‘No Country Is Immune’: Report Reveals Beijing’s Toolbox to Export Authoritarian Narrative

February 4, 2021 Updated: February 4, 2021

Countries should be vigilant about the serious threats posed by China’s expanding global media influence, according to a new report published by the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

The report, titled “China’s Global Media Footprint: Democratic Responses to Expanding Authoritarian Influence,” detailed how the Chinese regime has been “leveraging propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and influence over key nodes in the information flow,” as it expanded its efforts to “shape media content” globally to portray Beijing in a positive light.

Between the established practices of diplomatic maneuvering and coercive activities is a gray zone that the report described as “sharp power”—exploiting the openness of Western societies to manipulate foreign media content—which Beijing has capitalized for its gains.

“Their sharper edge often undermines democratic norms, erodes national sovereignty, weakens the financial sustainability of independent media, and violates local laws,” stated Sarah Cook, author of the report and research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at the human rights group Freedom House.

“No country is immune: the targets include poor and institutionally fragile states as well as wealthy democratic powers,” she said.

China began to talk about the importance of “telling China’s story” around 2013. In September 2013, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, at a national propaganda and ideological work conference, said that it was important for China to do a good job on overseas propaganda by spreading “China’s voices.”

Now, amid the ongoing pandemic, Beijing has said it is important to tell “China’s story” on its success in fighting the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

An article posted on the CCP’s official website in July last year stated that at the core of “China’s story” is “the story of the Chinese Communist Party.” Such stories, therefore, should “demonstrate why history has chosen the Chinese Communist Party,” how the regime has served the interests of the people, and ruled the country with wisdom, it said.

Beijing’s tactics to rewrite the global narrative on China has expanded considerably over the last decade, “to the point that hundreds of millions of news consumers around the world are routinely viewing, reading, or listening to information created or influenced by the CCP, often without knowing its origins,” according to the report.

Exploiting Western Vulnerabilities

Existing weaknesses in Western countries have aided Beijing’s efforts to grow its global media influence, the report noted.

Local media might find it hard to resist partnership offers or ad deals from Chinese state-linked companies due to shortage of funds; local officials, think tanks, and the civil society tend to lack a sophisticated understanding toward the CCP; Chinese diplomats have deployed long-standing campaigns to control overseas Chinese-language media and censor unfavorable media coverage, according the report. The growing use of Chinese-owned apps such as WeChat among Chinese diaspora, rising political polarization, and anti-Western sentiment in some countries have also played into Beijing’s advantage.

“Hundreds of incidents that have occurred around the world over the past decade demonstrate that once the CCP—or a company, media outlet, or owner with close ties to the party—gains a foothold within an information dissemination channel, manipulation efforts inevitably follow,” the report stated.

Amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak, for example, the CCP has leveled charges of racism to deflect blame, lashing out at U.S. officials for using the term “Wuhan virus,” even though the same term had previously appeared in Chinese state media articles.

The report also cited thousands of Beijing-sponsored trips for foreign journalists as key to influencing Western media coverage. Journalists are usually strictly monitored during the trips, and only allowed a perspective that the CCP desires them to see.

Meanwhile, the Chinese acquisition of local media has succeeded in shifting the editorial line in stories about Taiwan, South Africa, and the Czech Republic.

A survey by Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, released in June 2020, found that two-thirds of its members believe China was creating a “visible presence” in their national media. Journalism unions from at least eight countries said they have signed deals with Chinese entities, which usually includes content-sharing agreements, journalist exchange programs, or participation in a Chinese government event.

And global social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which remain banned in China, have taken down swathes of accounts—which they traced back to China—that run coordinated campaigns to promote pro-Beijing viewpoints and sow discord.

With the Chinese regime taking a “whole-of-society approach to authoritarian control,” a robust response from the West is necessary, Cook said in the report. Some of her recommendations include increasing scrutiny on pre-election media coverage and Chinese-language media; censorship review and security audits of Chinese-owned apps; research to identify media ownership and financial ties with the CCP; and more rigorous efforts from press freedom watchdog to warn the public and lawmakers alike about the CCP influence.

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