What level of influence does the Chinese government have over U.S. media? Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the Brexit referendum in the same year, discussion of outside influence from authoritarian powers on democratic countries has grown substantially. However, there has also been a reaction against the idea that such influence is either prominent or impactful. So what’s the truth?
There are a number of ways to measure “influence,” but at least two well-known indices have taken a broad, systematic approach to measuring the Chinese government’s work within U.S.-based media. There is the China Index, by DoubleThink Lab, based in Taiwan, which ranks the U.S. 16th out of 46 ranked countries for influence overall, and gives it a “score” of 50% against an index average of 34% for the level of influence over its media. And then, based in Washington, there is Freedom House’s ranking, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022,” which scores “Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts” at 53 out of 85 and, separately, “Local Resilience & Response” at 72 out of 85.
Both work with points systems, with local experts asked to answer dozens of questions about indicators of influence. The former has used a scale of one to four for each question to add nuance, and usefully separates out results into categories of “exposure,” (41%) “pressure” (91%) and “effect” (23%). The latter currently does not give as detailed a breakdown for 2022, but says a full report will be posted as soon as it becomes available. Within these points systems, two kinds of influence attempts are covered: Relatively open and more hidden.
Relatively open examples include the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. It operates as “a government bureaucracy and a political and ideological apparatus for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.” Xinhua is known to have expanded its overseas bureaus from 100 in 2008 to 181 as of February 2021, according to the Jamestown Foundation. Additionally, the China News Service (CNS), China’s second-largest state news agency behind Xinhua, also has branches in the U.S., France, Japan, Canada, Australia, Thailand and Malaysia, and controls other media outlets such as Qiaobao (侨报) in the U.S. In 2018, a United Front Work Department deputy head cited by a Sinopsis project report described CNS as: “an important propaganda unit of the United Front,” which “must adhere to the concept of ‘newspapers run by politicians’ and thoroughly carry out political awareness work.”
More hidden examples of operations include thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube being “detected and shuttered for inauthentic behavior, including manipulation of the discourse about events within China (such as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and rights abuses in Xinjiang), U.S. relations with Taiwan, the reputation of U.S.-based critics of the Chinese Communist Party, and domestic issues like COVID-19 or U.S. political divisions.” Or, in a more low-fi setting, The Washington Post and The New York Times being paid to carry advertorials — paid adverts designed to look like journalistic content — from China Daily, a Chinese state-run news publication, with inconsistent and sometimes unclear labeling.
However, the indices are not everything. Other approaches to capturing Chinese government activity add further weight to these outlines. A whole genre of “disinformation industrial complex” bloomed around the idea of foreign interference over the past decade. One prominent example is a 2018 report produced by the Hoover Institution ran a chapter on media which detailed various kinds of Chinese government encroachment into Chinese-language media in the U.S. Within what it describes as an intensifying external propaganda blitz, it offers case studies of formerly independent newspapers coming under the influence of the Chinese government — focusing in on The Sing Tao Newspaper Group (星島新聞集團有限公司), The World Journal (世界日报) and Ming Pao (明報).
The same chapter also offers an account of “the state-owned China News Service and the Overseas Chinese Office of the State Council dispatch[ing] editorial personnel to the United States to found the Chinese-language TV broadcaster SinoVision and the newspaper Qiaobao,” explaining how the Chinese government’s background ownership of these outlets transfers directly into an editorial line: “Almost all the news stories in Qiaobao about China, the Sino-U.S. relationship, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other important issues important to China are taken directly from official Chinese media outlets or websites, including CCTV, Xinhua, and the People’s Daily,” it says.
There is a lot here, then (and much more than this article has space to list.) And it seems to answer the question set out at the top only in one direction. Of course, on the other hand, there is also room to ask questions of these portrayals. And this is worthwhile too, because the cost of paranoia running through a democracy remains high.
One issue, for example: While the indices both separate attempts at influence from outcomes in their scoring systems — both pointing out that U.S. civil society has proven relatively resilient against pressure — the chapter in the Hoover Institution report mentioned above includes several failed attempts within its argument about growing influence. In an email response to this point, one of the chapter’s lead authors, John Pomfret, said two ultimately unsuccessful attempts at purchasing radio stations were “used to show that Beijing and others perhaps seeking support (financial or otherwise) were/are interested in helping the PRC ‘do a good job telling China’s story.’” He added: “That they were stymied is noted.”
Separately: Some of the details in the chapter about the content produced by Chinese-language media appear vague, using phrases like “quite often.” (Asked why the chapter did not perform more quantitative analysis to back up the claims, Pomfret says: “I don’t believe we did any quantitative analysis in any part of the report. I did, however, spend hours listening to Sky Links riveting broadcasts on [People’s Republic of China] and U.S.-China related news so I feel confident in my ‘quite often’ editorial comment.”)
Then, on the indices: Two (slightly conflicting) issues. On the one hand, despite their attempts to be comprehensive, they appear to disagree slightly on the fact of whether U.S. journalists have been paid to go on trips to China — China Index says no, Freedom House says yes — perhaps because of a slightly different definition of “paid for” (China Index says “all-expenses paid” and mentions “journalists” rather than reporters). On the other hand, the China Index links to a Freedom House document as its sole reference for issue 08 in the Media section, regarding “regular PRC state-media or government advertisements inserted within local newspapers, online news websites or social media.” So the appearance of separately corroborating the same claim is actually a doubling of the same source (recycling of a small number of sources is something that seems to turn up quite often in “outside influence” literature as a whole.) Additionally: Both take a broad view of influence and not everyone will agree with all of their definitions.
These are by no means devastating blows (nor are they comprehensive). But neither should they be seen as pedantic spoilers. Rather, they could act as a note of caution: Overall, there seems to be reasonable evidence of Chinese government influence attempts ongoing within the U.S. media — even if the impact is much less clear cut — but deferring responsibility for identifying them to the burgeoning “disinformation industrial complex” is also not a panacea. Among the facts of financial transfers and editors from the Chinese Communist Party, there remain differing methodologies and subjective factors (like how much “influence” is acceptable, or what the line is for “influence”, or how seriously we should take more peripheral or failed attempts, or attempts with seemingly little impact.)
With all that in mind, then, what level of influence does the Chinese government have over U.S. media? Some, for sure, and as usual exactly how much is going to depend in part on who you ask and exactly how they add it all up.
A final caveat is that the situation is dynamic — and so as Pomfret has pointed out by email, reviewing four-year-old reports is always going to be slightly “after the fact.” In response to this, we will review the latest book on this subject next week — Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, by Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick.