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Chinese propaganda echoes every day from a village of 3,000 inhabitants on the Rhine – report

Details about the darker (and often unnoticed) facets of Beijing’s influence

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Kuldeep Singh
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A little bit of Chinese state propaganda flickers over the television screen on small regional TV channels. What sounds cynical are actually deliberate tactics by the Chinese government. Because it tries to turn the West upside down according to its own ideas.

Opposite Koblenz in Germany, directly on the Rhine, is the small community of Urbar with 3200 inhabitants. It’s quiet and idyllic here on the eastern bank of the Rhine, a place where you know each other. The famous slate rock Loreley is only 30 kilometers away in the south.

But not only the Loreley has a mystical touch here. The television programs of the local regional broadcasters also seem shrouded in mystery. 

It is true that harmless formats with names such as “Sehnsuchtsorte – My favorite place in the Rhein-Lahn district” and “House and Garden” flicker on the small regional channels TV Mittelrhein and Westerwald-Wied-TV.

Propaganda on regional TV

But every evening from 6 p.m. there is a format called “China Info” for 15 minutes. The program’s editions hardly differ: at its core, it is about China’s global economic and technological dominance. 

Sometimes the country is staged as a pioneer in research into cryptocurrency, then as a global market for service robots. The contributions are loosened up by reports on traditional Chinese medicine, folk dances or the culture of the different peoples in the huge Middle Kingdom with 1.4 billion inhabitants.

For example, television viewers in the region are brought closer to the cultural customs of the Tajiks in the Xinjiang region using colorful images of happy people in beautiful traditional clothing. 

The viewer also learns something about a Kazakh village near the border, which is supposed to boost tourism in the region. Political issues, on the other hand, tend to be left out.

What does such a format do on local TV in the Rhineland? The connection, which at first glance seems rather illogical, comes from the company Deutsche Regionalfernsehen (DRF), which also operates the two regional broadcasters. 

The DRF is not only based in the same tranquil land register. According to its own information, it also maintains cooperation with a company called Guang Hua Media Deutschland GmbH. The two companies produce “China Info” together.

Propaganda instead of a coffee trip

In view of this cooperation, it is also clear why the format does not include contributions from the political field that could harbor potential for conflict, with a few exceptions. 

After all, “China Info” is not a normal coffee-trip program, but homemade propaganda by the Chinese regime.

Because the company Guang Hua Media is the German branch of the Guanghua Culture and Media Group, which works with all-party organs of the ruling Communist Party in China.

Together with other Chinese media companies, Guang Hua Media could be tracked down by the China regime in order to infiltrate foreign media. 

“It’s about conveying a positive image of China – in the case of ‘China Info’ above all an image of China as a progressive high-tech country,” says Sinologist Mareike Ohlberg to FOCUS Online.

Ohlberg has been dealing with China’s external propaganda for years, did doctorate on this subject and recently even wrote a book on China’s attempts to infiltrate Western democracies. The expert has been observing the media infiltration phenomenon for two years. 

“Behind this, of course, is the hope that a positive image of China will then have a positive effect on German China policy and that there will be less resistance to China’s policy in Europe,” says Ohlberg.

In “China Info” there is only one Xinjiang

To this end, Chinese media companies often enter into financially generous collaborations with companies like the DRF. Sometimes the Chinese media companies also acquire shares in foreign media or buy them out completely. In the course of this, newspapers, online media or even TV formats are penetrated with China-friendly news.

So it happens that formats such as “China Info” only stage the province of Xinjiang as the home of the dancing Tajiks – but not as a region in which more than a million members of the Muslim Uyghur minority are detained in internment camps and “transformed”.

DRF: “No knowledge at all” of proximity to the regime

Why the DRF is still working with a henchman of the Chinese government and broadcasting propaganda content – the private broadcasting group did not want to comment on this. 

Several e-mails went unanswered after telephone contact with an employee. DRF editor-in-chief Bernd Schmellenkamp had told the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” in October that the Urbar-based company had “no knowledge” of any “regime proximity” of the cooperation partner.

“Guang Hua has recently reassured us that the headquarters and all branches of the Guang Hua Group are privately organized and self-financed,” said Schmellenkamp. 

In addition, the final editorial responsibility lies with the DRF.  

The supposed ignorance of DRF about the connections of the cooperation partner Guang Hua Media to the Chinese regime is astonishing – also because, according to Schmellenkampf, the editor of the show is a sinologist and should therefore be familiar with the Chinese media system. 

Spicy: According to “SZ” research, the editor has already worked for the Chinese People’s Newspaper, the country’s most important newspaper, which also acts as the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

“The format is cleverly made”

So not a show like any other? The fact that regional television stations broadcast Chinese TV formats that are close to the regime should be viewed critically, says Sinologist Ohlberg. 

“We should definitely get more information about China, there are major deficits in my opinion, but the information must come from independent sources and above all not from programs that are supposed to improve China’s image.”

These are simply propagandistic and create a one-sided image that only shows what the Chinese government wants to show.

To what extent the euphemistic TV formats would influence viewers, however, is difficult to say.

“However, the format is comparatively clever, as it completely avoids most political topics and instead provides positive information, especially on tech and economic topics,” says Ohlberg.

This is a circumstance that could well play into the hands of the China regime. “For a target audience that otherwise knows rather little about China and does not know the background of the show, the format can therefore look like an objective fact broadcast,” explains Ohlberg.

Mayoress didn’t know anything

In the tranquil land area on the eastern bank of the Rhine, “China Info” has so far left at least little impression. “So far, I have not yet been approached by the citizens of Urbar about this television format,” says Urbar’s mayor Karin Küsel (SPD).

In fact, she only became aware of the Chinese television format on the local television stations through the phone call from the local media channel. 

“My contact as local mayor was exclusively of a communal nature,” she explains her connection to the DRF channels. 

However, she has a clear opinion on the tendentious Chinese TV formats:

“If Chinese propaganda were to be broadcast on TV-Mittelrhein, that would be problematic for me, as I consider human rights to be one of the most important rights worldwide.”

At least since June 17 (as of June 23) the DRF has not put the TV format online.

Photo by Thomas Frey/picture alliance via Getty Images

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