Chinese Consulate ads pushing stance on Hong Kong protests, COVID-19 and Uighur Muslims appearing in prominent Christchurch newspaper

By Anan Zaki of RNZ

The latest advertising campaign by the Chinese Consulate in a prominent Christchurch newspaper is being described as propaganda and untrue.

Adverts from the Consulate have been appearing regularly in the Christchurch Star, pushing the Chinese Government's stance on Hong Kong protests, COVID-19 and treatment of Uighur Muslims.

The newspaper is defending publishing the adverts - citing free speech - and the consulate in Christchurch says the adverts are factual.

They come in different sizes and send different messages and there have been many over the past two and a half years in the weekly metropolitan newspaper.

One advert described a clampdown in the Xinjiang region - where there have been reports of mass sterilisation and detention of Uighur Muslims - as "counter-terrorism".

Another sold Hong Kong's new security law as ensuring "long-term prosperity" in the city.

The adverts have angered a Hong Kong-New Zealand group. Too afraid to speak out publicly, they sent RNZ a statement.

"What the Chinese Consulate says [is] totally untrue. New Zealand Hong Kongers are already [in] fear to speak up, as the new national security law could easily be violated by just casual conversation, a post in social media or even [if] the Government "thinks" that you are a threat."

One of the ads from June 18.
One of the ads from June 18. Photo credit: Christchurch Star via RNZ

Publisher defends ads

The Christchurch Star is defending its publishing of the adverts.

Run by Star Media - the paper is owned by Allied Press - which also publishes the Otago Daily Times.

Star Media's regional manager Steve McCaughan said it's "ethical" to give all parties an opportunity for free speech.

"We accept ads from anyone as long as they adhere to the Advertising Standards Authority's standards, that are set within New Zealand guidelines," he said.

"So it's not like we would refuse anybody's advertising because everybody has a right to advertise clearly in the market as long as those guidelines are met."

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters recently announced New Zealand would suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over China's controversial security law.
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters recently announced New Zealand would suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over China's controversial security law. Photo credit: Getty

The Advertising Standards Authority has had three complaints about the ads since 2018, none have been upheld. The Chinese Consulate in Christchurch refused an interview request but provided a written response.

"We have issued press releases in The Star newspaper to help local readers get more comprehensive and objective understanding about China," a spokesperson for the Consulate General said.

"The articles may touch upon various topics, but all are based on facts. It is indeed important to let the readers see the full picture and facts from all perspectives on issues related to China especially amid misinformation in the media," the spokesperson said.

Ursula Cheer.
Ursula Cheer. Photo credit: The AM Show

Professor Ursula Cheer, the University of Canterbury's Dean of Law, said the adverts appear to fall under the category of advocacy advertising, which have three requirements.

One is that they have to clearly state the identity and position of the advertiser - which she said in this case had been done.

An ad published in December.
An ad published in December. Photo credit: Christchurch Star via RNZ

"The other two requirements are that any opinion has to be clearly distinguished from fact in the ad, and that factual information has to be able to be substantiated," Dr Cheer said.

"Now, I can't comment on the actual content of these advocacy advertisements, but it might be that there is content there that would breach those two requirements in the code."

Dr Marc Lanteigne.
Dr Marc Lanteigne. Photo credit: Supplied via RNZ

Growing trend from China's Government

Marc Lanteigne, a political scientist and China expert at the University of Tromsø in Norway, said the Chinese Government's advertising can be described as propaganda, and it is increasing worldwide.

Dr Lanteigne, who previously worked in New Zealand, said the country should monitor these messages coming from China .

"It is a concern because the New Zealand Government has recently suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong on the basis of the fact that Hong Kong is no longer seen as an independent judicial actor," he said.

Dr Lanteigne said the fact New Zealand is a target for the propaganda, shows its importance in Chinese foreign policy.

"Certainly, the fact that New Zealand is seen as a major recipient of Chinese publicity or propaganda, depending on how you want to look at it, should be looked at very carefully and also reflects the fact that New Zealand is seen as a very important actor in a lot of Chinese foreign policy thinking."