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Thailand’s media landscape is currently saturated with news about the coronavirus. Just this week, several people have been arrested or warned about spreading misinformation about the disease. The mainstream media itself is an eclectic mixture of fear-mongering and analysis.
Yet Thais still, to a large extent, trust legacy media institutions that have been around for decades. But if one were to scrutinize further, there may be a reason to place heavy skepticism on news that is shared for everyday consumption.
This week, Channel 3 announced a partnership with Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency, to broadcast Xinhua coverage on the Coronavirus outbreak.
The day before, two articles on Coronavirus were shared close to one thousand times from the Thai translated ‘China Xinhua News’ Facebook page – one, a moving account of a Chinese medic saying goodbye to her lover before going to “battle” in Wuhan, another, an endearing story of Chinese hospital staff helping one another write names on their protective suits so they can recognize each other.
With millions of likes on the Facebook page, it’s clear that Coronavirus isn’t China’s only viral export.
The dominance of Chinese content in Thai news long precedes the Coronavirus outbreak. Since 2019, Chinese media has been making tremendous inroads into Thai-language news and is beginning to make its appearance in English-language Thai newspapers. In a cash-strapped, content-hungry industry, the well-funded Xinhua News Agency and its 6,000 pieces of content produced per day are enticing, to say the least.
The Sinicization of Thai News
The Channel 3 partnership with Xinhua is only the latest of a long string of official partnerships Xinhua has inked with Thai news agencies. Among the 12 known signatories of its news sharing agreement are prominent platforms like Voice Online, Manager Online, Sanook, the Matichon Group (the parent company of Khaosod) and state broadcasting agency NBT.
2019 was christened the “ASEAN-China Year of Media Exchanges” by the Thai government. If you read your news in Thai, likely some of it is produced by the Chinese state.
The recent dominance of Chinese media in Thailand is the confluence of two structural dynamics: Thailand’s declining news industry, and China’s growing soft power offensive.
Journalism may be suffering globally, but the Thai news industry has exhibited particularly painful symptoms. Of the two English-language dailies in Thailand, The Nation discontinued its print edition in 2019 after losing millions of baht for five consecutive years, while the Bangkok Post is selling its buildings to stay afloat.
“Money is a very big issue in Thai news and the reason why Xinhua is so popular is because it is free,” said Teeranai Charuvastra, news chief at Khaosod English – one of the signatories to the Xinhua MOU. “Since the advent of social media, every media outlet in Thailand has had to buckle their belts.”
In stark contrast, the Chinese government has injected the Chinese news industry with massive infusions of money in its subtle, ambitious campaign to reshape the global information environment. This involves not just providing pro-Beijing content for free – it ranges from influence as direct as taking equity stakes in African media companies to more informal means such as sponsoring media trips to China for local journalists. This is a lavishly financed campaign that for the past decade has been making inroads in North America, Africa, and, now, Southeast Asia.
“Within Chinese political philosophy, which is influenced by Marxism-Leninism, an important component has always been propaganda and ideology,” says Dr. Arm Tungnirun, a Law lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and former director of the Thai-Chinese Strategic Research Center.
“In the domestic sphere it is about information control, but in the international sphere, it is about information influence.”
Teeranai emphasizes the informal modes of China’s media charm offensive. Relationships between Chinese officials and Thai journalists have begun to change the way information is relayed to the Thai public, in ways invisible to the public.
“It’s as simple as knowing someone in the Chinese embassy, and them asking you personally if you want or are willing to publish a story. I’ve seen at least one news website post articles produced by Chinese state media after a two-sentence LINE conversation – if I remember correctly, the article was about Xinjiang, from the Chinese government’s perspective,” he said.
Social media has also become a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s media strategy. In 2009, the Chinese government invested 20 billion yuan in Xinhua to improve its “tardy” reporting in comparison to bloggers. It has paid off – the aforementioned Thai ‘China Xinhua News’ page has 70 million followers on Facebook.
Kobkij Praditpolpanich runs the China Xinhua News page. Out of the thousands of articles produced daily by Xinhua, he and his team are charged with selecting the ones most aligned with the interests of Thai audiences. They translate 60 – 100 articles a day to Thai, many of them receiving hundreds if not thousands of likes and shares.
Kobkij was reluctant to divulge too much information about his work. “We never get told what to translate, we choose the stories ourselves. Currently, Coronavirus articles are obviously in high demand, and in general stories about Chinese technology resonate with the Thai audience.”
The virality has not only come through official government channels. Thai netizens will remember a recent post on Beijing’s efficient response to its own PM 2.5 pollution crisis, published by a Facebook page called ‘China Report ASEAN – Thailand’.
The post eventually garnered 33,000 shares in the face of growing frustration with the Thai government’s ineptitude over handling pollution. Sanook estimates that 1.4 million of its readers have already read Xinhua content.
In Teeranai’s words, “If you were the Chinese official in charge of this, you would probably consider this a major victory – at least 12 of the most popular news agencies in Thailand run your stories and broadcast China the way China wants to be seen.”
Countering Western dominance
The Chinese narrative around its media offensive centers on countering western dominance.
“China has a long-held perception that Western media is biased against it, or misunderstands it in many ways,” says Dr. Arm.
The notion of a deeply entrenched information asymmetry tilted in favor of the West is shared by Xinhua’s Thai counterparts.
“I believe that China has lagged behind the West in this information war,” said Kobkij, “They are not yet well-matched fighters, and I have a lot more work to do if China wants to catch up.”
Teeranai shares a similar perspective. “When Thai media reports on China, we usually rely on Western agencies – very often we even rely on Western tabloids like Daily Mail or the Sun, which is probably not the most reliable source about China. Now the Thai media has another option, to hear from Chinese people directly. From the perspective of Thai media, that benefits our coverage.”
This is a narrative that resonates with a Thai audience. The legacy of colonialism and orientalism still evokes a passionate response in the region. To some Thais, the 18th-century Thai fight for sovereignty amidst the voraciousness of colonial powers’ “scramble for Southeast Asia” is still not a distant memory.
Thai myth-making around ‘never having been colonized’ relates to this deep-seated awareness of being a nation that has long been held hostage to Western military might. Given this historical context, to some Thais, growing Chinese influence appears a welcome change.
It is no secret, however, that Xinhua is a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party – a party that has acquired a distinct reputation for repression under Xi Jinping, with its detention camps in Xinjiang and its maneuvering in Hong Kong.
Both Kobkij and Teeranai make no claim to impartiality from its Chinese sources. Instead, Teeranai argues that Thai readers are well aware of these biases. “Readers know full well the origin, the manner of the organization that produces this news – as long as they are aware of the bias then it should be fine.”
Kobkij asserts that it is the journalists’ responsibility to tell a story that reads as fair and true. “I always tell journalists that you shouldn’t use us as your only news source – you should use many different sources. Our source is only meant to counter-balance the other sources you are using.”
However, Teeranai says that the Xinhua articles are published as they are, labeled clearly as ‘external content’ over which they claim no responsibility nor involvement. “Realistically, we can’t fact check everything – we wouldn’t go through Kyoto News to weed out their biases on the Carlos Ghosn story either.”
More problematically, it is unclear whether Thai readers really are paying attention to their news sources – external or otherwise – or whether they even care.
“Thai people are not aware that this is happening because they are not critical of their own news – they never ask where sources come from, whether or not they are credible,” says Arm.
“In Thailand, we are taught to read and take things as objective facts – there is no training in critical analysis, or even attempts to discern ‘fake news’.”
Yet, philosophers like Noam Chomsky or sociologists like Talal Asad would claim that the West is no less biased, nor are its biases any less insidious.
Of this, Teeranai says, “the irony of all this is that people are more aware and keenly conscious of the bias in Chinese media, whereas they don’t necessarily have the same consciousness or bias about Western media.”
However, Arm points to the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western media – stylistic differences that mask deeper differences in intent.
“Chinese news is interested in presenting positive narratives. It is also descriptive – there are usually no alternatives or opposing viewpoints provided. In contrast, Western news is much more critical, whether they are reporting on China or reporting on Donald Trump. Of course, with descriptive news, one can choose what to describe or how to describe something – it is easier to self-censor.”
This has become clear in the Chinese coverage of Coronavirus, which has emphasized stories of bravery and playfulness among Chinese medics, hospital staff and even those quarantined within the city of Wuhan.
This runs counter to reports on the ground expressing frustration at the Communist Party’s slow response to the crisis. Even Wuhan’s mayor has come out to say that because of Beijing’s censorship, the crisis was not flagged as early as it could have been and five million people were able to leave the city before quarantine as a result.
Influence on Thai people and their perspectives on China
It may be too early to understand the full consequences of China’s media offensive in Thailand, but they have approached Thais at a critical juncture, where the nation remains divided both on domestic and geopolitical alliances.
A survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 51.8 per cent Thais had little to no confidence that China would “do the right thing” whilst 48.2 per cent had some confidence or did not comment. Now, as ever, there is no clear normative consensus on China’s influence in the region.
Thai perspectives on China have become a proxy for existing fissures in domestic political opinion.
“Thai people are already split fifty-fifty between conservatives and progressives, people who support the government and those who don’t. When people share news about China on social media, you can tell where they are in the Thai political spectrum,” says Arm.
As Thais become more exposed to positive content about China through content ‘Made in China’, opinions will certainly shift – with radical access naturally comes radical empathy.
Already, Thais are sharing news about Chinese high-tech innovation, developments in 5G and the high-speed railway and China’s new FAST telescope. While the most popular articles from Xinhua may not seem directly related to politics, they speak to growing support for a political form that has thrust China from poverty into riches, from the sick man of Asia to a global superpower.