Beijing's hidden ads in Taiwan media

China Times (mainland news pages) Jan. 18 edition.jpg
Image: Ralph Jennings

China is attacking Taiwan with a new war of words. But it's not the ballistic, missile-rattling rhetoric of years past. Now it's the sweet oily stuff of the post-2008 cross-Strait detente era: flattering words from Beijing, about Beijing, disguised in Taiwan's media as straight hard news coverage.

So people in the industry say. In mid-January, Taiwan's Apple Daily newspaper consultant Antonio Chiang issued a China advertorial warning to a democracy-building conference in Taipei, generating a flurry of Omigod-outrage media reports that went around the world.

Chiang, also a former Council for National Security official, called the practice a concern because Taiwan newspapers that take hidden ads from China would later be tempted to self-censor less flattering news about the other side to stay on Beijing's payroll, the English-language Taipei Times reported.

A month earlier Taiwan journalism professors gathered to charge that China had deployed hidden ads in the local media since 2008, when two sides began to talk to each other in earnest after 60 years of official silence.

That same month veteran China Times reporter Dennis Huang quit over advertorials he claimed had been placed in his paper, the Taipei Times report said. The China Times owns Want Daily, a 2010 startup that covers China as if it's a place as normal and nearby as south Taipei.

The media's reliance on China comes as little surprise to those who follow the market's gritty finances.

A friend at another large mainstream Taiwan daily told me half a year ago that his publisher regularly took pay from China in exchange for stories that promoted the place to the island's visitors or investors. What the? I asked.

He laughed. His paper and all the rest are hurting for money as media are in most market economies. Layoffs swept the Taipei media in 2008 and 2009. One of Taiwan's three English-language papers, the Taiwan News, closed last year.

Someone's always murmuring that one of the four giant Chinese-language papers is next to fold, with publishers holding on just to save face or advance their political views through print. Taiwan also has a staggering six cable news channels, for a population of 23 million that's often just as happy to find out what's going on from Yahoo! or a magazine.

Most readers have their minds made up about China anyway.

Newspapers need income from somewhere, and the huge economy across the Strait make China a stable source.

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