Critical Conversations

China-UK Media War: A New Face of International Conflict?

The role of the media anywhere in the world is universal. Any media worth its salt plays a vital role in disseminating information and knowledge, including educating and entertaining the people. But it is the first two functions that make the media a potent agent of empowerment and change.

For months now, Britain and China have been exchanging bullets over a number of issues, some of which are China’s crackdown on dissent in the former British colony of Hong Kong, concern over the security of Huawei technology, and the treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. All these propelled Britain’s Ofcom to revoke the license of CGTN, the English-language sister channel of state broadcaster CCTV, after concluding that China’s ruling Communist Party had ultimate editorial responsibility for the channel. This gesture went very far in infuriating Beijing and they retaliated by withdrawing the licence of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to broadcast in China, accusing them of using its platform to push “fake news”.

In just a few months, the United Kingdom’s overall policy toward China has changed dramatically. Until recently, Downing Street was famously defining itself as “China’s best partner in the West” and was committed to intensifying its proclaimed “golden era” of relations with Beijing. Britain was the first G7 country to join the Chinese-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Britain described itself as the most open Western economy to Chinese investment and promoted an economic approach within the European Union that largely favored Chinese interests.

Just before taking over as prime minister in July of last year, Boris Johnson insisted that his government would be very “pro-China” and “very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative.” Some month after, interestingly, the U.K. has become one of China’s most vocal critics, infuriating Beijing with its removal of Huawei from its 5G network, its decision to provide millions of Hong Kong residents a pathway to British citizenship, and its plans to clamp down on Chinese investments.

The recent events have marked a dramatic escalation in what was already a tense relationship over both 5G telecommunications technology and human rights abuses in Hong Kong, alongside the Muslim majority region of Xinjiang. British media umbrella organization Ofcom was the first to strike, saying that it had taken the decision to withdraw CGTN’s license “over the broadcaster’s and audience’s rights to freedom of expression”. Ofcom’s decision was based on British broadcasting laws that license holders only must have control over their service, including editorial oversight and all programmes.

CGTN had earlier been accused of broadcasting one-sided coverage of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and forced televised confessions in “show trials” involving foreigners. Beijing wasted no time in responding by demanding an apology from the British broadcaster, accusing it of running “fake news” in covering the coronavirus pandemic, as well as “ideologically biased” in its reporting about Xinjiang.

China further urged the BBC and its Beijing office to take concrete measures to eliminate the negative impact of its reporting and offer a public apology to China on its China-related “fake news”. The foreign ministry added in a statement that “China reserves the right to take further measures”.

Situation of things continued to escalate as The BBC went on with its series of report on Xinjiang internment camps, forced labor and, most recently, systematic rape of Muslim women. These and many more, infuriated Beijing authorities heavily so they started with measures like kicking their correspondents out of China and heaping huge pressure on them.

As earlier mentioned, the British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom had revoked the license of Chinese news network, CGTN, after finding out the broadcasting firm’s state-backed ownership structure broke UK law. The regulator emphasized that CGTN’s license holder, Star China Media Ltd, had failed to show it had editorial oversight over the network and that a proposed transfer to another media group that would still keep it tied to the Chinese Communist Party.

This is not the first time the English-language satellite broadcaster is facing criticism for parroting the Communist Party line in its global broadcasts. The ban immediately flagged off a media war between the U.K. and China with Beijing threatening to take unspecified action against the BBC as a form of retaliation.

The event marked a dramatic escalation in what was already a tense relationship over both 5G telecommunications technology and human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and the Muslim region of Xinjiang.

The British regulator however claims its decision was based on British broadcasting laws that license holders must have direct control over their service, including editorial oversight over programs. In addition, license holders cannot be controlled by political bodies.

China too, in trying to prove it has the same powers as The UK, banned the BBC World News television channel from the few outlets where it could be seen in the country in a kind of retaliation. The move was largely symbolic, because BBC World was shown only on cable TV systems in hotels and apartment compounds for foreigners and some other businesses. But it drew the foreign news outfits deeper into Beijing’s growing conflict circle with Western governments following last year’s expulsion of reporters of some American newspapers.

The Chinese regulator, National Radio and Television Administration claimed BBC World News coverage of China violated requirements that news reporting be true and impartial. It accused the BBC of undermining China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity. The Chinese government also criticized BBC reports about the COVID-19 pandemic in China and about allegations of forced labor and sexual abuse in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

The National Radio and Television Administration also said BBC failed to meet the requirements to broadcast in China as an overseas channel, but gave no indication whether BBC reporters in China would be affected. The Communist Beijing government last year, had expelled foreign reporters for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times during disputes with the Trump administration.

The international No Cold War campaign group, in its statement on the withdrawal of CGTN’s British broadcasting license, said:

“This is directly dangerous. The world is facing the threat of a new Cold War. Such a Cold War stands in the way of the global cooperation and full information dissemination that is urgently needed to tackle the common problems faced by humanity: the pandemic, climate change, poverty and peace.”

Read Also: Is Social Media the New Government?

Just as the global campaign group pointed out, the current media war between the West and China is a huge drawback to a free global information dissemination order. At this moment in global history, when the world is confronted by huge economic, health and security challenges, it is crucial to build understanding and share knowledge through a factual and free-flowing information dissemination system.

It is indeed in the best interest of all citizens of the world, for China, The UK and other parties involved to seek common grounds and allow the free flow of information to resume. With COVID-19 and economic recession everywhere, the world cannot afford an unnecessary distraction under any guise.

Gideon Tobiloba

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