Winning Hearts and Minds through Propaganda and Disinformation

In an episode of BBC Sounds as part of her series “China and the World,” Isabel Hilton gives an in-depth look at the the Chinese government’s influence campaigns overseas, in particular programs under the United Front and the “Grand External Propaganda” campaign. Interviewees, including Isaac Stone Fish, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, David Bandurski, and others look at Chinese influence in the media, academia, cultural institutions, and elsewhere. From the show’s introduction:

Now, seemingly, China has adopted a radically different approach. Glitzy television channels proliferate broadcasting in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian. Beijing regularly invites journalists from developing countries on all-expenses-paid trips to Beijing and other major cities; inserts in such Establishment newspapers as “The Washington Post” in the US and the “Telegraph” in the UK present a positive image of today’s one-party state; while Hollywood focuses now on box office revenues in China.

Less visible, though, is the work of the United Front Work Department, a key component of the Chinese Communist Party’s operations, targeting influential figures in politics, culture and business to support China’s interests and attack its enemies. A close watch is kept on Chinese students abroad, the Chinese diaspora and people of Chinese descent. Censorship of published journals persists and a whole new area of control has been established in “management” of social media and online sources of information. [Source]

In the program, Isaac Stone Fish explains the difference between Russian and Chinese influence campaigns: “Russian influence is a lot more about chaos for chaos’ sake. Chinese influence is about shaping the way people think about China.” In a piece for Project Syndicate, Orville Schell and Larry Diamond make a similar point while also warning against stereotyping all Chinese who are living abroad as being agents of the Party:

What are those ends? Unlike Russia’s influence operations, which center on electoral manipulation through disinformation about the target country, China’s foreign operations, including in the US, focus on narratives about itself. Its leaders want to shape how the world views China’s rise, in order to minimize challenges to its militarization of the South China Sea, repression of religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, pervasive surveillance of its citizens, and resistance to democratic reform in Hong Kong.

To achieve this, China leverages its own citizens abroad – especially those in academia, whether faculty or students – and members of the Chinese diaspora, whom it considers “fellow countrymen” (同胞们) who owe loyalty to the “Chinese motherland” (中国祖国). Already, many Chinese students do not feel free to speak candidly in American classrooms; Chinese experts self-censor so that they can obtain visas to return home; and most Chinese-language media in the US now reflect a China-friendly line.

[…] Crucially, the US must ensure that its response does not risk triggering racially driven attacks on Chinese in America. China may view anyone who is Chinese or has Chinese heritage as a potential agent. But, to uphold its values of fairness and equality, the US must look squarely at behavior, rather than ethnicity. [Source]

An article in Quartz by Celine Siu demonstrates how these government efforts to influence global views of China through its media are not always effective, as seen in the state media presence in Kenya:

The four state media—Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio International, and China Daily have around one hundred people in Kenya. But BBC alone has 300. In fact, Kenya is BBC’s largest bureau outside of the UK, and across the entire continent, BBC has around 600 journalists. This far outnumbers the Chinese: CGTN Africa has approximately 150 staffers in total, according to a source with the majority being local staffers. Xinhua’s headquarters in Nairobi has some 40 Chinese, including family members. China Daily‘s Kenya Bureau currently has four staffers with two Chinese.

“Even though China wants to expand its soft power through media, looking from the actual resources on the ground, such as the amount of news here, they cannot support big groups of people here. There is not enough value in doing that,” explained a former senior executive for Xinhua Africa, who asked not to be named as they no longer worked there.

To be sure, while Xinhua and other Chinese state media look small relative to the BBC—whose legacy goes back to the colonial period—Chinese state media’s staff do outnumber American and other Western media outlets such as CNN, Financial Times, and Der Spiegel. But again Chinese state press do not enjoy the same level of viewership and influence compared to the international corporate news organizations, whose reporting are often featured, cited, and disseminated widely on social media platforms. [Source]




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