Rupa Subramanya: The Chinese Communist Party’s Canadian media cronies
Pro Beijing media were recipients of Canadian emergency bailout funds during the pandemic
Published Mar 16, 2023
A copy of the newspaper Sing Tao Daily in Toronto during the Covid 19 pandemic, Friday December 4, 2020. PHOTO BY PETER J THOMPSON /National Post
In recent weeks, there’s been a great deal of discussion about alleged interference in Canada’s electoral process by the Communist government of China. From what we can gather, from material leaked from CSIS, the Chinese Communist Party allegedly tried to intervene to favour candidates who were sympathetic to their views with illegal donations and to try to help defeat candidates who took a strong position against the Chinese government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t making it easy for us to find out if these allegations are true, but foreign interference in a democratic country’s elections is a very serious matter. However, there are other ways foreign powers can indirectly influence politics, and eventually policies in this country, and that is through trying to influence media coverage that’s consumed by diaspora populations usually in their native languages. Of course, this is not unique to China. Many countries around the world try to create a favourable impression among the diaspora populations through direct and indirect forms of outreach, everything from sponsoring cultural events to trying to get favourable press coverage.
But, as always, the Chinese Communist government takes things to another level. The two principal Chinese language media platforms in Canada, Ming Pao and Sing Tao Daily, are widely seen as being sympathetic to the Chinese regime. They operate not just in Canada but also in the United States.
Canadian journalist, Jonathan Manthorpe, investigated the extent of Chinese government influence in Canadian media in his 2019 book, “Claws of the Panda.” He documents that in the late 1980s, Sing Tao dropped into the lap of the Chinese Communist Party, when its then proprietor had financial woes and turned to Beijing for help. Subsequently, in the Canadian market, Sing Tao partnered with Torstar Corporation, parent company of the Toronto Star, which held a majority of the shares in their joint entity. Under their arrangement, Sing Tao had permission to translate and publish content from the Toronto Star.
But, as Manthorpe discovered, content unfavourable to the Beijing regime was often rewritten into stories substantially different than appeared in English in the Star. The relationship between Torstar and Sing Tao came to an end last fall, following the legal settlement between the company’s owners, Paul Rivett and John Bitove, a Torstar spokesman confirmed to me in an email. Rivett, no longer part of Torstar, continues to have involvement with Sing Tao, which maintains a large online presence, but ceased print publication last summer.
Similarly, Manthorpe documents the close ties of Ming Pao, another prominent Chinese media house to authorities in Beijing. Like Sing Tao, they publish content that is favourable to the regime.
In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice forced Sing Tao’s US operations to register as a “foreign agent.” While Sing Tao disputed the claim, the DoJ believed that their activity constituted an attempt to influence the U.S. political process. In Canada, there was no similar attempt to force Sing Tao, to declare themselves as a foreign agent. Indeed, while Sing Tao was forced to come clean south of the border, they continued to be majority owned by Torstar in Canada for more than another year.
You might ask, who cares? Media houses can have whatever sympathies they want and it’s up to the public to decide what to believe and what not to believe. Fair enough, except things get murkier when it turns out that both Sing Tao and Ming Pao were recipients of Canadian emergency bailout funds during the pandemic. Specifically, Ming Pao received a little less than a million dollars and Sing Tao got almost $200,000. That’s taxpayers’ money being given to media companies in Canada that are all but taking their dictation from Beijing.
If there were any doubt about the close proximity of Sing Tao to the Chinese regime, that was dispelled on March 13, when Karson Choi Ka-tsan, chairman of Sing Tao News Corporation in Hong Kong, the parent of the Canadian and U.S. companies, was named as a deputy director of a special committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, an important advisory body to the Chinese Communist party. Sing Tao’s previous chairman, Charles Ho, held a similar position and had held that position since 1998.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, Sing Tao is literally etched into the foundation of the community. The School of Journalism building at the University of British Columbia was endowed by Sing Tao’s charitable arm, the Sing Tao Foundation, back in the late 1990s. More recently, as we know, the Chinese government has been doling out the largesse to create Confucius Centres all around the Western world. This sort of charitable contribution can certainly be seen through the benign lens of Chinese soft power. On the other hand, it creates vested interests in Western liberal democracies potentially with an incentive to placate Chinese authorities, or at any rate look the other way when it comes to the more nefarious activities of the Beijing regime, whether domestically or internationally.
The bottom line is that CSIS allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections is but the tip of a much larger iceberg, an attempt by Chinese authorities to shape the narrative in Canada and other Western democracies in their favour. It’s always wise to remember the old adage, when you see something in the newspaper, your first question should be, who is paying for it?