Chinese Global Media Influence Faces Pushback, in the U.K. and Elsewhere

A new report from the National Endowment for Democracy’s Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series, written by Freedom House’s Sarah Cook, looks at the Chinese government’s media influence globally. She examines four tactics used by the government—propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and gaining influence over key nodes in the information flow—and also highlights notable efforts by media, researchers, non-governmental organizations, and others to stymie such efforts. She especially focuses on the more subtle ways this influence is pushed, through content-sharing and media partnerships with cash-strapped agencies, and pressure to silence voices critical of the CCP. From the report:

The CCP’s tactics range from widely accepted forms of traditional public diplomacy and other forms of soft power, to more covert, corrupt, and coercive activities. In the gray zone between the latter two poles of this spectrum are “sharp power” efforts that take advantage of the public sphere within open societies but which have the effect of compromising democratic integrity. These practices go beyond simply “telling China’s story.” Their sharper edge often undermines democratic norms, erodes national sovereignty, weakens the financial sustainability of independent media, and violates local laws. Moreover, no country is immune: the targets include poor and institutionally fragile states as well as wealthy democratic powers.

While Beijing’s growing investment in foreign media influence has yielded some gains, the campaign has also encountered obstacles such as journalistic integrity and public skepticism about state-run media. In fact, the past three years have featured a wave of pushback. In many countries, governmental and nongovernmental actors alike have come to recognize the threat that CCP media influence poses to democratic freedoms and structures. Resistance has come from the media industry itself, as well as policymakers, the technology sector, and civil society.

But as China’s leadership refines its strategy and expands its efforts to new countries, a more coordinated and comprehensive response is needed. At the center of such a response must be an acknowledgment and understanding of the challenges that the Chinese party-state and related actors pose to media freedom globally—not only by China experts, but by the full array of nongovernmental actors engaged in the media, news, and technology sectors. [Source]

In recent years, the Chinese government has especially focused on controlling the global narrative on two major stories: internment camps holding Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and the origins and spread of COVID-19. As Cook notes in her report, the Chinese government has increasingly relied on spreading disinformation around COVID-19 and several other topics—including Taiwanese democracy, Hong Kong protests, and prominent critics of the CCP—which “appeared designed to sow divisions within democratic societies and alliances, rather than simply promote pro-Beijing viewpoints.” In this strategy, Beijing appears to be aligning itself with Moscow, which has long used disinformation as a defensive tactic.

At SupChina, Eric Olander writes about how the Chinese government is targeting Africa for a propaganda campaign, through diplomatic Twitter accounts, aimed at influencing public opinion over events in Xinjiang:

The key message that Chinese officials are trying to convey is that the well-documented accusations that up to a million Uyghurs have been forcibly interned are spurious and put forth by Western media, governments, and human rights organizations that are all hostile to China.

Instead, ambassadors like Zhào Yànbó 赵彦博 in Botswana promote a different story about Xinjiang that they clearly hope will resonate with stakeholders in developing countries. “China’s Xinjiang has never been more prosperous than it is now, with unprecedented achievements in socio-economic development and improvement of people’s life,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “I’m happy to see that the residents in Xinjiang could live a happy life in such a stable environment.”

Chinese missions and diplomats in ChadSouth Africathe DRCRwandaLiberia, and Lesotho among many others all posted similarly upbeat narratives and statements on Tuesday about the purportedly great quality of life for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. [Source]

In her discussion of effective efforts to moderate Chinese government influence, Sarah Cook mentions an investigation by Ofcom, the British media regulator, into CGTN, the overseas branch of China’s state broadcaster. On Thursday, Ofcom withdrew CGTN’s license to operate in the U.K. based on a procedural violation. Charles Riley and Julia Horowitz report for CNNBusiness:

Ofcom said that Star China Media Limited did not have “editorial responsibility” for the channel’s output, and therefore “does not meet the legal requirement of having control over the licensed service.” Star was acting as the distributor, rather than the provider of the news channel, it added.

The regulators also rejected a proposal by CGTN to transfer the license to a new entity after finding that it would ultimately still be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore disqualified under UK law.

“We’ve provided CGTN with numerous opportunities to come into compliance, but it has not done so. We now consider it appropriate to withdraw the license for CGTN to broadcast in the UK,” an Ofcom spokesperson said.

The channel will be removed from UK airwaves with immediate effect. CGTN has the right to request a judicial review, according to an Ofcom spokesperson, and it could apply for another license in the future. [Source]

In their announcement, Ofcom further stated:

Correspondence from CGTN submitted during the course of our investigation makes clear that CGTNC is controlled by CCTV, which is also the sole shareholder of CGTNC.

Given CGTNC is controlled by CCTV – which, as part of the China Media Group, is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and therefore disqualified from holding a broadcast licence under UK broadcasting laws – we consider that CGTNC would be disqualified from holding a licence. [Source]

Ofcom is also in the process of deciding whether it will impose sanctions against CGTN in a separate case “for failing to preserve due impartiality in its coverage of the Hong Kong protests.” Last year, the regulator sided with Peter Humphrey, who had filed a complaint over CGTN’s airing of his forced confession while he was detained in China in 2013, one of several such broadcasts.

Human rights group Safeguard Defenders first filed a complaint to Ofcom about CGTN almost a year ago. In a statement on Thursday, the group explained how this decision would impact China’s media influence campaigns worldwide:

It cannot be stressed enough how important CGTN is in the CCPs planned expansion of soft power and influence in Europe, which with the deterioration of the relationship with the US has only grown more important.

While CCTV and CGTN plan for their future new headquarters, likely in Brussels, this will cause severe disruption to Chinese TV-based influencing operations in Europe.

Far worse, for CGTN, Ofcom’s decision may draw attention to a type of violation that has gone largely unnoticed and may commit other TV regulators to take a closer look at the operations of both CCTV and CGTN in other jurisdictions. The process in how CGTN has dealt with this, and the other complaints, are not surprising, but nonetheless shocking to any outsider, as they continue to act as if regulations do not apply to them, and that hostile and aggressiveness alone, would allow them to somehow escape punishment.

This is likely to be a wake-up call for CGTN and CCTV, but it is doubtful whether they will be able to change, as political control from the CCP is too strong. As seen in other instances, even when a change in action would clearly help China/the CCP, they are simply unable to make such changes. [Source]

On Thursday, following Ofcom’s announcement, the Chinese government issued a complaint to the BBC over their coverage of COVID-19, which it said constituted “fake news.” This week the BBC had also issued a hard-hitting report on forced rape in the Xinjiang camps. BBC responded:

The same day, The Telegraph reported that three Chinese citizens had been expelled from Britain for spying while claiming to work for three separate (unnamed) Chinese media agencies.


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