‘Beijing’s Global Media Offensive’

A Q&A with Joshua Kurlantzick

Over the past several years, there has been an active debate about Chinese influence overseas. Amidst allegations that Beijing has influenced foreign elections and politicians, state newswire Xinhua has expanded into one of the largest news agencies worldwide, and state-linked media companies have taken over Chinese-language media sources internationally. Joshua Kurlantzick discusses this landscape in his newest book, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Kurlantzick spoke with ChinaFile Editorial Fellow Abby Seiff about his book. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Abby Seiff: You write that China increasingly and openly wants to reshape the world and its image. What is behind this more assertive foreign policy shift?

Joshua Kurlantzick: The idea that China had a model of development of authoritarian capitalism plus supposedly very effective managerial governance started in the 2000s, with a lot of academics talking about it; but no Chinese leaders were willing to say it. Xi Jinping has decided that he is willing to openly embrace the idea that China has a model that it can export to other countries. He has said that on multiple occasions.

The reasons for that are: One, he is far, far more assertive in all aspects of his foreign policy than any Chinese leader since Mao. Two, at least until the zero-COVID problems, China’s model may have looked increasingly attractive to many countries, especially as—from 2007/2008 up until today—democracies have struggled a lot. They struggle with inequality, with authoritarian populism, with poor governance, and all sorts of things. I think it was fortuitous that he was doing this at the same time. And then third, some of the aspects of the model were being picked up. Certainly, aspects like the way that China controls its Internet have been replicated in places like Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Russia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. Then, the fact that China embarked on a massive aid program, BRI [the Belt and Road Initiative], backed up the idea that China’s model was potentially attractive.

(Courtesy of Oxford University Press)

That China has become an increasingly powerful player in geopolitical global affairs (the most recent evidence of which would be that China helped broker a deal of restored relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran) also added to the idea that China is a rising power and other countries should consider its model.

Now, the last three years have exposed some of the flaws of how Xi has shifted China from consensus authoritarianism, where a group of people in leadership worked together to make decisions and get genuine input from scholars and experts, to, really, one-man, almost Putin-esque rule. Zero-COVID exposed the follies of that and dented the idea that China has some great model of managerial governance. The fact that Xi is cracking down on the private sector, intensely and probably badly undermining China’s economy in doing so, also probably hurts that model of authoritarian capitalism. And the fact that China is driving away many of its most innovative young people is also a demerit for that model. But, that said, they continue to promote the model.

And putting aside the issues with the model, for the moment, how has China utilized media in its efforts to promote it?

In the book, I talk about several ways. One, they use their big state media outlets: China Global Television Network, their global state media TV network; China Radio International, which is their global radio channel; and Xinhua, which is their global news wire. I find that China Global Television Network and China Radio International, through my own research and studies by Gallup and others, have not been very successful. They haven’t gained a wide audience in most countries. Whereas Xinhua has been much more successful and has signed content-sharing agreements with local news outlets all over the world who use its content and translate it into local languages.

With Xinhua, China has been quite successful at getting its views of the world, what we would call discourse power, into news outlets all over the world.

The second way that they try to have discourse power and support their message is through Chinese language publications around the world. Those outlets have been almost exclusively taken over by Chinese state-linked companies or by individuals who have shifted the editorial coverage to basically pro-Beijing, non-independent coverage. There are some exceptions in Taiwan and a few other places, but most Chinese language media, including in the United States, is now essentially not covering Beijing independently. So that has been a success for China. In the book, I talk about other ways, like the use of disinformation and promotion of information on social media platforms, both based in the West and in China. And then I talk a little bit about what I call old-fashioned influencers: espionage, paying politicians influencing student groups, using the United Front Work Department to influence the diasporic community, etc.

All governments wage soft propaganda efforts and information campaigns. The CIA, for instance, has a well-documented history of using media to shape public opinion and promote anti-communist sentiment globally. I’m curious if you see China as doing something fundamentally different?

What China is doing is similar to what you’re talking about, with the CIA and U.S. state media outlets in the Cold War, where they were genuinely promoting propaganda—and often not necessarily accurate propaganda—about the United States and about issues of all sorts in the world. But since the end of the Cold War, that comparison doesn’t really fit. Since the end of the Cold War, VOA and RFA have operated under a clause of editorial independence. VOA produces tons of content that reports negative aspects of what’s going on in America, including with the American government. And the same thing would be true for the BBC and AFP, or other things that you would count as potentially state media, where the state has a stake in the media. They enjoy editorial independence. They produce articles critical of their own governments.

There’s no comparison between that and Xinhua or any other Chinese channel now. No Chinese channel would run stories like “China’s growth rate not likely to meet its 5 percent target,” or “Xi Jinping worries about his popularity,” let alone some prominent member of the Politburo going on Xinhua and eviscerating everyone else in the senior leadership. It is accurate that some of what China is doing is very similar to what the U.S. did during the Cold War. That is definitely true, and I talk about it in the book. But that’s not the case with these state media outlets from the U.S., France, Britain, South Korea, and so on anymore. They enjoy editorial independence.

Often, when we talk about Beijing’s soft power diplomacy or its “meddling” in other countries’ affairs, we’re looking at Southeast Asia or perhaps the broader Global South. What really interested me about your book is you’re getting into local government being cultivated in the U.S., or influence campaigns in Australia and New Zealand, or money flowing to federal officials in Canada. Could you share an example or two of the most egregious sorts of meddling you’ve recorded in these wealthy democracies?

Some of China’s influence efforts have been going on for a much longer time, obviously in Taiwan, which China believes is a province of China, and in some countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, as well as Hong Kong. What’s different about the last 10 years is that China has expanded these influence efforts to virtually the whole world, including a lot of prominent liberal democracies, which you would have thought would have had higher barriers to some of the things China was doing.

In Australia, China has gained control of most of the Chinese language media. China has used a lot of disinformation. China was engaged in active, major foreign influence efforts in a whole wide range of areas. And then using the United Front Work Department and others to try to scare Chinese national students or anyone of Chinese ethnicity on Australian college campuses to encourage self-censorship, which they were quite effective in doing, at least for a time.

Very similar strategies were seen in New Zealand. The same taking over of Chinese language media, disinformation, putting money into universities, etc. There was a major scandal in New Zealand a few years ago in which a prominent member of parliament, who had a major role in the New Zealand parliament’s China policy, did not reveal when he entered the country or parliament that he had spent a fair amount of time teaching and working at a Chinese military academy, which probably should have disqualified him from these roles.

As these were exposed, there was an enormous backlash. The media in Australia exposed many of these things. And so Australia has passed a very, very tough foreign interference law in politics and there is extremely high scrutiny now of Chinese donations to universities. And some of the same things are happening or are going to happen in New Zealand, as well as have already happened in the U.S., and are likely to happen in Canada, the U.K., and most leading liberal democracies in Europe and in northeast Asia, like Japan and South Korea.

So China was successful, but at the same time, it created this massive backlash among liberal democracies, which is going to make it a lot harder for China and dents its public image. If you look at Pew polling, you see that China’s global public image among liberal democracies, and even among a number of countries that have historically had pretty warm relations with China, is really terrible. Overall, China’s influence efforts have gained it some successes, but also have led to a pretty substantial global backlash in a lot of areas.

What do you think liberal democracies are still failing to understand about what China is hoping to do in their countries?

There are ones that are farther ahead in terms of their responses. The U.S. has taken a pretty hardline position, which some would say is almost too hawkish. But other liberal democracies have lagged behind a little bit. Some countries in Europe, as well as New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, are catching up.

There are still huge blind spots. Chinese language media is almost totally controlled in virtually every country by people who are pro-Beijing. That’s a huge blind spot. There’s nothing you can do about some of it. If a U.S. citizen buys a media outlet in the United States and decides that they want to fire all the reporters or editors who were doing independent coverage and replace them with people who are going to do pro-Beijing coverage, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t tell a media owner how to run their publication if they’re a U.S. citizen. So there are some holes here.

A lot of liberal democracies have been slow, and they’re now catching up to realize that foreign investors in the media and communication sectors need to be given the same level of scrutiny that, in the past, the U.S. and other liberal democracies have given to foreign investors in sectors that could have defense implications—like semiconductors, steel, whatever. They need to scrutinize foreign investment in the media and communication sector at the same level.

Something akin to that is going on right now in Washington with the debate in Congress about what the U.S. should do about TikTok. That sort of application of stricter scrutiny to foreign-owned or foreign-invested major media and communications outlets is happening with TikTok; it needs to happen more broadly in liberal democracies.

One of your chapters is titled “Controlling the Pipes.” What are China’s goals when it comes to larger information infrastructure projects?

There’s information and then there’s the infrastructure through which information flows. That’s what I call the pipes. This includes 5G wireless networking infrastructure, which China has been very aggressive in trying to have Huawei and to a lesser extent ZTE build in a lot of developing countries. They haven’t been that successful in building them in prominent liberal democracies. They’ve been shut down by the United States and a lot of their partners. But they are building out a lot of the 5G infrastructure in Africa and to some extent in different parts of Asia. Will that mean that 5G infrastructure will somehow preference Chinese information media? Or will it perhaps serve as a backdoor for information to go back to China? We don’t know the answer to either. But those are obviously both concerns and reasons why the United States and many other liberal democracies have prevented Huawei and ZTE from building their infrastructure.

Other information pipes include undersea cables, which transmit information from one continent to another. China has been very aggressive in pushing to build those. It has been pushing its satellite TV networks, which have been increasingly popular in Africa and carry an increasing amount of Chinese content. And, finally, there are the social media platforms. WeChat, which is, I think, a little bit less worrisome. Its popularity outside of China isn’t enormous. But then you come to TikTok. TikTok is a huge issue that every liberal democracy is going to have to come to terms with. It’s going to be the most popular app in the world in a year. I don’t think that leading politicians in liberal democracies want to be the ones who banned TikTok. India is the only democracy I know of that’s banned TikTok. But Narendra Modi is in a very strong position to do whatever he wants. I don’t think Joe Biden, who is running for reelection next year, wants to be the guy who banned TikTok. Heavily dependent as the Democratic Party is on 18-to-35-year-old voters, I don’t think that’s a good selling point on the campaign trail.

Like most other liberal democracies, I think Biden and Congress are trying to negotiate some way for U.S. users’ data to be kept in the United States exclusively while TikTok continues to operate as an overseas company overseen by ByteDance, which is essentially a semi-Chinese-state company. And I think other liberal democracies are going to make the same demands for keeping TikTok users’ data in their countries. Whether TikTok is going to agree to that in 50 places, I don’t know. But I think in the U.S. they’ll be able to work something out.