Over the past few years, the view that China has become a more sophisticated wielder of soft power has gained traction. Specialists focusing on Chinese efforts to influence foreign journalists and media outlets, international internet governance forums, and Hollywood productions have separately documented the ways that these avenues of control have developed to align with the state’s goals. Through a recent report with the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy, “Beyond the Great Firewall: How China Became a Global Information Power,” Director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies Shanthi Kalathil has been the first to analyze all three of these spheres of influence in tandem, arguing that they signify a long-term vision for expanding Chinese soft power. Kalathil has discussed findings from the report with CDT:
China Digital Times: How would you define the term “information power”?
Shanthi Kalathil: I think I put the term out there partly to be a little bit provocative. There are more ways to become a great power than simply to rely on hard power. In the report, I talk about how China has focused specifically on marshaling information resources as a comprehensive form of power it’s trying to define for itself. What’s fascinating to me is that I think China is really an innovator in this space, in seeing power in this way. While it’s ongoing, and it’s not something that’s clearly laid out—although you see references to this kind of approach in a variety of Chinese documents—it’s quite an interesting way of conceptualizing power in the modern age. What I tried to do in this report is just pick off one slice of that.
CDT: Your research traces how the Chinese government and private sector have cooperatively strategized to gain control over international news media, the global internet, and Hollywood. Could you explain how you came to choose these three spheres of influence, and what the tactics deployed in each are?
SK: I had been tracking a lot of these issues for a number of years, starting with primarily looking at how China manages information domestically. Some of the ways I saw come up most often were in these three areas. There’s a certain subset of groups that look specifically at China’s influence over media, looking at both China’s state-owned media organs and state-affiliated media presence. There’s others that track foreign journalists. Then there’s a different set of people and analyses around China and development of the internet, and its cyber policies and internet governance. And then I separately started to see a lot being written looking at China’s cultural influence, soft power, the emergence of Confucius Institutes and other initiatives. Specifically in the U.S. trade press, I started looking at how Chinese companies are partnering up with Hollywood companies. What really piqued my interest is that I started to see it in some of the movies I was watching on my own free time. Because I was already attuned to this issue I started noticing that a lot of blockbusters portray China in a positive light, and it seemed to be a fairly recent phenomenon. Certainly in movies within the past five years, I would say, it seemed to become more prominent. In a lot of the really big movies I would see similar themes come up, and I thought it would be interesting to try to not just look at these issues separately, because so far they’ve been somewhat compartmentalized, but to look at them together—to look at them as a unified Chinese influence strategy.
There’s been a lot of coverage of the media space. Press freedom organizations would talk about how foreign journalists were harassed in China, how China is trying to influence foreign coverage. That’s certainly not a new thing but since Xi Jinping came to power, we’ve seen that intensify. And I think one relatively new aspect that has become more overt is the extent to which China tries to apply market-based pressure to curtail reporting that’s critical of the Chinese government. They recently re-branded CCTV, and are calling it CGTN. They’ve rebranded CCTV over the years a number of times, but they do seem to be putting additional resources behind it. What’s interesting to me is that I think I remember about ten years ago maybe, there was a lot of talk about trying to make these big state organs more competitive [in the market], and I don’t really hear that much anymore. It’s almost as if they’ve walked back from that approach. They’re willing to pour more money into making these state-based media companies successful. I don’t know how they define success, but I think that there’s an increased realization on their part that maybe when you let [the media outlets] become too dependent on being competitive in the market, they start to veer into ideologically dangerous territory. So now they’re really focusing on beefing up the overseas media presence, on trying to use different channels to promote state-based or state-affiliated media. Some of them are still pretty clunky—the English-language feeds of the Chinese state media online, People’s Daily, China Daily—I don’t think they’re really there yet in terms of sophistication. Some of the newer efforts, like Sixth Tone, are really interesting. They’re trying to push the envelope and appeal to a younger, hipper audience and present stories that are much more complex about China, especially going to a foreign audience. You’ll see stories that’ll appear especially on Sixth Tone that try to present a more nuanced, in-depth look at issues happening in China, but they always stop short of directly touching any of these sensitive topics.
I think one of the more interesting aspects of the internet space is the extent to which China is slowly trying to become more involved in internet governance, influencing the norms that govern the global internet as well as the actual policies that are emerging. They’ve been active diplomatically in some of these forums, they’re trying to become increasingly involved in shaping how the internet is going to evolve. They see it as this platform that they need to control, as something they have a stake in. I think you also see this in industrial policy. I think China is really looking ahead to the emerging Internet of Things, how data is used to connect objects. That’s where you see the tie-in between these overarching emphases on information, data, and promotion of certain industrial policies that seek to be the market movers in this space. China’s investing a lot into capabilities to take advantage of this emerging data-enabled white goods space, trying to set the standards by being the first to market in many of these areas.
Hollywood was fascinating, because what they’ve done there is used the tactic they’ve long used domestically, which is to co-opt the private sector by offering up tremendous rewards. You have the ability to tap huge domestic markets if you play by the rules. Currently foreign films are restricted in a number of ways from entering the Chinese market. Right now there are only 34 films that are allowed in under the revenue-sharing model, but there is an unlimited amount through Chinese co-production. If you’re a Hollywood studio and trying to get into the Chinese market, there’s a large incentive to partner with Chinese companies to make sure there are few barriers to entry. Of course, a significant potential barrier is the state censor, which is ultimately under the jurisdiction of the State Council. They’re proactively going through and making sure that from the moment that a film is conceived, from the screenwriter all the way through production, there aren’t any elements that will stop films from being a success in China and that they’re more likely to penetrate that market. It’s really a market-driven decision, it’s not that U.S. companies have any innate desire to promote these positive messages of China. It’s something that’s happening by default due to restrictions and because the Chinese market is now increasingly huge and important. One interesting thing that happened after I finished the report was finally looking at how this big new joint venture, The Great Wall fared. It really didn’t fare that well. China’s been using its market to power a lot of these policies that sometimes don’t work the way they want it to. The Great Wall was supposed to be the big test of the U.S.-China film production model.
CDT: What are some of the long-term implications you foresee arising as a result of these actions?
SK: I think a long-term implication is enshrinement of these authoritarian norms. When you see this management of information on such a large scale that penetrates a wide variety of fields, I think it’s quite concerning. There aren’t any efforts to look at a wide range of these efforts, because as I said before, the communities of people that tend to focus on these issues are quite fragmented. Without the whole picture, you’re not really able to grasp the full implications.
CDT: In your report you discuss the Chinese government’s “Internet power” (网络强国, wangluo qiangguo) phrase, which has appeared in numerous policy documents and speeches over the past few years. Could you describe how it originated and the significance it now holds?
I first saw it in the run-up to the Five Year Plan and I think the concept is still at the heart of the 13th Five-Year Plan. I think they’ve kept it deliberately somewhat vague. It does draw on a number of existing and previous policies on ensuring domestic innovation in the internet and technology space. Part of it is what they call “Internet Plus,” which is essentially the Internet of Things, I just think they’re calling it something different—basically trying to weave corporate big data into manufacturing. I think you could wrap the Made in China 2025 effort into that. There’s also encouraging these domestic homegrown Chinese internet giants to expand overseas. In essence it’s a sort of classic strategy of eliminating foreign competition during the incubation stage, Tencent, Alibaba, and Sina Weibo, all these things that were allowed to flourish in the absence of international competitors in the Chinese market are now big and have a lot of power. I think that’s all part of the internet power strategy and a lot of that is market-based. The Five-Year plan is not really an exact blueprint for how this will play out but there’s been a signal that these are the industries, this is the area that should be promoted going forward.
CDT: At one point you note that China’s current censorship techniques are not limited to the conventional understanding of the term. What has changed?
SK: For that I’d go back to some of my original research on this topic. Back in 2000 and 2001 I started researching some of these issues, and of course the internet looked really different then. People would use the term censorship then to refer to when you couldn’t get to a website, but really there’s this tremendously dynamic Chinese internet space now. Since the years when I did my original research on a book that I coauthored on China, Cuba, and other authoritarian regimes, there’s been a huge evolution and quality shift. Now, not only their content, but also their huge companies that are powering all this, are incredibly sophisticated. I think a lot of Chinese internet users know they’re not getting the access necessarily to the global internet but that matters less now because there’s such a variety of things you can do just using Chinese apps and messaging. And so, certainly there’s censorship but it’s become much more fine-grained. I think it was easier to make this case before Xi Jinping tightened media controls, you did see a lot of boundary-pushing in that space, and sort of a broad emphasis on censoring only the most sensitive topics. Now I think things have chilled more, but you still see a lot of dynamism in that space.
CDT: What kinds of reactions have you seen coming out of China in response to the information control tactics you have identified?
SK: The Chinese netizens know what their internet looks like and I think there’s a high degree of that sort of self-awareness and ability to mock these things. Chinese internet users are making fun of the product placement of Chinese products in Hollywood films. There’s a real self-awareness there and there are memes that are spread around even though they get censored. Some of them are really fascinating and they resemble the global meme culture. I think Chinese internet users are quite sophisticated despite not gaining access to the global internet.
CDT: Do you have suggestions for how policymakers, media corporations, internet companies, or other actors can respond to the troubling soft power developments you document in this report, and in particular to the “authoritarian information age” you allude to in your conclusion?
SK: I didn’t focus on policy recommendations in the report. I honestly feel like that’s a whole other report to explore. I do think that democracies have to do a better job of recognizing this is happening and drawing upon their core strengths to respond. One of these strengths is the ability to promote free expression and diversity, to actively counter some of these measures to try to chill these global platforms’ speech and expression. For instance, I think a lot of what’s happening in the internet governance forums is known to people deeply engaged in that space and not necessarily to the broader community. Just making some of these issues more well-known is helpful.
Looking at how different companies, not just internet but other media companies, behave in the global space, and examining their policies—basically providing some transparency and accountability would be helpful because you can really see to what extent they are pressured by authoritarian governments to adjust their policies. There are several initiatives that are already looking at aspects of this, such as the Global Network Initiative, and Ranking Digital Rights at New America. They just came out with a really interesting report that included two Russian and two Chinese companies. I think on a global scale it’s really important to look at those companies and platforms, also including just for comparison’s sake some of these emerging and really big companies. Baidu and Tencent are huge companies, so including them in some of these ranking efforts to promote transparency, is also really important because it puts them in the global context in which they compete.