THE BBC has been accused of supporting Beijing propaganda efforts as it emerged that it teamed up with a Chinese government-controlled company to produce a new documentary in Scotland championing the nation’s tea output.
BBC Studios has been working on what is its first fully funded production commission in China, a six-part series telling the story of tea and its impact on China and other civilizations around the world.
The Herald on Sunday can reveal it was commissioned by Migu, a subsidary of China Mobile, a state-owned enterprise directly controlled by the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Migu in a promotional video for the series describes tea as “China’s gift to the world” and describes it is further material as “a symbol of Chinese civilization and heritage”.
The publicly funded British broadcaster has been strongly criticised for allowing itself to push pro-China narratives and support propaganda efforts.
Communist China has been accused of having one of the world’s most restrictive media environments, relying on censorship to control information in the news, online, and on social media.
It comes as Beijing, the venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has been hit by a flurry of diplomatic boycotts from countries including the US, Australia, and Britain, because of widespread allegations of Chinese atrocities against the Uyghur community.
Human rights groups and Western governments have accused China of genocide in the Xinjiang region. China denies this, saying its network of detention camps there is for “re-education” of the Uyghurs and other Muslims.
Relations are also strained over a crackdown on political freedoms and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and more recently concerns over tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view after she accused a top Chinese government official of sexual assault. Although the Chinese authorities have criticised “malicious speculation” over her case, there has remained significant concern about her.
Many human rights groups have pleaded with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to find a new location for the event.
The Defund the BBC campaign group set up last summer with the help of founder, James Yucel, a student at the University of Glasgow after being offended by what he saw as the BBC’s lack of impartiality was shocked by the development.
Rebecca Ryan, its campaign director said: “We often hear the BBC’s global ‘soft power’ used as an argument for why British tax payers need to part with their hard earned cash to keep the troubled broadcaster afloat.
“In producing propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, the BBC has torn that argument to pieces.
“The BBC brand is currently bought and paid for by the British people. If the corporation wants to do dodgy backdoor deals with communist regimes they should move to a 100% commercial model and give their customers the freedom to choose whether to fund them or not.
“It’s high time we were given a referendum on the BBC licence fee.
Promotional image for the Scotland-produced documentary
“The British government should not be forcing the electorate to bolster a brand that takes money from a communist regime which commits human rights abuses and poses national security risks. By continuing to support the licence fee funding model, ministers are doing just that.”
The series One Cup, A Thousand Stories, aimed at telling the story about the history and influence of tea, was commissioned from BBC Studios, by Migu, the digital content subsidiary of China Mobile.
Migu’s promotions for the series state: “Tea is one of the greatest gifts that China has brought to the world as well as a symbol of Chinese civilization and heritage. It is a form of art, carrying a thousand-year-old tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, and it has always played an important role in people’s lives.”
The series aims to travel across the varied landscapes of China to explore its many teas, meet the people who have built a life around it, and the culture it has created – including its influence on Chinese lifestyles and rituals, medicine and health.
The Chinese Migu trailer for the BBC-produced documentary
And it examines the story of tea’s influence on other countries and China’s role in the global tea culture.
Migu describes the series as telling the “story of tea in a way that has never been attempted before – drawing on China’s abundant and historic tea, tea culture and the people who make a living from tea, as well as on the human story of tea worldwide in order to rediscover this extraordinary world”. It says: “In this documentary, audience can learn about China through various kinds of tea, including its culture, history and modern life.”
When news of the link-up first emerged in 2019, Lisa Opie, managing director for BBC Studios Productions said she was “delighted” to have secured the first production commission in China and said they will be making a “fascination and ambitious factual series”.
“It’s incredibly exciting to be sharing our story-telling and production craft with new audiences and with content that has been specifically developed for this market,” she said.
According to the BBC the project was to look at tea “on a scale never attempted before, journeying across the beautiful and varied landscapes of China to explore its many teas, the people who have built a life around it and the culture it has created”.
“This unique series will also seek to tell the story of tea’s influence on other countries and China’s role in the global tea culture,” the corporation said.
BBC Studios is the main TV production arm of the public broadcaster and the source of many of its most creative programming, but is also seeking to produce shows for a world audience.
Glasgow is a base for its factual entertainment and events department which makes a wide range of programmed from Top Gear and Countryfile to The One Show and Dragons’ Den.
In April it appointed Adeline Ramage Rooney as creative director for factual entertainment and events in Scotland, based at its Glasgow hub.
Production of BBC Studios’ first fully-funded commission in China was based in Glasgow and finished in October.
Filming took place across many countries and regions including 15 parts of China, Malaysia, Taiwan, London, Mongolia, Japan, India, Georgia, Azores, New Zealand, USA, Dubai, Malawi and Ecuador.
The series made up of six 50 minute episodes has just aired in China, but now there are moves being made to tap into other countries, starting with Portugal.
The BBC-China tie up featured in Asian TV news
A source said: “It takes a while to collate all the international broadcast deals.”
Promotional material states that Hugh Bonneville best known for starring roles in Downton Abbey and the Paddington Bear movie is narrating.
Material circulating in China describes how the documentary is “dedicated to revealing the important role and great influence played by tea culture in the process of Chinese and even global civilisation”.
It says that it is “another milestone in the development of China Mobile and Migu in the field international documentaries”.
China Mobile has run into trouble running operations outside of China because of security fears.
In January, the Canadian government informed China Mobile International Canada of a review on security grounds, saying the business could be leveraged by the Chinese state for foreign interference and the compromise of critical infrastructure. In a written submission to court, the government said that China Mobile is a state-owned enterprise of China — “a country that poses a significant threat to Canada and Canadians through its espionage and foreign interference operations.”
CMI Canada said the government had no grounds to believe the company would compromise security or engage in espionage on behalf of Beijing.
In 2018, the US government declared the telecom company was a possible “risk to national security”.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) advised the Federal Communications Commission not to allow China Mobile, which was the world’s third biggest carrier after AT&T and Verizon, to operate in the United States.
In May 2019, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned China Mobile, from providing US services.
And in June the US president Joe Biden signed an order banning investment in dozens of Chinese companies including China Mobile.
The order prevents US investment from supporting the Chinese military-industrial complex, as well as military, intelligence, and security research and development programs, Biden said in the order.
China Mobile, however, was able to launch a mobile phone service in the UK in 2017 after striking a deal to lease capacity on BT’s network. It was the first time the company had launched a network outside China and it was said to have had a goal of targeting tourists and expatriate Chinese.
The Migu trailer in English for the BBC-produced documentary
The company said at the time, that according to its research, about 500,000 Anglo-Chinese people lived in the UK, excluding 82,000 Chinese students. In the first half of 2017, an estimated 115,000 Chinese tourists visited Britain.
China Mobile International Limited (CMI) a subsidiary of China Mobile, mainly responsible for its overseas business opened a data centre in the UK in early December, 2019.
For decades, China’s approach to shaping its image has been accused of being defensive, reactive and largely aimed at a domestic audience.
It is claimed the BBC news flickered to black when it broadcast stories on sensitive issues such as Tibet, Taiwan or the Tiananmen killings of 1989.
But China has been seen to be trying to reshape its image by funding paid-for advertorials and sponsored journalistic coverage to ‘tell the country’s story well’.
Five years ago President Xi Jinping said Chinese state media must tell China’s story to the world better and become internationally influential.
Experts have been examining China’s massive external propaganda effort launched as part of a drive to repair the damage to its global image and interests as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chinese news outlets spanning television, radio and the internet have been expanding across the globe with state encouragement, aiming, Chinese leaders have said, to combat the negative images of China they feel are spread by world media.
State news agency Xinhua has opened dozens of news bureaus around the world; China Central Television (CCTV) launched a 24-hour English-language channel in the United States, and the official China Daily newspaper publishes several regional editions across the globe.
President Xi said in 2016 that China must increase its ability to broadcast internationally, increase its voice on the global stage and “tell China’s story well”.
China must also create “flagship media with strong international influence” aimed at foreign audiences, he added.
The Chinese authorities are known to have not taken kindly to condemnation from sports stars.
Outspoken Boston Celtics basketball star Enes Kanter sparked a major backlash when he was critical of President Xi and told of his support for the Free Tibet movement in October. His name was blocked from Chinese social media site Weibo, and the streaming of Celtics games was said to have been cancelled.
Similarly, an Arsenal game was pulled from Chinese state television in 2019 after its former midfielder Mesut Ozil highlighted the treatment of the Uyghurs.
The BBC produced a two sentence response to the concerns, saying: “One Cup: A Thousand Stories is a series that explores how different cultures across the world have built a life around tea, telling the story of its influence. The six part series is global in scale and features stories from 6 continents around the world.”