Voice of Democracy, one of Cambodia’s last independent news outlets, was forcibly closed in February. The country’s authoritarian government spuriously claimed the internationally funded newspaper had defamed the eldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 38 years. Across autocratic Asia, independent journalism is in dire straits. In communist Vietnam and Laos, it simply does not exist, although courageous journalists report from there for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The United States Agency for Global Media supervises both. In its most recent Congressional Budget Justification, the Joe Biden administration has requested that USAGM receive $944 million in fiscal year 2024, up from $884 million in 2023. New investments, it said, “will primarily focus on countering Russian and Chinese disinformation.”
The information arms race between the U.S. and China is well underway. According to the Reuters Institute, Beijing has spent $6.6 billion since 2009 on strengthening its global media presence. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, said in 2016. That same year, China’s English-language service was renamed from CCTV, an Orwellian nod that was too propagandistic, and in came CGTN, or the China Global Television Network. By one estimate, it now broadcasts to 1.2 billion people globally. China Radio International, another state-run outlet, is reportedly the world’s second-largest radio broadcaster after the BBC. China Daily, the Communist Party’s English-language daily newspaper, claims an international print circulation of 900,000 copies, of which 600,000 are distributed overseas. Global Times, its jingoistic tabloid, became infamous during the COVID-19 pandemic for its “wolf-warrior” attacks on foreign critics — a form of assertive or incendiary diplomacy against any perceived foreign insult, and named after a popular local action film. China’s information push has changed its face over the past decade or so, from a gentler approach in the early days to an often aggressive and confident demeanor in its present form.
Beijing is “determined to combat what it sees as decades of unchallenged western media imperialism,” write journalists Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin. It freely distributes its newswire copy. When Italy signed up for Beijing’s global construction and air plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, in 2019, Rome’s state-run news agency ANSA signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s state news agency Xinhua to launch the Xinhua Italian Service. The Chinese-run company CEFC, whose founder had close ties with former Czech president Miloš Zeman, has bought up news outlets in the Czech Republic. Until 2020, London’s venerable The Telegraph, a center-right British newspaper, published its decade-old “China Watch” section funded by the China Daily and written by Chinese state journalists.
Despite its global media operations, Beijing’s powers of persuasion are often lacking. That’s the main proposition of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, a lengthy and well-researched work by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former journalist. “Despite Beijing pouring money, resources, and time into its media and information efforts, and into other types of influence—and despite extensive global news coverage of China’s influence strategies— for now…Beijing mostly failed,” Kurlantzick writes. “So far, indeed, many of China’s influence and information tactics have not worked. Doomsayers suggesting that Beijing’s influence is, right now, exceptionally skillful and effective are wrong. China has built a giant influence and information apparatus but currently wields it clumsily and often poorly.”
In many ways, this book should be read as a sequel to Kurlantzick’s earlier work, Charm Offensive, published in 2007, that narrated Beijing’s first attempts to gain a friendly audience during the first years of the 21st century before U.S.-Chinese tensions grew over trade, Beijing’s military expansionism, and cyberattacks. In the 2000s, Beijing’s information push was more timid. It assumed that China was misunderstood by much of the world, and it could reshape global opinion by merely offering its own take on China’s rise. Beijing believed its economic boom would translate into winning hearts and minds around the globe. But it didn’t work out that way, and Kurlantzick guides us around the world to understand the failures. CGTN and China’s other English-language outlets, he notes, “have relatively few viewers.” According to one estimate, more than 3,400 journalists from at least 146 countries had gone to China for training or on an exchange program by 2019. But those training programs have “barely made a dent,” Kurlantzick writes, in how China is covered in those partner countries.
Xinhua, the Chinese state-run newswire, is a notable exception. Kurlantzick devotes a chapter to how it became the “most internationally influential” of all Chinese state-run media “with the most potential to affect the global news industry in the future and thus bolster China’s soft power worldwide.” He notes that newswires have oversized importance, and their copy often frames how other newspapers produce original content. When Xinhua reports on the growth of Chinese imports from Indonesia, for instance, that will be the basis of dozens of articles in Indonesian media. China is betting correctly that journalism is full of as many lazy people as any other profession, and barely rewritten newswire copy will redound to its benefit.
For the most part, though, China’s global media campaign is failing because of the bigger story of how China’s soft power push is failing, which Kurlantzick details at some length. For several years, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore has produced a survey of “elite” opinion in Southeast Asia. Respondents are asked if the regional bloc was forced to align itself with one of the two strategic rivals, which should it choose? Some 61.1 percent chose the U.S. in this year’s edition, up from 57 percent last year. The Pew Research Center has surveyed global opinion about China since the early 2000s. In 2006, for instance, just 33 percent of Germans and 14 percent of Britons held negative views of China. By 2022, it was up to 74 and 69 percent, respectively. A decade ago, South Koreans were split evenly on their views of China, and now, 80 percent look upon it unfavorably.
But Western democracies cannot rest on their laurels. “[W]hat skeptics of China’s influence and information strategies miss,” Kurlantzick writes, “is that Beijing will surely improve—a great deal, and rapidly.” He adds: “Failure now does not mean failure forever.” One might question the evocation of “surely,” yet improvement is probable. Beijing’s information power push is still young. In its present form (although it is constantly changing, such as from “wolf-warrior” style in 2020 to a more conciliatory approach the year after), it’s less than a decade old. Beijing will pump more money into these ventures. It will hire more and better journalists. Its outlets will learn from their mistakes. And these sorts of things tend to progress in a non-linear way.
Kurlantzick offers a wake-up call. So far, Beijing’s media offensive has been better at stirring up the anti-American sentiment of foreigners than creating any love for China. However, that might change as its efforts to manipulate global opinion become more competent. But whereas Moscow uses disinformation to smash the U.S.-led international order without any aim to replace it, Beijing wants to create an alternative international hierarchy with China on top. “China increasingly and openly wants to reshape the world in its image and is using its influence and information efforts to promote this brand of technology-enabled authoritarianism,” Kurlantzick writes. He quotes Xi, the Chinese president, who told delegates at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in 2017 that the Chinese “model for a better social governance system offers a new option for other countries and nations… who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
That ought to make the information arms race existential for liberal democracies. Beijing is now the biggest spender on foreign influence activities in the United States; its employment of lobbyists and other representatives grew from around $10 million in 2016 to around $64 million in 2020, Kurlantzick notes. China increasingly collaborates with Russia. And its reach is global. Most of Kurlantzick’s policy suggestions are focused on how liberal democracies (namely the U.S.) can contain the influence of China’s media. Almost all of those recommendations are serious and sensible, such as democratic states investing more in independent Chinese-language programming as an alternative to Beijing’s state media for Chinese-language speakers globally. Any politician or bureaucrat concerned about the dangers posed would be wise to consider them, and some of the recommendations are already in the works, such as a greater effort by researchers to study China’s financial ties to Western media. It’s unclear what citizens of authoritarian countries, especially those aligned with Beijing, can do.
Kurlantzick also addresses the conundrum of Chinese soft power. Beijing’s media narrative frames China as America’s opposite: It doesn’t intervene in other nations’ affairs and is busy investing in the infrastructure of developing countries, whereas the West, it says, is a meddling giant whose aid has strings attached. China seeks partners through a narrative of shared victimhood from European imperialism and American containment. But, Kurlantzick writes, “[t]he more powerful China becomes, the more difficult it may be to wield soft power.” That might be the snag in China’s entire global information campaign. Most news reports that U.S.-based or U.S.-funded media pumps worldwide are honest about America’s weaknesses. Syndicated American news copy republished overseas unhesitatingly shows the Sudanese or Sri Lankans the failings of American society, from its huge prison population to its soaring national debt. The average Thai and Togoan can read or watch American media to discover how America tears itself apart over 1776 versus 1619 or over Trumpism. Almost never does one read a Chinese-run newspaper story about what is going wrong in China or the societies of one of its geopolitical partners. Good luck finding articles in Chinese media about the nation’s failed zero-tolerance COVID policy or its oppression of the Uighurs. If a nation boosts cooperation with the United States, it is never portrayed by Chinese media as a failure of Beijing’s diplomacy or a victory for American and democratic values. Beijing will surely increase its global propaganda efforts, but China will waste much of those resources if its outlets stick to the party line and tell the world what the communist leadership wants to hear about itself rather than what foreigners might like to learn about China. Then again, as Kurlantzick warns, the West cannot rely on China’s incompetence forever.
David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat. As a journalist, he has reported on Asian politics for various newspapers since 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno
Author: David Hutt