SAN FRANCISCO -- At 9:25 p.m. on New Year's Day, Feng Yan parked his minivan outside the Chinese consulate here, doused the front door of the building with gasoline, and lit the place on fire. The blaze engulfed the front entrance, burning the door and charring a stone lion standing guard.
A Chinese-American with permanent resident status in the U.S., Feng would later tell police that Chinese voices in his head led him to ignite the fire. But the blaze drew attention to a different cacophony of Chinese voices struggling to be heard: those of a growing number of pro- and anti-Communist Party newspapers operating in the United States.
The Chinese-language American edition of People's Daily -- an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party -- simply ignored Feng's act of arson. The World Journal, a Chinese-language paper that is blocked in China, reported the story prominently, while quoting someone who suggested it was the work of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that has been banned and violently suppressed in China.
Meanwhile, The Epoch Times, a pro-Falun Gong paper that brands the Chinese Communist Party as evil, attacked the World Journal and promoted its own conspiracy theory involving former Chinese paramount leader Jiang Zemin.
These competing conceptions of the same story played out in what has emerged as a hotbed for the Chinese press, with websites and newspapers owned and controlled by the Chinese government squaring off with independent publications in a battle to shape public opinion in the United States.
China's ruling Communist Party clearly considers this campaign for hearts and minds to be an important battle. Twelve hours before the fire, the New Year's edition of the Communist Party's leading overseas paper, the People's Daily Overseas Edition, had hit newsstands bearing a message from Chinese President Xi Jinping: "Elevate Soft Power, Realize the Chinese Dream." In the piece, Xi called for China to "strengthen international dissemination capabilities and carefully construct an outward-oriented communications system."
Translation: Chinese state media is going global.
This strategy amounts to the latest evolution in China's embrace of so-called soft power, seeking to expand its global influence not through military might but by burnishing its public image. That soft power push took on added urgency when the 2008 Beijing Olympic's torch relay became an opportunity for anti-Communist Party protesters and human rights advocates to air their grievances to a receptive Western audience. And in the seven years since former President Hu Jintao first ordered the Chinese bureaucracy to pump up national soft power, China has placed particular emphasis on expanding the reach of its state-owned media.
China Central Television has opened offices in the Middle East and Washington, D.C. China Radio International has signed broadcast agreements with countries across Africa. People's Daily and China Daily, both government-run, have begun offering a plethora of international editions.
San Francisco is now home to local Chinese- and English-language versions of the leading state-controlled papers. Since 2012, People's Daily has distributed a pilot American edition in Chinese, with content produced mainly at its headquarters in southern China. The paper is currently distributed only in San Francisco, with plans to expand circulation to Los Angeles this spring.
"China wants to have a few more voices in the world," said Jeffrey Tsai, who runs distribution at the newspaper's San Francisco office. "You can't always refuse to speak and keep silent."
China Daily USA has become the Chinese government's leading vehicle to influence American readers, operating its English-language paper out of five American cities including San Francisco. The paper is a subsidiary of the state-controlled China Daily, which mostly targets westerners living in China. It has spearheaded ambitious expansion efforts, including paid inserts in The New York Times. As of 2012, China Daily USA claimed to have a U.S. circulation of nearly 200,000. Representatives from the paper declined to be interviewed for this article.
But while Chinese state scribes vie for readers in the Bay Area, they've had to compete with established Chinese immigrant newspapers as well as vehemently anti-Communist Party media outlets.
The World Journal is a Taiwanese-owned paper whose localized coverage has won it a national circulation of 400,000 in the U.S. and a leading position in the Chinese-language news market. Its long-strained relationship with mainland China has improved in recent decades and it occasionally butts heads with the adamantly anti-Communist Party and pro-Falun Gong newspaper, The Epoch Times.
The Epoch Times uses its freely distributed English and Chinese editions to unrelentingly criticize the Communist Party ("the embodiment of an evil specter"), and to publicize the persecution of Falun Gong, which has had practitioners demonstrating outside the San Francisco Chinese consulate every day for about 14 years. The paper, which declined to be interviewed for this piece, claims to have no official affiliation with Falun Gong groups.
Faced with reporting on the consulate fire in real time, these news organizations all framed events in a manner beneficial to their various benefactors.
For the People's Daily American edition, the decision to skip the blaze was made without hesitation.
"The story about the consulate catching fire doesn't 'give face,'" Tsai said. "We don't need to go out and report on this kind of thing."
When the World Journal quoted a Chinese-born academic insinuating links between Falun Gong protesters and the consulate fire, the Falun Gong community and its media backers were outraged. Members of Falun Gong demonstrated in front of the World Journal's building, demanding the story be retracted.
"The article reflected the reporter or the editorial department's bias and thus caused the World Journal to become a megaphone for the evil Chinese Communist Party," read an open letter presented to the World Journal by the local Falun Gong organization and printed on The Epoch Times' website.
Though the protest appeared limited to a couple dozen people, the Chinese-language version of The Epoch Times gifted it a full front page of coverage under the headline "Pro-Communist Media Shifts Blame to Falun Gong, Meets with Strong Protest."
The World Journal quickly removed the story from its website, and The Epoch Times went on to print its own conspiracy theory on the real "black hand" behind the attack. The piece suggested that a political faction linked to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin may have orchestrated the arson to frame the Falun Gong while undermining China's current president.
Alan Huang, the general coordinator of Bay Area Falun Gong practitioners and organizer of the protests, said that the reporter for the World Journal was "used like a tool" by Chinese forces.
"Chinese media in the United States has been controlled by the Chinese government," Huang said. "That's something that a lot of Asians and Chinese-Americans don't recognize."
The Epoch Times claims to publish in 35 countries and 21 languages, forcing Chinese propaganda authorities to scramble just to keep up.
"You've got lots of things like The Epoch Times out there, and everything they report is an attack on the government," said Tsai of the People's Daily. "Some people agree with it, but some people don't like to read that."
State-controlled juggernauts like China Daily have the heft and the deep pockets to compete in this international tug-of-war. China Daily USA launched in 2009 and was quickly followed by weekly editions in Europe in 2010 and Africa in 2012.
The paper also operates a monthly paid insert titled "China Watch" in The New York Times. In January's insert, the tiny "advertisement" notification in the corner was barely noticeable against the professional layout and large headline declaring: "Sunny skies shine on Sino-US relations."
But Chinese state media's march abroad isn't all the product of a top-down ideological campaign. Tsai says that the People's Daily American edition was founded and funded by a Chinese real estate family that wanted to build ties with the Communist Party and create a platform for advertising its wine export business.
The free weekly paper's front page pays lip service to political talking points, but the rest of the paper and its website are littered with panda stories and advertisements for the founder's business ventures.
Tsai is himself a Taiwanese-American, having immigrated to the Bay Area more than 30 years ago. He says the paper's softer news content helps him carry out his work in good conscience.
"I'm from Taiwan and I don't necessarily have a good impression of [Chinese state media], but I think this isn't all about politics so I can do it," Tsai said. "Now they've opened up these regional editions and you can do whatever you want. You just can't speak badly about the Communist Party."
With pro- and anti-party propagandists pulling at both extremes, the World Journal finds itself straddling a gulf and yet shunned by both sides. The paper's website is blocked in mainland China, and yet The Epoch Times accuses it of toadying to the Communist Party.
Mei Huey Huang, editor-in-chief of the Bay Area edition of the World Journal, acknowledges that the paper -- which was founded by the Taiwanese United Daily News in 1976 -- has stopped using certain negative language to describe the mainland government. She portrayed this as an outgrowth of China's engagement with the outside world.
"When there is more communication it is more difficult to be stubborn," Huang said. "As we know more we've become more neutral. Only people who are closed off can be extremists."
Stable advertising and subscription revenues keep the World Journal afloat. But in the battle for public opinion, the World Journal must compete with wealthy special interests that can give other papers an edge by subsidizing free distribution.
"All these papers are free and it's kind of their strategy," Huang said. "People want to read something and they don't want to pay. They think they can screen out the ideology and just not pay attention."
Looking at the influx of publications driven by ideology, Huang questions whether recently arrived Chinese will still choose to pay money for an independent news source.
"Now people are free to choose, but is it difficult for them to switch from the so-called government controlled media?" she asked. "People say freedom tastes good, but sometimes it feels more secure and comfortable to stay in your old world. Or you simply don't care."