years been at the center of discussion about China.

The China Project covered an array of topics from the economy and defense to human rights, culture and history. One long-standing column covered the Chinese government's human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Another focused on LGBTQ+ life in China.

But on November 6, Goldkorn, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, announced its closure.

The immediate cause — abruptly losing key funding — underscores the precarity of being a start-up news outlet in a struggling media industry, Goldkorn and outgoing CEO Bob Guterma said.

But in the longer term, both said, would-be investors and advertisers were wary of potential repercussions that could accompany being involved with an outlet that is critical of Beijing and has been banned in China since 2018.

The Chinese state-run Global Times has referred to The China Project as a "West-backed anti-China organization."

"Investors would say to us, point blank, 'I love what you're doing. I believe it's really important, and I can see that you have meaningful traction. There's just no way that I or my company or my family can get involved in this because of the political tensions'," Guterma told VOA. "If they have business interests in China, it's just a hard non-starter."

In another case, Goldkorn said sponsors worried about their involvement with The China Project's conferences, which were another source of revenue for the company.

At the company's NEXTChina Conference in early November, which took place just days before the shutdown was announced, one of the event's sponsors requested to have their name left off all marketing materials over political concerns in China, Goldkorn said.

The China Project's closure can be viewed as a casualty of rockier relations between Washington and Beijing, according to a staffer on the U.S. House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

"It's concerning to see the middle and the more moderate perspectives hollowed out like this, but it's a microcosm of increased tensions that we're seeing between Washington and Beijing," said the staffer. They requested anonymity because their employer did not authorize them to talk to the media on this topic.

To Hassid, of Iowa State University, "that space has disappeared as relations in both China and the U.S. have hardened."

Accusations from the United States and China of working for the other country's government also took a toll on The China Project, Goldkorn and Guterma said.

In October 2022, the start-up news site Semafor reported on allegations made by Shannon Van Sant — a journalist who in 2020 briefly worked as the business editor at what was then called SupChina — in a complaint filed with Congress, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Semafor itself came under fire earlier this year for partnering with the Center for China and Globalization think tank, which is known to have close links to the Chinese Community Party. Semafor said it structures its agreements to protect independence.

In Van Sant's 480-page disclosure, which is not publicly available but was reviewed by VOA, she alleged the outlet was acting as an unregistered agent of the Chinese Community Party, or CCP.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, who sit on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called for the company to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The China Project denied Van Sant's allegations as false and unsubstantiated and characterized van Sant as "a disgruntled former employee."

Van Sant's lawyer Andrew Bakaj maintained Van Sant was fired because "she was 'not in alignment' in advancing the 'narrative' the organization wanted to propagate about topics and issues related to China."

"The declaration previously reported on by other media outlets and ostensibly referred to by Mr. Guterma is merely one exhibit — one data point — evidencing her concern that SupChina was acting as an agent of the People's Republic of China," Bakaj, chief legal counsel with Whistleblower Aid, said in a statement to VOA, referring to the site's original name.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate The China Project had been struggling financially for some time.

"My joke when I publicly speak about allegations of us being backed by either government is that if you looked at our bank account, you'd quickly come to believe that no serious government could possibly be backing us," said Guterma, who is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One media investor who is familiar with The China Project said he thinks politics played a minor role in the company's closure. The investor requested anonymity to speak freely.

"Their business failure was not about press freedom. It was primarily about just having a poorly structured business that was not attractive to any professional investors," he said, adding that he does not believe that the outlet is an agent of the Chinese government.

Despite The China Project's denials of ties to Beijing, the allegations left their mark.

Multiple government agencies launched informal inquiries into the China Project, Guterma said. Bakaj, Van Sant's lawyer, said that the fact that investigations took place "vindicates Ms. Van Sant."

Guterma declined to name which government agencies undertook the investigations.

"The Van Sant complaint did more damage to us than it should have because of the political climate," Guterma said. "When you combine that with the China-hawk need for a scapegoat, especially at that specific point in time in U.S.-China relations, it did a lot of damage to us."

Policy on China is a rare bipartisan issue in the United States, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle coming together in opposition to Beijing's economic might and human rights abuses.

Some analysts told VOA that this mentality has created an environment in which not being exclusively anti-China all the time risks leading to accusations of being soft on China.

The perceived need to choose sides, Guterma said, creates a penalty for platforms like The China Project that try to hold multiple ideas at once — for instance, stories that criticize — or humanize — China.

Washington's growing anti-China consensus is one that may have harmful consequences for the world's understanding of China, the House committee staffer said.

"When people default to being anti-China automatically, I think that removes the potential for discourse and dialogue that could benefit both sides," the staffer said.

This story was updated to reflect that Shannon Van Sant's disclosure was also sent to the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.