The People's Daily is a Chinese Communist mouthpiece that pushes Beijing's agenda domestically, but it is also working on the international front, inserting its content into newspapers big and small with the hope of improving the country's image abroad.
On Friday in Britain, The Guardian noted that The People's Daily has had a quiet partnership for over a year with The Daily Mail, the iconic tabloid. The two media companies exchange articles and credit the content accordingly. Closer to home, a similar arrangement was announced late last month for a Chinese-Canadian daily called Today Commercial News, which calls itself the largest free daily of its kind in the country. The News will carry content from The People's Daily, and the People's Daily has access to The News's stories.
The Canadian deal gives China an outlet to advance its point of view to its overseas community here. But it also comes at a time when concern is intensifying that freedom of speech is being stifled in this country's Chinese-language media.
Critics worry that two sets of standards for a free press are emerging – one for Chinese-Canadian journalists and another for those in the mainstream media.
"When media comes into close co-operation with Communist control, it will follow that locally reported issues will in one way or the other reflect foreign interests rather than Canadian interests," said Gloria Fung, a Toronto-area commentator on Chinese affairs. "This is a threat to media expression in Canada."
Many others see the partnership as a positive step for bilateral relations and an inventive business model at a time of fiscal austerity.
"It's a win-win for us, People's Daily and our readers," News publisher Herbert Moon said, adding that his paper receives no financial support from its Chinese partner. "We pick the articles. They don't control what we chose."
One of the News's investors and advisers is Sally Aw, who once owned the Beijing-friendly Sing Tao Daily, a Chinese-language paper distributed around the world. The 90-year-old is also a former member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – an advisory body made up of people close to China's elite.
Mr. Moon would not disclose the identity of the News's owner. When pressed for greater transparency, he said its ownership does not reside in China.
Through an intermediary, Ms. Aw declined an interview request.
The agreement comes at a sensitive time for Chinese-Canadian journalists. After China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi dressed down an iPolitics reporter in June for asking about his country's human-rights record and its detention of a Canadian citizen, there was a backlash against writers at Chinese-language publications who criticized his behaviour.
One Toronto-area journalist received death threats, and senior managers took a writer's column away from him after he mocked Mr. Wang and Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan, who had defended China's human-rights record in a column sent to the media.
Former national defence minister Jason Kenney criticized Mr. Chan, then Ontario's minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, saying he lacked commitment to Canadian interests and values. In late June, Mr. Chan threatened to sue Mr. Kenney within seven days if he did not apologize and retract his statements. A source close to Mr. Kenney said he has received no formal notice.
(Mr. Chan is suing The Globe and Mail for defamation.)
Mr. Chan, whose column appears weekly in the News, was one of several Liberals to praise the media agreement, which was announced on July 22 on the front page of People's Daily. It was also welcomed by Liberal MP for Scarborough-Agincourt Arnold Chan, who is the deputy government House leader, and Geng Tan, MP for Don Valley North. Teresa Wat, the B.C. government's Minister of International Trade, also joined in.
The outpouring suggests a "tolerance or even support" for the Chinese agenda, said Gao Bingchen, the Vancouver columnist whose writing was dropped by a local newspaper after he wrote critically about Mr. Wang. Such an attitude "may hurt Canadians and immigrants, new and old alike, who are very much disgusted with Communism," said Mr. Gao, who writes under the name Huang Hebian.
"Whether this is a step backward or constitutes appeasement is something worth consideration by all Canadian society," he said.
People's Daily has deals with local outfits in many countries, said Wanning Sun, an expert on Chinese influence in Australian media at the University of Technology Sydney. "The general tendency has been for the Chinese state media to make its presence felt as globally as possible," she added. In her view, this comes from China's impression that the Western press does not represent it fairly.
China has been on a media spending spree, using its state news organizations, business executives and money to ease its way onto pages and screens across the world. A special "China Watch" section of the China Daily appears in the Washington Post and Le Figaro, among other periodicals.
Prof. Sun cautioned against overreaction. Immigrants from mainland China are quite skeptical of propaganda and unlikely to be taken in, while those hungry for the Chinese party line already know where to get it.
"Hand-wringing on behalf of white mainstream media outlets is pretty knee-jerk, really," she said. "China is actually doing this in a very public way. They think there's nothing to hide."