Twenty five years after Tiananmen Massacre: Whom China pays to polish its image in the USA

Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Pictured in 1988.
Tiananmen Square, pictured here in 1988, was the site of student-led demonstrations in the late ’80s. After hunkering down for seven weeks in the square, pro-democracy protesters faced a violent crackdown by the Chinese government on June 4, 1989. China still does not allow public discussion of the event.

Twenty five years ago this week, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, ending weeks of protests that had riveted the world in a bloody massacre. China, which continues to prohibit discussion of the event at home, seems well equipped to weather the public relations storm the anniversary has set off here and elsewhere.

A look at disclosure reports compiled by Sunlight’s Foreign Influence Explorer shows that China employs multiple lobbying and public relations firms to polish its image and push its interests in the United States.

According to the data, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China paid K Street behemoth Patton Boggs $318,587 to send three emails last fall. The firm contacted the Department of Commerce and the House Ways and Means Committee about U.S.-China bilateral relations, according to the disclosure document filed with the Department of Justice.

Outside of the three emails, Patton Boggs reported that, from July 1 to December 31, 2013, it monitored and analyzed “ramifications of legislation” like the National Defense Authorization Act, immigration reform and Iran sanctions policy. The firm also advised the embassy on “the FY 2014 budget and appropriations process, the conflict in Syria, the South China Sea, human rights, currency, and trade,” according to the document.

Disclosure reports from the first half of 2013 indicate that Patton Boggs was more active earlier in the year. Lobbyists met on behalf of China with multiple members of Congress – including Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, all of whom sit on the House Armed Services Committee – about “congressional legislative priorities.” The document shows that Patton Boggs kept tabs on the defense authorization bill, among other issues.

China’s Bureau of Foreign Trade paid D.C. firm C&M International a little more than $200,000 for consultation services from June to November of last year. The disclosure report states that the firm worked on the “negotiation of a free trade agreement between Taiwan and the United States.” In October and November, C&M arranged for speeches and panel appearances at D.C. events centered on the economy of Taiwan, where anti-Communist Chinese established a separatist government.

But China isn’t just interested in what happens on Capitol Hill. Documents show that from July to December 2013, Manhattan firm Spring O’Brien charged the China National Tourist Office more than $200,000 for work on advertising and social media campaigns. Invoices included in the document show charges for, among other projects, $26,000 to create a promotional video titled “Ancient Treasures, Modern Wonders” and $12,000 for “Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter updates from September through December 2013.”

China Daily, an English-language newspaper published in China, worked with a stateside representative to print it in the United States. The daily paper paid New York-based China Daily Distribution Corporation more than $13.2 million from November 2012 to October 2013 to circulate the publication, according to two disclosure documents. Meanwhile, the state-sponsored newspaper, People’s Daily Overseas Edition, worked with Hai Tian Development U.S.A. Inc. to distribute the paper in the U.S., according to a disclosure document.

The China-United States Exchange Foundation – a nonprofit that seeks to “promote cultural, academic and educational exchanges” between the two countries, according to its website – employed communications firm BLJ Worldwide to the tune of $352,131. Disclosure forms show that BLJ maintained the foundation’s opinion and discussion site,, and reached out to politicians, universities and think tanks to contribute to the site.

The document also states that BLJ arranged for trips to China for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Magazine, the Hill newspaper, NPR and the Guardian.

The detailed information found in these disclosure forms is thanks to a 1938 law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. It requires that lobbying firms, PR outfits and individuals who work on behalf of foreign governments in the U.S. register and disclose their activities to the Department of Justice. Sunlight’s Foreign Influence Explorer tool collects and organizes the data found in the forms.

As much of the world reflects on this week’s Tiananmen Square anniversary, the Chinese government maintains its crackdown on commemorating or even acknowledging the student-led pro-democracy movement. Various news outlets report that people associated with the 1989 protests have been detained or put under house arrest in the weeks leading up to the anniversary.

On Monday, Reuters reported that Google’s search engine and its email service, Gmail, have been “disrupted” in China. The Chinese government also blocks social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.