China is waging a global propaganda war to silence critics abroad

1/17/2020

By Anna Fifield
BEIJING, Jan 16, 2020 — Democratic governments should wise up to — and try to thwart — China’s attempts to shape the global narrative about its actions at home and abroad, Freedom House said in a report published Wednesday that warns of the campaign’s corrosive effects on public debate.

Not content with pervasive censorship and state control of almost all media at home, the ruling Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has dramatically stepped up its efforts to disseminate its version of events.

“China is trying to promote itself as an international model,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China at Freedom House and the author of the report, “Beijing’s Global Megaphone.” That has especially been the case since Xi declared in 2016 that “propaganda reports must extend their tentacles” to reach readers and viewers everywhere.

“Beijing has a large toolbox for influencing media around the world and its tactics have been evolving, especially since 2017,” Cook said.

This includes officials’ increasingly aggressive pronouncements on Twitter and more covert efforts, such as the Russian-style disinformation campaign conducted in Taiwan.

Freedom House is among the American human rights organizations penalized by China in retaliation for the United States’ support for protesters in Hong Kong. Others include the National Endowment for Democracy and Human Rights Watch.

At home, the Chinese media environment is dominated by state-run organizations that laud Xi and put Beijing’s spin on the news. Such narratives typically present the internment of more than a million Muslims in reeducation camps in western China as a “deradicalization” initiative, or the view that anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong and Taiwan is the work of “shadowy forces” from the United States rather than an organic response to Beijing’s illiberalism. Unwelcome news — such as criticism of Xi or the party — is omitted from conventional media or deleted from the Internet.

But in the past three years, party authorities have aggressively taken those efforts abroad. Chinese propaganda now reaches into every part of the globe, even as Beijing claims not to meddle in other nations’ domestic affairs.

George Washington University academic David Shambaugh estimates that China has been spending as much as $10 billion a year on sharpening its “soft power,” although state media would only account for part of that sum, the report notes.

In the television realm, China Global Television Network, the international unit of the state broadcaster, now has English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian channels, available in more than 170 countries and regions.

By exerting economic leverage, China has been able to place its news channels in cable packages in Africa, sometimes at the expense of international networks such as the BBC and CNN, and include its programming on mainstream channels in countries such as Portugal, where the “China Hour” featuring content from Chinese state media airs during prime time, the report said.

In the print sphere, China is not constrained by the brutal economics of the global newspaper market. The China Daily, its English-language paper, is available on newsstands in New York City and congressional offices in Washington, on flights in Africa and in hotels in Asia.

Aware that the audience for the China Daily might be limited, Beijing has adopted a practice it calls “borrowing the boat to reach the sea” to place its content in advertorial “China Watch” supplements in respected newspapers, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Similar inserts have appeared in papers in Spain, Britain, Australia and India.

In between human interest stories about pandas and food, these media outlets have run reports claiming that Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters carry American-made grenade launchers or social media posts on the supposed terrorist threat posed by China’s Uighur people.

Xinhua, the state news agency, also provides copy to media outlets throughout the world, including in Italy, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Egypt and Thailand. Sometimes, the articles are free.

After China persuaded the Solomon Islands to abandon Taiwan as a diplomatic partner last year, officials invited journalists from the Pacific state for a highly choreographed, all-expenses-paid trip conducted through interpreters designed to wow them.

“The size of their staff numbers and the digital system they were using were, to us, the equivalent to going to the moon,” Dorothy Wickham, founder of Melanesian News Network, wrote of the group’s visit to China’s state broadcaster.

But how effective are these efforts? The answer to this question is mixed, Freedom House concluded.

“Some aspects of Beijing’s initiatives have been remarkably effective and carry serious political and economic implications,” the report said, noting a sharp improvement in Xi’s public image in surveys in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.

The campaign has had success in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, where China has used media outreach and economic largesse to stifle criticism of its repression of Uighurs.

U.S. report calls for sanctions on China for human rights abuses, influence operations

But there has also been pushback, the report said. Britain’s media regulator has launched eight investigations into whether CGTN violated broadcasting rules in the past two years, and certain state media journalists in the United States now must register as foreign agents.

But Freedom House warned that, while there are limits to the campaign’s effectiveness at present, China’s strategies could prove highly influential in the longer term, especially in developing countries where media outlets are happy to accept free content.

“The potential future impact of Beijing’s practices should not be underestimated,” the report concludes.

It urged governments and civil society actors to protect media freedom and guard against the “harmful influence” of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Such action may require considerable political will, as certain measures designed to uphold media freedom and fair competition in the long term will be opposed by Beijing and could hinder Chinese investment in the short term,” the report said. “But it is increasingly clear that allowing the authoritarian dimensions of CCP media influence campaigns to expand unchecked carries its own costs.” (Courtsey The Washington Post)