How to win friends and influence enemies: China as global player in an age of covert government spin

By Marianne Thamm 15 January 2020
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Illustrative image | sources: Photo: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images) | Chinese flag (Wikimedia) / social media icons)

Governments across the world have various legitimate means of harnessing soft power abroad. But in an age of weaponised disinformation, messages crafted by governments or their spin-doctor proxies are increasingly being covertly and uncritically woven into the tapestry of global mainstream media.

For the Chinese Communist Party, the promotion of government policy and pro-Chinese content on global mainstream media platforms is commonly referred to as the “borrowing the boat to reach the sea” strategy.

That is why you should not be surprised to find, in illustrious US legacy titles such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angles Times, advertorial supplements titled China Watch paid for and produced by China Daily.

Established in June 1981, China Daily is an English-language newspaper owned by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China and published in the People’s Republic of China with a reported circulation of 900,000 (300,000 domestic and 600,000 internationally).

According to a just-released Special Report by Freedom House, a US-based and government-funded NGO and titled Beijing’s Global Megaphone – The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence since 2017, China is spending “as much as $10-billion per year on enhancing its ‘soft power’” across the globe, but its methods have not always been transparent or legal.

The report, authored by Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, indicates that – based on China Daily’s annual filing with the US Government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act – the paper’s budget and expenditures in the United States had increased “tenfold over the past decade from about $500,000 in the first half of 2009 to more than $5-million in the latter half of 2019”.

Inserts similar to those in the US titles have also appeared in major newspapers across the world including Spain, the UK, Australia, Peru, Senegal and India.

In September 2018, Australian media reported that China Global Television Network splurged $500-million on an advertising campaign “complete with billboards featuring kangaroos and pandas – to try to attract cable viewers”.

Evidence has also emerged of multimillion-dollar contracts issued by outlets like Xinhua and China News Service to add followers and build influence on Twitter, which, ironically, is blocked in China,” notes Cook.

In the case of The Washington Post and some other US publications, China Watch also appeared as an online feature, “further blurring the lines between Chinese state media content and the host outlet’s own reporting”, according to Cook.

In 2015 Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand politics researcher and full professor at the University of Canterbury specialising in Chinese politics predicted that the CCP would eventually shift from “borrowing the boat” to “buying the boat” or purchasing stakes in foreign media enterprises.

It is a strategy that appears to have been confirmed in Cook’s report. The author sets out how, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese state became engaged in “a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world”.

While some aspects of this effort were in line with traditional public diplomatic methods such as the publication of opinion pieces by Chinese ambassadors in mainstream, independent media outlets, Cook said other methods were “covert, coercive, and potentially corrupt”.

The CCP and its proxies, says Cook, had “demonstrated no qualms in deploying economic leverage to neutralise and suppress critical reporting – not only on events within China, but also on China’s engagement abroad”.

In 2018 in South Africa, Independent News Media (INM) columnist Azad Essa, who had condemned the persecution of Uyghurs in China, was axed under the pretext of a “newspaper redesign”. Twenty percent of INM is controlled by the China-Africa Private Development Fund and China International Television Corporation (CITC).

CITC is owned and operated by the state-owned China Central Television, which reports to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council.

Cook noted in the report: “More broadly, many of the tactics that the CCP employs to influence media around the world also serve to undermine international norms and fundamental features of democratic governance, including transparency, the rule of law, and fair competition.”

There had been early signs, said Cook, that Beijing was willing to use propaganda and disinformation to influence voters in democracies.

Meanwhile, many of the same tactics are being applied in sectors beyond the scope of this report, like education, the arts, literature, and the entertainment industry.”

The new report is updated on a 2013 report by Cook, The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How the Communist Party’s Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets around the World, published by the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Cook found that Chinese state media, government officials and affiliated companies “are achieving increased influence over key nodes in the global information flow, exploiting the more sophisticated technological environment, and showing a readiness to meddle in the internal political debates and electoral contests of other countries”.

Since early 2017 researchers found that Beijing’s media activities included “Russian-style” social media disinformation campaigns and efforts to manipulate search results on global online platforms.

Tactics that were once used primarily to co-opt Chinese diaspora media and suppress critical coverage in overseas Chinese-language publications are now being applied – with some effect – to local mainstream media in various countries,” said Cook.

Beijing was also gaining influence over crucial parts of some countries’ information infrastructure, “as Chinese technology firms with close ties to the CCP build or acquire content-dissemination platforms used by tens of millions of foreign news consumers”.

To accomplish this, says Cook, the CCP deployed a variety of tactics:

These can usually be categorised as either propaganda, meaning the active promotion of Chinese government content and that of pro-Beijing media outlets, or censorship, meaning the suppression of information and obstruction of outlets that are critical of the regime.

In order to reach a global audience with approved CCP content, the party had beefed up overseas capacity and the presence of official state media, “insinuating official views into foreign mainstream media, cultivating foreign outlets that can produce their own favourable content, acquiring or establishing new outlets, and conducting disinformation campaigns on global social media platforms”.

All of China’s prominent state-owned media outlets now had an international presence across the gamut of formats, the report states.

The six most notable were China Global Television Network (CGTN), the global service of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV); the English- language newspaper China Daily; the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily; China Radio International (CRI); and two news agencies – Xinhua and China News Service.

Most have a constellation of bureaus overseas and distribute content in multiple languages. For example, in addition to carrying CCTV programming in Chinese, CGTN broadcasts in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian to every region via satellite, cable, and IPTV (internet protocol television).”

China Daily is distributed from newsstands in New York City, hotels in Hong Kong, on Kenya Airways flights as well as congressional offices in Washington, DC. In Africa and the Middle East, Chinese state media had also developed unique publications geared toward local populations. Cook reports:

In 2009, the Chinese government reportedly allocated $6-billion to the global expansion of state media. In 2017, scholar David Shambaugh estimated that China was spending as much as $10-billion per year on enhancing its ‘soft power’, although state media would only account for a portion of that sum.”

All state outlets had a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube presence, which are banned and blocked in China itself.

In many cases there were multiple accounts divided by language, theme, or geographic location.

Each of the main accounts has garnered tens of millions of followers, particularly in the last three years. As of December 2019, CGTN’s English account had 90 million followers – the largest for any media outlet on Facebook – of which 20 million had been added since November 2018.”

Three of the 10 media accounts on Facebook with the largest number of followers were Chinese state media, said Cook.

In addition, from mid-November to mid-December 2019, four of the five fastest-growing media pages on Facebook were Chinese state-run outlets: Global Times, CGTN, and two photo and culture pages run by Xinhua.

CGTN’s French-language account had 20.3 million followers, CGTN Spanish had 15.7 million, CGTN Arabic had 14.4 million, and CGTN Russian had some 1 million.

In conclusion, Cook warned that while there were limits to the campaign’s current effectiveness, “the strategies being pursued have long-term implications, particularly as the CCP and its international affiliates gain greater influence over key portions of the information infrastructure in developing countries. The potential future impact of Beijing’s practices should not be underestimated”.

She added that governments and civil society in a growing number of countries were exploring avenues to identify policies and legislation that would “increase transparency and restrict cross-ownership, punish coercive and corrupt actions by Chinese officials, and insulate independent media from threats to their financial sustainability”. DM


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