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Chinese media consumers turn to overseas Chinese language websites for political news beyond Beijing’s propaganda. China’s leaders fear these outlets for their open reporting, but many use them to test political proposals or to leak information about intra-party rivals. The complex imbroglio is a result of the lack of press freedom and the opaqueness of Chinese politics.

The New York based website Duowei News published many articles after Xi Jinping was named "core" leader at the recent Central Committee plenum.

“Only one of the two ‘mountains’ will stay”. The title of this article, which was published on 27 October on the overseas Chinese website, speculates about the political fate that awaits two high-ranking cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at next year’s 19th Party Congress. Wang Qishan and Liu Yunshan have both reached the CCP’s unofficial retirement age of 68. Both names end with “shan”, the Chinese character for mountain. The article predicts that only one of the two “shans” will retain a seat in the Standing Committee after October 2017.

Overseas Chinese language media traditionally play an important role in unraveling the conundrums of Chinese politics. By reporting stories that are unavailable in China and by providing more straightforward and in-depth analysis than China’s party and state-led media, these outlets have attracted large audiences. Many Chinese citizens at home and abroad view them as a more reliable source of information about political developments in China than CCTV or Xinhua.

Yet all media reports about Chinese politics struggle with the lack of transparency of China’s system. Many overseas commentators rely on gossip and speculation when reporting about internal power struggles within the CCP. In many articles “someone close to the leadership” features as the only source. Overseas Chinese media released a flood of rumors and conspiracy theories in the run up to the 6th plenary session of the 18th Congress of the CCP this October. One article even went so far as to predict the abolition of the Standing Committee under Xi Jinping’s strongman leadership.

Beijing’s complicated relationship with overseas Chinese media

Overseas Chinese language media can be very troublesome for the CCP, for they may reveal what the Party does not want ordinary Chinese to know. The Party labels many of them as ‘hostile organisations’. At the same time, China’s leadership plays a role in bolstering their influence within China. Chinese party and state-led media are happy to quote them whenever their opinions support China’s official positions, as was the case in a commentary in People’s Daily in the aftermath of the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea this summer. The Party may also use overseas Chinese media as a testing ground to stir up public debates it would not allow at home. For example, Wang Yukai, professor of the National Administration College, suggested trying a new presidential system in China in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao earlier this year.

Moreover, members of China’s political elite have become an active part of the overseas rumor mill. They often try to use overseas media’s domestic impact for their own purposes, for example by feeding them with “insider information” about their political adversaries. This is the main reason for former premier Wen Jiabao’s outrage at an article in the New York Times revealing his family’s prodigious wealth. The article appeared in the newspaper’s English as well as Chinese-language edition and the story was picked up by almost all the overseas Chinese language media immediately.

Many overseas websites readily publish such “inside stories”, for which they are rewarded with high rates of clicks, and, therefore, revenue. But publishing rumors from the mainland can also be a risky game for the editors. For one, they risk losing credibility with their readers if it turns out that they publish fabricated or planted stories. But they also face pressure from government authorities. In 2011, Hong Kong regulators fined Asian TV for an inaccurate report about the demise of former president Jiang Zemin.

Lack of press freedom and the black box of Chinese politics

Even so, overseas Chinese language media will continue to play an irreplaceable role for Chinese language media consumers. In an information market that is monopolised by party and government authorities, the public has no domestic alternative to accessing information about central level politics. At a press conference after the 6th plenary session, Qi Yu, vice-director of the Central Organisation Department of the CCP, said that some high-ranking officials of the CCP were engaged in “political intrigues to seize power.” His statement can be interpreted as implying that information had been leaked to overseas media, and that what these media reported was maybe not completely wrong.

In the current political climate of fear and distrust, especially in the wake of the fierce anti-corruption campaign, this is unlikely to change. Many cadres view it as an insurance policy to collect evidence that may undermine the reputation of their political foes. After all, everyone in a position of power in Beijing might wake up one day to find his or her own alleged wrongdoings exposed in an overseas Chinese language media report.