A Chinese man reads a Chinese-language newspaper in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

China’s media empire

China’s leaders are growing impatient as they seek to shape world opinion

It has become increasingly clear that communist China is a world-spanning empire-in-waiting. More than this, its leaders are growing impatient.

They have launched ambitious initiatives, possibly too ambitious, to reformulate global trade with China at its centre. They have bought up the natural resources and ports of a number of countries. They have tried to make China the guarantor of global logistics, both physical and technological.

China has followed this material expansion with a new, expansionist diplomacy befitting the coming rulers of the world. Periodically Taiwan is threatened with invasion, while Chinese and Indian soldiers have fatal fist-fights at their Himalayan border – not least to reassure spectators that in all of these undeclared conflicts, China is winning.

Chinese propaganda is too overt to be insidious and can often seem too tone-deaf to be effective

Beyond military mobilisation and overt action, beyond even “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, it is media and the internet where China has shown its growing strength. A new report from the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States describes the methodology behind China’s growing influence. It subdivides these efforts into four branches: outright propaganda, of which there is much; disinformation, which crops up in the most idiosyncratic places; censorship, domestic and international; and “gaining influence over key nodes in the information flow” – a strangulated name for a frightening thing.

Chinese propaganda is too overt to be insidious and can often seem too tone-deaf to be effective. A Chinese embassy tweet, which justified its demographic destruction of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang by reference to improved family planning, drew much scorn and condemnation before being removed by Twitter. It likely made few converts.

But ham-fisted attempts at reframing discussion of Chinese genocide are not the sum total of these efforts. Chinese media has wormed its way into making “content sharing” agreements with local media in countries across the world. Some people take to these arrangements with a little too much pleasure.

When the Greek left-wing darling Yanis Varoufakis was asked why his new media group Progressive International had signed up the Qiao Collective – an influence operation not far distant from the perspective of Chinese state – he responded with the following pro-forma:

I oppose with all my strength the oppression of minorities in China and the hideous clampdown on [Hong Kong] demonstrators [and] [Hong Kong] Poly[technic University] students. But at the same time, I oppose with equal strength the demonisation of China by the US military-industrial complex and their push for a new cold war.

By “oppose with all my strength”, he presumably meant “tweeting”. And by “at the same time” and “equal”, he probably meant “at least as much”, or he would not have bothered with the qualification.

This kind of tacit influence cannot be bought, only earned by proximity and association.

Across the developing world, people are increasingly well-disposed to China’s leaders

Critics of China are treated rather less well. The report finds that Chinese embassy staff have directly threatened foreign journalists in Sweden and Russia, and undermined coverage in Nigeria. Chinese companies have bought significant slices of the media in the Czech Republic and South Africa, derailing coverage of China’s genocide in Xinjiang in so doing. Nepal’s state media, prompted by an agreement to “share content” with the Chinese Xinhua agency, mounted an internal investigation into the conduct of three journalists who reported, in the ordinary fashion, on the existence and activities of the Dalai Lama.

In markets where Chinese companies own a significant portion of the broadcast market (notably across Africa), access to “more independent global news sources” like the BBC and CNN has become “significantly more expensive”.

As to the effect of all of this, across the poorer countries of the world, the people are increasingly well-disposed to China’s leaders (if not always to China itself), and increasingly hostile to the world’s great democracies. It is plausible to think that as Chinese influence begins to tell in the developing world, those countries which contain the majority of the world’s population may begin to look more actively towards Beijing rather than simply enjoying the experience of handling its money.

Things do not look good in developed countries, either. In so far as the public cares about international affairs, these tastes are not well served with information. The relative financial precarity of the press, its susceptibility to disinformation and outright lies, and the ignorance of many journalists and consumers of media – all give hope to any seeking to influence Western public opinion for little cost, or to sow discord and confusion for others’ gain.

Numerous reasons could be found to do nothing about all this. It would be easy either to brush these things off as unimportant or, separately, to consider them inevitable and consign the future to one of Chinese pre-eminence in international media as well as in commerce.

China seeks to overturn not only who runs the world, but also who shapes world opinion

But the pandemic and China’s increasingly flagrant genocide also offer a salutary opportunity to reverse the above. Across the world, suspicion of China’s early handling of the disease could likely provide a basis for broader scepticism of its intentions. The incontrovertible evidence of China’s concentration camps and slave labour in Xinjiang will offend the sensibilities of anyone who is not wilfully ignorant.

A great push in propaganda only works if those systems it intends to subvert allow their own undermining. And recognising that China seeks to overturn not only who runs the world, but also who shapes world opinion may provide a necessary shock to the system. It is not yet too late.

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