China Spending Billions on Disinformation Targeting Global Audiences: Report

China Spending Billions on Disinformation Targeting Global Audiences: Report
The U.S. Department of State in Washington on Jan. 6, 2020. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Frank Fang

China is spending billions of dollars annually to disseminate disinformation and propaganda around the world, and with advancements in artificial intelligence, the communist regime will soon be able to “surgically target foreign audiences” with its influence operations, according to a report released on Sept. 28.

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) pointed out in its report that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long history of distorting facts. Now it is peddling “false or biased pro-PRC content” globally while suppressing dissenting voices, the GEC explains—referring to the acronym for the country's official name, the People's Republic of China.

“Since its founding in 1921, the CCP has used information manipulation to ensure regime survival and increase its power. Today, as the PRC seeks to reshape the international order to its advantage, Beijing builds on this legacy by leveraging propaganda and censorship,” the GEC report says.

To better spread its preferred narratives, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken a more centralized approach over the past decade, with more funding going to the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a key state agency responsible for carrying out influence activities abroad.
“Since coming to power in 2012, he has significantly increased funding for the UFWD and elevated central coordination of its efforts to shape the international environment—including the information domain—to Beijing’s advantage,” the GEC report says.

Though China is already spending billions each year on building up an information ecosystem in which Chinese propaganda and disinformation have “become dominant,” the report noted that money allocated to its influence operations “is growing.”

If China is left unchecked in its efforts, the report warned, it will create “biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing’s.”

“Access to global data combined with the latest developments in artificial intelligence technology would enable the PRC to surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favor,” the GEC report adds.

X and TikTok

In one example of Chinese influence operations, the report pointed out how over 1,000 pro-China accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, tried to bury a 2022 report by Spain-based advocacy group Safeguard Defenders. The 2022 report exposed that China secretly operated over 100 police stations in 53 countries, including some in the United States.

“Pro-PRC accounts generated spam posts from accounts with the same name as that of Safeguard Defenders, possibly seeking to trigger Twitter’s automatic de-boosting response,” the GEC report says.

One Chinese police station in the United States came to light in April, when the FBI arrested two individuals on charges of operating the station in New York City, where operatives were allegedly taking orders from the CCP to track down and silence Chinese dissidents.
 TikTok logo on an iPhone in London on Feb. 28, 2023. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
TikTok logo on an iPhone in London on Feb. 28, 2023. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The GEC report also highlighted the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok, saying it is an example of how Chinese social media platforms can become tools for the CCP to censor views and promote its narratives. TikTok is owned by China-based tech giant ByteDance.

“According to U.S. government information, as of late 2020, ByteDance maintained a regularly updated internal list identifying people who were likely blocked or restricted from all ByteDance platforms, including TikTok, for reasons such as advocating for Uyghur independence,” the GEC report says. “ByteDance directed that specific individuals be added to this list if they were deemed to pose a public sentiment risk, likely to prevent criticism of the PRC government from spreading on ByteDance-owned platforms.”

Cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 reported in March that TikTok was harvesting users’ data, including locations, contacts, and passwords.
Growing national security concerns about TikTok have led several countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK, and the United States, to ban the app from government devices.


The CCP has also sought to team up with other countries to amplify its preferred narratives, the GEC report said, pointing to how Beijing and Moscow had agreed to “jointly combat disinformation” in July 2020.

As part of the effort to "combat disinformation,” Beijing and Moscow would work together to “offer an accurate account of facts and truth” and “champion justice and legal principles,” according to China’s foreign ministry.

The GEC report explained that what Beijing sees as “disinformation” actually refers to “narratives it perceives as threatening its interests.”

Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has amplified Russian disinformation, such as echoing Moscow’s accusations that the United States “is escalating the war in Ukraine,” according to the GEC report. “Russia has returned the favor by promoting PRC propaganda related to Taiwan and other PRC interests.”

 Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Sergei Karpukhin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Sergei Karpukhin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
To influence Chinese-speaking diaspora communities, the CCP has exploited the Chinese messaging app WeChat, making it “a conduit for disinformation,” according to the GEC report. China’s state-run accounts on WeChat seek to “isolate the diaspora from host societies, increase loyalty to [the PRC], and decrease the legitimacy of democratic systems in the eyes of the diaspora.”
In May 2020, Canada-based digital watchdog Citizen Lab revealed in its report that WeChat monitored communications between its users outside of China in order to improve its algorithm to censor its China-based accounts.

The CCP is also known to attribute articles to “manufactured persona,” giving them titles such as “international affairs commentators” to deceptively promote their contents, according to the GEC report.

“These manufactured personae distort foreign information environments by laundering CCP propaganda narratives through local media outlets to influence foreign audiences at a granular level, which degrades the integrity of information spaces globally,” the GEC report says.

One example is the name “Yi Fan,” a manufactured persona that has appeared in the byline of foreign publications, the GEC report said, adding “The Yi persona’s arguments closely align with CCP narratives across a wide range of topics globally, seeking to portray Beijing as a responsible actor and major power.”

So far, China has achieved “mixed results” with its propaganda and censorship, the GEC report stated, though it warned of the severe consequences should the CCP prevail.

“The stakes are high: if the PRC’s global narratives ultimately prevail, it will encounter less resistance to reshaping the international order to the detriment of individual liberties and national sovereignty around the world.”

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.