Blonde Ambition: How Xinhua Used A Foreign “Reporter” To Sex Up Its Propaganda

Nikki Aaron

Xinhua host and moonlighter for the Daily Mail’s venerable China Bureau Nikki Aaron has been blissfully peddling the British tabloid yarns of her “China adventures” for the last few months. All well and good.

Here’s her latest, on dating, a subject she has visited before. The extremely confessional tone of the Mail piece begs the question: who is Nikki Aaron? On her website, she describes herself as “a versatile news anchor and TV presenter with global network experience… Nikki co-founded MetroStyle bilingual magazine in 2010.”

Here’s more, from an interview with – and apparently this actually exists – a publication called Nee Hao magazine: “I’ve been quite successful in the sense that I run my own magazine and work as TV presenter for a respected news agency, but I worked my ass off for 6 years… Xinhua is the state-owned News agency in China, and quite an honor to work for.” [My emphasis]

In fact, Aaron has been giving regular interviews to the press back home about her “high-profile position” in Beijing. Here she is in the Derby Telegraph talking about fame on a visit to Hong Kong: “I was secretly hoping someone might point me out, considering my show is aired on the giant screens at Hong Kong airport, as well as on the subway trains there. But alas, nobody did!”

In Nee Hao again, discussing her work: “I’ve become a bit of a China expert over the past two years… I won an award for the best documentary last year, in which I travelled to Qinghai province (bordering Tibet), where I met and interviewed the family of the Dalai Lama, visited the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, and explored Tibetan Buddhism in China. It was quite a ground-breaking programme.”

Unhappily, readers, future employers and little children should be aware that, for a select few, working for an “honorable” news agency comes with a few strings. At least one of which includes peddling hardcore Chinese propaganda on “somewhat” sensitive issues:

In the above, released in March, Aaron’s professional-sounding voice and accent are used to lend considerable authority to a 15-minute Xinhua documentary on a channel called “China View,” entitled Life in Flames: The Story Behind Tibetan Self-Immolation. (The program might have baffled regular Xinhua viewers: up until that point, the broadcaster had completely ignored the 100 or so self-immolations which have occurred in Tibet over the last year or so.)

The documentary purports to take “a closer look at what’s really behind these extreme suicides.” Indeed, close your eyes and it could be the BBC, so perfectly has Aaron has captured the strange cadences and emphases of British news voiceovers. (In another, earlier piece of Mail gibberish, Aaron says she “landed” the Xinhua role as “a TV news anchor, reporting to a global audience of 2.5 billion” [again, my emphasis; it’s doubtful Xinhua TV pulls in 2.5 of anything].)

Despite the production value, Life in Flames is thinly sourced, controversial and perplexing, to say the least. It is a relatively recent move for Chinese media to use presentable Caucasian foreigners to add credibility to news reports – one which should probably be viewed with some skepticism (foreign journalists — such as Gady Epstein, who called Life in Flames “remarkable propaganda” — are rarely even allowed in Tibet).

That said, it is not without precedent: at last year’s Two Sessions in November, Andrea Yu, a credentialed Australian reporter for something called the Global CAMG Media Group caused a minor sensation with her apparent ability to consistently get the attention of Chinese politicians at press conferences. In fact, Yu was a Party shill, planted by a company with a majority shareholding in Beijing, to ask pre-scripted softball questions. The ensuing controversy saw Yu being dragged through the grinder before ending up down an absolute wormhole of soft-power failure.

Sceptical of Aaron’s own “reporting,” we contacted Robbie Barnett, Adjunct Professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at the University of Colombia, to ask whether our conclusion was fair. His answer is reproduced with permission here:

This piece is problematic as a piece of journalism, including in the smallest details. The topic that it discusses concerns repeated and tragic loss of life in bitterly contested circumstances, and the ponderous approach displayed here seems a provocative choice for such an issue.

An editorial decision has been made to support the Chinese government’s current position, and it cites only that view. So this is more an advertisement than news, possibly a paid one. There is no disclosure of this station’s affiliation or adherence, though it is evidently not an independent body, and its use of confessions by serving prisoners is not noted or explained. Its allegations about US radio broadcasts are incorrect: according to my knowledge, they do not refer to immolators as martyrs. The presenter completely mispronounces all the Tibetan names, suggesting a lack of basic research or of concern. The role of the presenter in fronting this and the choice to use a stentorian speaking style can be judged by viewers for themselves.

With foreign media now battling unprecedented restrictions on their work in China (Bloomberg, Paul Mooney incident, etc.) and citizen “Big V” journalists ruthlessly monitored, why is a British journalist fronting hardline CCP propaganda for, in her words, “a respected news agency [that’s] quite an honor to work for”? Given that Aaron is, in her own words, a “China expert,” is she so naïve as to think that her Xinhua work counts as actual, real journalism – and if so, what does such credulousness say about her reporting abilities? Or does she stand by the video, in which case she has some serious questions to answer.

(Counterpoint: for a more sympathetic take on this dilemma, see Eric Fish’s remarks about Andrea Yu, which are still very relevant here.)

Those, like Aaron and Yu, who pursue payment, easy government relations and Mail clicks in exchange for values and professional integrity should ask where it leads in the end. First Xinhua, now the Daily Mail. Where next – the Pyongyang Bugle?

14 Responses to “Blonde Ambition: How Xinhua Used A Foreign “Reporter” To Sex Up Its Propaganda”

  1. Hannah

    I always love a good roast of self-proclaimed China experts, but the title and intro of this piece is misleading. What’s the significance of her writing about dating? Does it matter that she’s blonde? Or is the fact that she’s blond and female inherently support the claim that she is a charlatan?

    Reply
    • RFH

      No. But I suspect the fact that she was blonde, white, blue-eyed etc was what made her so appealing to Xinhua recruiters

      Reply
      • Matt

        RFH:

        That justification would make more sense if your actual article discussed how this person’s appearance actually related to her work at Xinhua. You are specifically calling out her voice work! Would you frame the situation the same way if it were a guy? Probably not, but I guess a title with fewer blondes and less sex doesn’t get the same click-through rate.

        Reply
        • Hannah

          Right, so what Matt said is pretty much what I was thinking. Though if I said it I’d probably be labeled a fem-nazi, so I held back. Using the word “sex” and blond” and “ambition” together gets attention, but the article isn’t really about what those have to do with one another — it’s implied, and we are meant to just accept that they are all related. I agree that she seems like she’s punching above her weight in many ways, but shame on you for cashing in on sexist tropes.

          Reply
  2. Chinese Netizen

    She was hoping the Hongkeys would call her out during a visit to HK? Got news for her: regardless of where she goes in Asia, she’s just another whitey face. Much like whiteys in the West say all Asians look the same.

    Poor girl is living the self delusional life. Hope she doesn’t pack on the pounds during the Beijing winter or her “career” will be over…

    Reply
    • Su Dai Hong

      Indeed, for instance not only can z grade celebrities in the vein of Pars Hilton go about their business completely unrecognised by the general public but even A listers such as David Beckham can walk about completely incognito.

      Reply
  3. BigVee

    First reaction: plenty of good people work (or have worked) for State-media. What’s the big deal? It’s an especially useful route for those looking to gain a first, valuable foothold in the media. Everyone needs a break.

    Unfortunately, you’re gonna need to exercise some self-awareness. Xinhua ain’t the BBC. No point pretending otherwise, and Aaron, god bless her, makes the fatal mistake of aligning herself way too closely with her employers. She believes the hype. So, she’s either hopelessly naive, or willfully disingenuous. Or perhaps a mix of the both.

    Reply
    • benji

      Xinhua, Peoples’ Daily, Global Times ……
      All blatant mouthpieces of the CPC propaganda machinery.
      Lets see how long before the demure Nikki start the diarrhea writing of the 1.4 billion living in the workers’ utopia versus the wretched western infidels living in the abject daily horror of “fire & water”.
      And she’s a stringer for the Daily Mail (owned by Murdoch) ? Oh, the depths to which capitalist pigs will descend to to curry favour with …..

      Reply
  4. Jonathan Alpart

    Not much to add here that hasn’t been said, but I just wanted to say this was a fantastic write-up and was very interesting. I had no idea the story about her went this deep; I’d only read her fluff piece in the Daily Mail about her dating mishaps in China. I hope she comes back with some kind of response so this story can develop further.

    Reply
    • benji

      hear hear
      any come back from her has to be vetted and cleared by her Xinhua handlers, so don’t expect anything of any substance

      Reply
  5. Dragonbreath

    After reading this it would appear “RFH” is making a personal attack at Miss Aaron.
    It would appear Nikki isn’t afraid to put it out there, while learning about China and getting some valuable experience in media. Whatever job you have, whatever work you do, you can do it well and proudly. Sounds like she’s really embraced life over there. Good for her!
    Is that correct Mr RFH, that the Global Times is also a China mouthpiece? There is nothing wrong with foreigners working for government media; Xinhua, Global Times, CCTV, China.org, etc. Obviously there are some limits to reporting on “sensitive stories”. Imagine if none of them hired foreigners now that would be odd. If a laowai works for Xinhua or the Global Times, it doesn’t mean they are pro-China or disillusioned; it just gives a good insight into a different culture and also opportunities that wouldn’t be so immediately offered to them in the Western world.

    Reply

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