Guancha: Tracing control and influence at Guancha news | Doublethink Lab

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Tracing control and influence at Guancha news | Doublethink Lab

Researcher: Harpre Ke

Guancha Syndicate (观察者网) is one of China’s most popular and influential online media portals, having launched in 2012 to provide an alternative, notionally decentralized, source of news for Chinese internet users.

Guancha is also a locus of China’s “new nationalist” movement predicated on anti-Western sentiment and conviction in the superiority of China’s current model of government.

Doublethink Lab has noted a tendency for international news outlets to cite Guancha as an independent source of news and views, distinct from state-run propaganda outlets such as Global Times and China Daily.

For example, Australia’s ABC News quoted a Guancha post from a “well-known civilian commentator who goes by the name of Xi Yazhou” (who introduces himself as an independent military commentator on the Guancha website ) in a story about the unveiling of a new drone during rehearsals to mark the 70th anniversary of the PRC.

But Taiwan-watchers may recognize Guancha as a source of disinformation operations aimed at the island in the wake of Typhoon Jebi, which struck Osaka in 2018. According to Reporters Without Borders (p.17), Guancha articles and a video falsely claimed Taiwan’s representative office in Osaka had done nothing to help stranded Taiwanese citizens, leaving the Chinese embassy to rescue them.

Taiwanese media picked up the false reports without properly fact-checking them — despite the Taiwan FactCheck Center debunking the disinformation — leading to protests against Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

This post serves to clarify Guancha’s positioning in China’s media ecosystem and the historical context in which it has evolved. We aim to show that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in the form of both the central government via the State Council and the Shanghai municipal government, has influenced the organization since its inception.

Moreover, a network of state-connected influencers at the private entities behind Guancha’s technology platform and financing continues to exercise control of its content, as well as that of numerous WeChat accounts ostensibly authored by famous Chinese influencers.

Guancha has its genesis in Social Observer magazine, a pen and ink product published by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), a state entity. SASS is part-financed by the State Council and the Shanghai city government. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. The social network of the state entities related to the Social Observation Magazine from 2003 to 2010.

In 2010, SASS passed control of Social Observer to the state-owned Shanghai Social Science Magazine (SSSM), which operated out of the same building just off Huaihai Rd, a bustling commercial street that runs through Shanghai’s former French concession.

Between 2010–11, Shanghai Observer Culture Media (SOCM), a private entity, stepped in to co-publish Social Observer alongside SSSM, while the Shanghai Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies (SCIDSS) provides content and academic support.

This is the beginning of Jin Zhongwei’s (金仲偉) association with Guancha Syndicate. Jin is Guancha’s co-founder and CEO, but was formerly a deputy editor of Oriental Morning Post, a traditional newspaper published under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group until its shuttering in 2017. In 2010, Jin was a 50% stakeholder in SOCM. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. The social network of the state and private entities related to the Social Observation Magazine from 2010 to 2011.

In 2011, another entity based at the same address as SASS, Shanghai Social Observer Magazine, took over the publication of Social Observer, with Jin’s SOCM providing content moderation services. In the context of state-run Chinese media, moderation is the process through which articles are checked by censors to ensure they ‘on-message’ and do not run afoul of guidance issued by the CCP’s Publicity Department. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. The social network of the state and private entities related to the Social Observation Magazine from 2011 to 2012.

In 2012, SOCM and a company in which Jin holds a minority stake, Shanghai Observer Information Technology Co., Ltd (SOIT), launched Guancha Syndicate, Social Observer’s online platform.

Initially, Social Observer magazine provided the majority of Guancha’s content, while being published and edited by staff operating out of SASS headquarters on Huaihai Rd. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. The social network of the state and private entities related to Guancha (Guancha Syndicate) from 2012 to 2014.

The graphic below (Figure 5) illustrates the relationships between the private entities SOCM and SOIT and various state-owned institutions, including those that published Social Observer magazine.

The connections are important because, from 2014 onwards, Guancha Syndicate’s direct ties to Social Observer gradually unwind. The online portal begins ‘independent’ publication under a new model sourcing content from a network of non-journalist writers, including celebrities, students, scholars, and businessmen, which is the brainchild of Jin and his fellow Guancha co-founder, venture capitalist Eric Xun Li (李世默).

At this point, Jin himself is personally moderating the WeChat page of Professor Zhang Weiwei (張維為), a former SASS head who is regularly quoted by Chinese media on international relations in his role as director of the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. He has also become CEO of SCIDSS. Meanwhile, both Zhang and Li are working as researchers for SOCM, while Li is Chairman of the Fudan University China Institute’s advisory committee, and Jin is a researcher for the same institution.

Later, SOIT itself assumes control of Zhang’s WeChat account, as well as that of another widely quoted figure, Ping Chen (陳平), Professor of Economics at the National School of Development at Peking University, and Senior Research Fellow at Center for New Political Economy at Fudan University.

Figure 5. The social network of the state and private entities related to Guancha (Guancha Syndicate) from 2014 to 2020.

In 2017, SOIT spun off a new unit, Shanghai DeYe Cultural Communication, which curates the Hu Xijin (胡錫進) Observatory WeChat account. Hu is the chief editor of the state-owned Global Times, a bilingual tabloid known for its vehement anti-Western views.

In addition to his various research and advisory roles, Li is the executive director of Chengwei Capital, which maintains strong ties to SOIT via its trading partners Jiang Shaoqing (蔣邵清) and Sha Ye (沙燁). (Figure 6)

Figure 6. Sha Ye is the executive director of the Chenwei Capital.

At the time of Guancha’s launch, both Li and Jiang held seats on SOIT’s board, but have since vacated their positions, while Sha maintains a 17.5% stake in the company. During his time on the board, Jiang was also a shareholder of “Beijing Huaxia Thinking Engineering Technology’’, otherwise known as April Media, from November 2010 to March 2014.

We highlight this association to establish the editorial direction of Guancha during its early days as a standalone web portal.

April Media is renowned for being the original proponent of the “Anti-CNN movement” launched in the wake of the 2008 Tibetan uprising. Founder, Rao Jin (饒謹), who initiated the “anti-CNN movement” in 2008, established the website as a repository for what he and fellow Chinese netizens identified as lies and distortions by Western media regarding the origins of the Tibet protests and the manner in which they were quashed.

Rao, who was 23 years old at the time, swiftly became an ambassador for the views of young Chinese people, and in 2020 was nominated as a “Beijing Youth Model” under a Communist Youth League initiative. (Figure 7–12)

Figure 7. Rao Jin, the general manager of the April Media, was awarded the Beijing Youth Model.

During Jiang’s time as a shareholder (Figure 8), April Media expanded to take on moderation of a host of WeChat pages authored by influencers, such as Jin Canrong (金燦榮), a professor and Associate Dean with the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, Li Yi (李毅) and Sima Nan (司馬南). Needless to say, these high-profile commentators are united in their opposition to the West and their support for China’s new nationalism. (Figure 9)

Figure 8. Jiang Shaoqing was a shareholder of April Media.Figure 9. The social network of the Chengwei Capital, the April Media, and the patriotic key opinion leaders in China.

We hope that this analysis provides useful context for those seeking to understand the institutions and personalities behind Guancha Syndicate, and how their influence extends through online marketing companies to shape the voice of Chinese influencers. (Figure 10–12)

Figure 10. The screenshot of the account entities moderating WeChat pages of Zhang Weiwei, Ping Chen, and Hu Xijing.Figure 11. The screenshot of the account entities moderating WeChat pages of Li Yi and Canrong Jin.Figure 12. The screenshot of the account entities moderating WeChat pages of Sima Nan

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