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|Includes: GE, The Coca-Cola Company (KO), MCD

 ‘Propaganda’ is a dirty word. It is associated with authoritarian regimes with no respect for human rights and is relied on by such governments to influence popular opinion in their favor. In the West, the so-called ‘free-press’ has long relied on more innocuous—but equally dangerous—forms of self-censorship to distort or ‘spin’ the truth. As China continues to develop economically, a new paradigm is starting to emerge: not that of bumbling old-guard communists with kitschy hand-painted posters with smiling children declaring ethnic unity, but rather a sophisticated understanding of capitalism, in which popular opinion is influenced using China’s increasingly long economic levers.  We are beginning to see that the ‘spin’ of Western media itself is gently being pulled into the orbit of Beijing’s economic machine. We have been exploring this topic in our feature-length film “China: The Rebirth of an Empire.”

When the Chinese hosted the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, officials promised an improvement in human rights and freedom of information. Instead, when protests erupted in Tibet in March of 2008, they crushed them with military force and sealed the entire region off from foreign journalists and travelers. This was a textbook authoritarian move; it was also a violation of the agreement Beijing had made with the International Olympic Committee (NYSE:IOC) in order to host the games, and the Olympic Charter itself. But, with billions of dollars tied up in the games, the IOC and partners like Coca-Cola, GE and McDonald’s decided to turn a blind eye while genocide ensued. However, once the opening ceremony began and the awesome display of fireworks and Olympic magic took hold, people associated China with prosperity and success.  The Chinese leadership had achieved its objective: it influenced Western hearts and minds not through direct propaganda, but rather by aligning the economic interests of western organizations with the Chinese national agenda.

Chinese authorities have been successful at influencing policy makers in the West in other ways as well. Take for example Xinjiang, a vast province in Western China that is the homeland of the Uyghur people, an ethnic and religious minority, who, like the Tibetans, contest Chinese rule of their land. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Chinese government aggressively lobbied the United States to list an obscure group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. The ETIM was supposedly comprised of ethnic Uyghurs, and just like that, the Uyghurs became associated with terrorism throughout the West.

It’s happening again, this time with the coverage of the recent violence in Xinjiang. The Western press has widely described this violence as “racial” and has shown many pictures of ethnic Han Chinese injured by crowds of enraged Uyghurs. The Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported on July 8, 2009, “The separatist World Uyghur Congress, led by Rebiya Kadeer, was behind the deadly July 5 Urumqi riot.”

The image of “terrorist” has been difficult for the Uyghurs to shed. We conducted a phone interview with Alim Seytoff, the Vice-President of the Uyghur American Association (founded by Ms. Kadeer) in Washington, D.C. “Unlike Tibetans, Uyghurs are Muslims. After 9/11, if you are Muslim and you have a problem, usually everybody is suspicious of your struggle,” Mr. Seytoff said.

According to Seytoff, the West has recently become less vocal in its criticism of Chinese human rights abuses due to the pressures of the global economic downturn. “Everybody needs to do business with China, and many countries are borrowing money from China, so of course they don't want to offend China by taking a strong stand on human rights issues,” Seytoff said. 

Our own country, the United States, has borrowed upwards of $1 trillion (that’s 1000 billion dollars) from China in recent years and we import about 2% of our GDP from China.  How independent is our news media when we need to rely on the Chinese to support our government and prop-up our living standard?

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