China's big-budget foreign influence operation in the United States is heavily tilted toward television broadcasting and other media activities, according to newly disclosed Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings.
The country's state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) spent more than $50 million on its U.S. operations last year, accounting for nearly 80% of total Chinese spending on influencing U.S. public opinion and policy, according to FARA filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. It was the first year for which CGTN, which began broadcasting in the U.S. in 2012, reported a complete spending figure. In 2019, CGTN had reported partial spending of about $43 million.
In total, China spent nearly $64 million on propaganda and lobbying in the United States last year.
Counting its television broadcasting operations, China spent more money on influencing U.S. public opinion than any other country. Qatar came in second, reporting nearly $50 million, and Russia ranked No. 3, with $42 million in spending. Both Qatar and Russia run large media operations in the United States.
China's propaganda spending spree comes as Beijing seeks to burnish its global image amid a coronavirus pandemic that originated in the country's city of Wuhan more than a year ago.
China Daily, a government-owned newspaper, reported more than $3 million in spending last year, including expenses related to advertising in American newspapers, down from more than $10 million in 2019, the filings show. While much of China Daily's spending is related to operating costs, the newspaper routinely runs supplements in U.S. newspapers to influence U.S. policy and public opinion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
China has long denied that it carries out influence operations in the United States.
Anna Massoglia, an investigative researcher with the center, said the jump in Chinese influence spending was striking.
"It's attributable primarily to one registrant who was compelled to register by DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice)," Massoglia said.
Under FARA, a 1938 law, all foreign governments and other entities that engage in lobbying or influence peddling are required to disclose their activities to the Justice Department. The law makes an exemption for news organizations, but only if they are at least 80% owned by U.S. citizens.
The Justice Department has said only outlets that seek to influence U.S. policy need to register under FARA. In 2018, the department directed CGTN and Xinhua News Agency to register. CGTN complied in 2019 and Xinhua just last week.
The registrations came as the Justice Department had tightened up enforcement of FARA and forced foreign media outlets to disclose their activities in the United States. Earlier in the Trump administration, the Justice Department forced Kremlin-controlled media outlets RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik to register as foreign agents.
Last year, as tensions between Washington and Beijing grew amid the pandemic, the State Department designated CGTN and four other Chinese media outlets as "foreign missions," subjecting them to the same reporting requirements as foreign embassies and consulates.
Maria Repnikova, a professor and global communications expert at Georgia State University, said it is significant that Chinese spending on U.S. public opinion has increased despite escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington.
"It means that the Chinese government is still invested in shaping public perceptions in the U.S. and potentially improving the relationship or easing the tensions in its favor," Repnikova said in an email.
Of the $64 million spent by China on influence operations, nearly $10 million came from nongovernmental entities. Telecom conglomerate Huawei Technologies was the top nongovernmental spender, reporting nearly $3.5 million in lobbying expenditure. Last year, the Justice Department charged the company with conspiracy to steal trade secrets and violate U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Massoglia said that spending by Chinese telecom companies is part of a "trend we've seen recently as they've faced various restrictions and controversies in the United States."
Chinese media outlets were not the only foreign media organizations forced to register under FARA in recent years. Qatar-based Al Jazeera's U.S. digital platform AJ+ as well as Sputnik and RT, which accounted for most of Russia's foreign operations spending in 2020, according to Massoglia, have also been compelled to register.
Russia has retaliated with its own requirements, levying hefty fines on U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and requiring the outlet to label its content as "fulfilling the function of a foreign agent."
RFE/RL, a sister news agency to Voice of America, is fighting the foreign agent label and fines.