This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Only a few days after the Tribune's much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, you have disappointed by allowing a well-known People's Republic of China lobby to "sponsor, organize and pay for" a 10-day trip by one of your reporters to mainland China. That trip produced your front-page series "Changing China."
The stories by reporter Tony Semerad beginning with "China: The Economic Elephant in the Room" on April 16 were serviceable and had some interesting elements such as the positive Sino-Utah business climate created by the many Chinese-speaking LDS missionaries.
However, allowing the so-called "nonprofit" China-United States Exchange Foundation to organize and pay for the trip was unethical and unworthy of your normally high standards.
As you have discovered somewhat belatedly, China has "changed" since it was a closed society accessible only through government sponsored and controlled trips. But one of the main changes is that journalists are now free to make their own travel arrangements without the help of the authoritarian regime or its front organizations.
As a long-time foreign correspondent in both Beijing and Hong Kong I can tell you that the China-United States Exchange Foundation was created in 2008 expressly as a soft-propaganda lobby for the People's Republic.
My former newspaper colleague Jim Mann, now author-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, puts it this way:
"No one could describe this group as a neutral or impartial one. Its purpose is to promote 'positive' views of the People's Republic of China and its leadership and to combat negative ones."
A look at its board of directors tells the story. Founding Chairman Tung Chee-Hwa is a favorite of the Beijing regime. He was hand-picked by China's leadership to be the first chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HK-SAR) when the former British colony reverted to mainland control in 1997.
Governing board member Ronnie C. Chan is a fierce opponent of democratic reforms in Hong Kong. Most of the rest of the board members are tycoons who do billions of dollars of business in China very often with government entities and have a huge vested interest in how China is perceived abroad.
The Exchange Foundation's partners in China include the government-controlled Shanghai Institute for International Studies and the People's Liberation Army Academy of Military Science. It is formally registered as a lobbying organization in Washington and is listed as a foreign influence peddler by the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
"This is not anything like the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation," Princeton Professor of Politics and International Affairs Aaron L. Friedberg told a reporter for The Diplomat, an Asia-Pacific current affairs magazine.
Friedberg, author of "A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia" (W.W. Norton 2011), sees the Hong Kong-based lobby as a sophisticated instrument of political warfare.
Unfortunately, The Salt Lake Tribune is not the only American news organization to accept one of these expensive junkets, which include packaged tours and interviews with selected officials. According to the Washington, D.C. Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency nonprofit, the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Time Magazine and the Guardian, have also participated in China-United States Exchange Foundation travel programs.
But that does not make it less disappointing to find that Utah's leading newspaper has fallen into the same trap.
It is true that in our Internet age, traditional newspapers are struggling to fund foreign coverage. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has reduced its foreign bureaus from 20 in my time to only four today, including Beijing. Some newspapers have accepted grants for specific foreign coverage from true nonprofits such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the International Reporting Project.
But taking money from a foreign lobby is another matter.
The China-United States Exchange Foundation is a far cry from an objective, neutral organization in your words "meant to promote understanding between the two countries." At the minimum you owe your readers a more detailed and thoroughly reported description of this lobby and approximately how much you received in travel reimbursement for your stories.
As any responsible journalist knows, even good reporting is sullied when it is subsidized by a vested interest.
Rone Tempest is a former Los Angeles Times national and foreign correspondent who served as that newspaper's bureau chief in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1993-1998. Since retiring from the L.A. Times in 2008, he splits time between homes in Salt Lake City and Lander, Wyo., where he was co-founder of the public policy news site WyoFile.com.