Exporting Propaganda, from Cooption to Censorship

The Chinese government has in recent years spent considerable resources and effort on bolstering the country’s image and Party ideology overseas. While this has been longstanding CCP policy, the administration of Xi Jinping has stepped up such efforts by calling on domestic media to boost their international influence in order to help “tell China’s story to the world.” Most recently, attention has focused on Australia, where a number of deals between official Chinese media and Australian news outlets have raised concerns that Chinese government propaganda organs are guiding media coverage beyond their borders. A recent Little Red Podcast discusses “the range of strategies used by the Chinese government to tame the Chinese-language media in Australia, from cooption to intimidation to outright censorship.”

In The Diplomat, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook reports that when it comes to internationalizing Beijing’s propaganda, “private citizens and nongovernmental institutions are playing a growing role in advancing Beijing’s agenda, through either active promotion or passive concessions.” The main proxies for Beijing’s propaganda efforts that she discusses include “nationalist Chinese internet users, […] wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs with close ties to party leaders, and […] members of overseas Chinese communities.” But Cook also blames a range of global actors for their willingness to acquiesce to Chinese government pressure:

Proxies for the Chinese government are not restricted to ethnic Chinese, however. Foreign governments, politicians, international organizations, and academic institutions have also toed the CPC line for various reasons. During the last two months, under apparent pressure from Beijing, the Thai government barred democracy activist and Beijing critic Joshua Wong entry to Hong Kong; Indian authorities detained dozens of pro-Tibetan protesters surrounding a visit to Goa by Chinese president Xi Jinping; New Zealand’s deputy prime minister canceled meetings with veteran Hong Kong democrats Martin Lee and Anson Chan; and the UN-affiliated aviation agency refused to accredit Taiwanese journalists to cover its annual assembly.

A series of other actions that were criticized by free expression and democracy activists entailed less clear influence from Beijing but nonetheless served to promote its narratives. These included a decision by Bloomberg News to remove the online version of its award-winning 2012 investigation into the assets of Xi’s relatives; the 152-year-old Indian newspaper Daily Pioneer’s introduction of a customized four-page weekly supplement from the Chinese state media outlet Yunnan Daily; and Vancouver’s mayor donning a red scarf and flying the Chinese flag at city hall in a display with obvious pro-CPC overtones.

Democratic societies, with their emphasis on an open exchange of information and opinions, are vulnerable to intrusive, state-sponsored propaganda efforts that present themselves as just another, equally valid perspective. Similarly, attempts at transnational censorship exploit democracies’ culture of civility, in which speech deemed “offensive” to a given group or community is avoided whenever possible. But a firm and thoughtful adherence to the principles of transparency, freedom of expression, and freedom of association is often enough to resist Beijing’s attempts to impose its will overseas. [Source]

On a visit to New York, artist Ai Weiwei emphasized the importance of foreign governments and others keeping the pressure on China in order to defend human rights and freedom of expression:

“It doesn’t matter it will hurt me or not, you have to do what you think is right,” Ai said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “You have to believe they have to listen. You know, they have to care about their business partner … or they have to respect.”

He encouraged western governments to maintain pressure on China, even with the potential that it may lead to harsh treatment for activists. In recent years more and more foreign politicians have been willing to forgo discussions of human rights issues in order to forge closer economic ties with Beijing. [Source]