Increasingly, U.S. outlets carry statements like this: China’s government is “trying to choke shows of sympathy in America and silence voices in the U.S. opposing the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping” and this is “one facet of an apparatus that Beijing has been building for years inside the United States to spread its influence and enforce its will.” So what’s going on? What is this “apparatus”? Is it actually significant or is it a way of drumming up U.S. public support for current and future battles with China by pitching China’s influence as directly affecting their lives?
The new book “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World” takes on those questions (focusing on media) and offers three clear advances on other attempts at answers. One: Its starting point is to note that much of China’s efforts at outside influence have actually resulted in embarrassing failures, where others conflate influence attempts with successful influence. Two: It does not romanticize the long, administrative grind that is the refining of tools of influence, where others tend toward flashy phrases like “propaganda blitz.” And three: It offers useful comparisons with other countries’ influence efforts to provide a sense of scale and perspective, where others seem to assume readers are either already convinced China is an outlier, or are too ignorant to realize that influence efforts are undertaken by democracies too.
The picture drawn by author John Kurlantzick is that for economic reasons (its own boom) and political ones (the post-Cold War attention of the U.S. being elsewhere, U.S. lack of popularity after wars in the Middle East, etc.), China saw an opportunity to increase soft power attempts in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly among its neighbors. This correlated with some success — Chinese investment being allowed into Southeast Asian countries or China being consulted on the sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings despite not being a member, for instance. But it was met with pushback as Chinese rhetoric hardened in the mid-2010s and its financial and military power increased. More recently, as China has sought to expand its influence into other regions, soft power investment continues (more open framing of China in a positive light), with mixed results, while increasing sharp power (less open framing of China in a positive light) efforts are more effective.
According to Kurlantzick, the mixed story of soft power is this: As China has expanded state media outlets into regions such as Africa and Latin America, it has run into the problem that content is designed to appeal to mid-ranking Chinese government officials rather than being exciting journalism. This often occurs through self-censorship as much as overt direction, but it means viewership figures are often far lower than the potential reach of the content might suggest. There has been more success on social media, with China Global Television Network’s Facebook follower count “the most of any media company in the world,” but the lack of authentic engagement on pages has seen studies questioning how many of the followers are real. The key exception to this disappointment is Xinhua, China’s state news agency. Kurlantzick explains that Xinhua is expanding its number of bureaus around the world, reaching 181 bureaus by 2021 and catching up to the Associated Press’s 250. This has been facilitated by the fact that Xinhua can afford to lose money and thus offer content cheaply or for free, which has seen its content increasingly taken up in developing countries, often in content-sharing deals. As news agencies set the “tone and parameters” of news stories, and Xinhua writes certain stories that affect China “in ways that portray Chinese competitors negatively and reflect well on China’s leadership,” this could have a “huge effect on how the global public understands news.”
Kurlantzick’s story of sharp power is this: Chinese-language outlets have increasingly been taken over by Chinese entities or owners sympathetic to Beijing, and at the same time China’s state media outlets have increasingly signed content-sharing and content-producing deals with other outlets. In both cases, these relationships are often unclear and have resulted in content that can be sympathetic to China’s government being published. On the other hand, punishments have been dished out to outlets that do not follow these lines. Some outlets have had advertising money withdrawn. Others have been blocked within China. And some journalists with relatives in China have seen them “disappeared” after critical reporting.
Within these threads there is plenty of room to disagree or question. There is more content-level analysis than in most influence literature, but the focus remains on structural analysis within the book itself (to its credit some Chinese state media articles are directly cited). This makes it difficult to critically engage with some points. Additionally, the section on attempting to control information infrastructure — social media companies like WeChat or physical communications networks, for instance — doesn’t grapple with the existing level of U.S. dominance in this area. But the picture of the Chinese government’s attempts appears clear-eyed and it’s a more comprehensive analysis than you’ll get from most U.S. attempts at the same thing.