December 18, 2022
From a Twitter thread I wrote on
1. I’m going to start over with what I hope will be an informative thread on “What is Phoenix TV?”
2. People in the US started asking this because a Chinese correspondent from Phoenix TV asked President Trump a question yesterday at his briefing, and he questioned her in turn about whether she was working for China.
3. The President’s critics charged him with being racist, and his defenders accused Phoenix TV (which they probably hadn’t heard of before) of being a state-owned mouthpiece of the Chinese government.
4. The truth is a bit more complicated and sheds light on a bunch of areas – from media to the internet to sports – where the relationship between China’s ruling party and privately-owned businesses in China can be a bit blurry.
5. Phoenix TV was founded in the mid-1990s by entrepreneurs with backgrounds as journalists with state media. Which is not as creepy as it sounds, since that’s the only career background that existed for someone to launch such a venture at the time.
6. The founders got China State Television to take an ownership share in the project. There’s no question that the founders were politically well-connected and viewed as “friendly” by the Party, or never would have been allowed to exist.
7. They also brought in Hong Kong’s STAR TV as a partner, which had recently been acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch was very interested in finding some way to break into the Mainland China media market.
8. Remember, this is the 1990s. Reform and opening in China is in full swing, and nobody quite knows what will become possible, or what will be allowed. They all know they have to tread carefully on politics, but the limits are there to be tested.
9. The idea is to offer Mandarin and Cantonese language programming, including news, via satellite to the Mainland. It aims to be more interesting and informative than state TV, for a commercial audience, without rocking the boat too much.
10. Murdoch knew the possibilities, and the compromises necessary to pursue them. As in the US, his media business model was to keep a cozy relationship with the powerful to tap a massive audience, even if that came at the expense of fearless or even unbiased journalism.
11. Murdoch’s own China dreams were never fully realized – though he came away from the adventure with a young Chinese wife (Wendi Deng), which becomes a whole other story.
12. Gradually Murdoch’s ownership in Phoenix TV became whittled down to around 12%, which he sold to US private equity fund TPG in 2013.
13. About 37% of the company is owned by the founding entrepreneur, who of course maintains close and friendly ties with China’s government – without which he couldn’t operate.
14. About 20% is owned by China Mobile, a state-owned firm, and about 8% by an investment company owned by Bank of China. About 10% is owned directly by China State Television, as an original partner.
15. But defining the direct ownership shares, and debating whether they signify commercial investments or political ones really misses the point. Like many private firms operating in sensitive areas, Phoenix TV can only exist with the permission of the Party.
6. Even if Phoenix were 100% privately owned, it would be heavily influenced by its environment. It knows the rules, and it knows Beijing would never allow it to reach its audience if it were seen as anything other than friendly.
17. In an earlier thread, I compared the relationship between the CCP and Phoenix to the relationship between Trump and Murdoch. Obviously there’s a huge difference – Trump can’t silence other, more critical media voices – but some similarities are recognizable.
18. As in China, Murdoch doesn’t work for the government. He’s not state media. He wants to make money tapping a commercial audience. But he also knows that he can obtain access and an audience by ensuring flattering coverage.
19. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and each side gets what they want. Compromises get made, influence is exercised, but it’s seen as an acceptable cost of doing business.
20. It’s simplistic to say Phoenix is state TV, or a mouthpiece of the Chinese government – or to say it’s just a private media outlet. It isn’t truly independent, because it wouldn’t be allowed to exist if it were, but nor is it simply an arm of the Chinese government either.
21. The frustration I’ve had, watching this topic discussed, is that we aren’t really interested in how Chinese media companies or internet companies or anything really work. We’re interested in shadowboxing with cartoon villains that fit a domestic political narrative.
22. But while polemically useful, this comes at the expense of a truly useful understanding of what we are really dealing with, which is a country of 1.4 billion people which IS a single-party state but isn’t JUST a single-party state.
23. As for reporters asking questions, I don’t think a reporter’s question is valid or invalid because we think an agenda might motivate it. No one is without motivations, or operates entirely free of influences. Questions can’t be dismissed in this way, only answered.
24. If the President thinks a reporter from China or anywhere is posing a question with faulty assumptions or implications, the best response is to explain, clearly and honestly, why those assumptions or implications are incorrect, for the world to hear.
25. As for myself, I have never shied away from criticizing China, or sharing information critical of China on Twitter, and I find it ridiculous – and, frankly, tedious – when I’m accused of carrying water for anyone, much less the CCP.