Xi’s External Propaganda Machine on Overdrive

While engaging in increasingly hip domestic self-promotion—including a slickly produced new video advertisement for Party membership—China’s government has upped its long-running efforts to influence media consumers abroad. The Mercator Institute for China Studies’ (MERICS) most recent China Monitor publication focuses on the Chinese government’s increasing emphasis on promoting Party to the world. The News Lens outlines the MERICS report:

It says China sees itself in an ideological confrontation with the West, with many of its party leaders attributing the Soviet Union’s fall to Western ideological subversion.

“Instead of having to deal with an influx of ideas from other countries into China, the Party wants to fundamentally change the conversation at the global level so as to defend China’s interests abroad and reinforce the ideological consensus at home,” the report says.

“The new goal is to create an international echo chamber for the CCP. This way, ideas such as that the Chinese political and economic system are the best for China will reach China’s citizens not only through domestic but also international media and platforms.”

[…] The report also cautions Western countries.

“Attempts to pacify China by adopting its official rhetoric, by making concessions, or by shunning groups and individuals the CCP dislikes will accomplish little to nothing. Instead, if Western countries define red lines and stick to them, it becomes much harder for the CCP to shape global opinions.” [Source]

While Beijing’s global media soft power push predates the current president, it has entered a new phase under . Amid Xi’s efforts to reinforce ideological orthodoxy at home, he has declared foreign values an enemy and led a campaign to discredit foreign media through a combination of censorship and propaganda. Meanwhile, Xi recently called on state media to do a better job of telling China’s story to the world, urging them to establish “flagship media with strong international influence,” and state outlets have effectively utilized foreign social media platforms long-blocked in China. (The recent appointment of veteran tech executive Kathy Chen, a former PLA engineer, as Twitter’s Greater China Managing Director, raised hackles and seemed to fit right into Xi’s call to to push the China story internationally.) Western PR firms and distinguished Hong Kong media outlets have also been recruited to the mission.

Controversial policy issues are often the focus of efforts, and high Party officials occasionally express confidence that foreign opinion will inevitably fall into line with Beijing’s, as a United Front Work Department vice-minister did regarding Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and Tibet. (Fueling an anti-Dalai Lama narrative has been a consistent goal for English-language state media, and last year Reuters provided evidence of Party efforts to smear the Tibetan spiritual leader by promoting a divisive deity.) In the lead-up to an international tribunal in the Hague’s decision on a case involving disputed Chinese claims in the South China Sea, Beijing launched a propaganda drive, buying advertorial space in foreign publications and releasing an English-subtitled animated video. (Cute cartoons have been another signature of state under Xi.)

Following the ruling against China, English-language state media kicked into overdrive. This week, a short video began looping on a billboard in Times Square, and will continue doing so until early next month. State-run CRI English reports:

The 3 minute and 12 second film features the stunning scenery of the Islands, or Nanhai Zhudao, and reiterates the history that China is indeed the earliest country to find, name and exploit the Islands and waters, displaying the historical and legal evidence of China’s sovereignty over the .

The video will be played 120 times per day in Times Square from July 23 to August 3, 2016.

Many tourists have been attracted by the film.

“It is necessary for people at the ‘Crossroads of the World’ to watch the film. The world needs to know the truth.” Visitor Mr. Chen from north China’s Shandong Province said after watching the video.

The video also has aroused strong approval among Chinese residing in New York. [Source]

Watch an English CCTV report on the video of “historic facts supporting Chinese sovereignty” in the South China Sea, or read BuzzFeed’s Beimeng Fu describing the high-profile display and concern from a British MP who feels she was misrepresented in it.

In Australia, where several recent deals between Chinese and domestic media outlets have raised concerns, Beijing’s point of view received much attention in major media outlets. In Melbourne, some members of the overseas Chinese community seemed to parrot state media on the maritime controversy as they planned for a protest last weekend. Ahead of the planned demonstrations, The Age’s Philip Wen reported last week:

It is the latest instance of patriotic and business associations with ties to the Chinese embassy in Canberra mobilising local Chinese communities in an attempt to advance the mainland’s strategic interests and influence public discussion in Australia, often using the evocative and nationalistic language favoured by Chinese propaganda arms.

It is understood protest organisers sought approval from the Chinese embassy before publicising the event and calling for mass participation.

It is unclear how many demonstrators organisers hope to attract for the protest, scheduled for Saturday morning at the Queen Victoria Gardens. [Source]

China’s diplomatic missions appear to have gone beyond just granting approval in the past: its embassy in London reportedly distributed flags and banners used in pro-Xi demonstrations during the president’s visit to the U.K. last year, for example. Despite the Xi administration’s increased devotion of resources to external propaganda, a recent Pew survey suggests that Beijing has considerable work ahead left in convincing the world that China respects human rights.