In the days surrounding U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the Chinese government scrambled to shape the narrative of her visit in media spheres around the globe. A range of tools were deployed in an effort to maximize reach and persuasion, including tirades by diplomats on Twitter, Russian state-media mouthpieces, foreign sources in CCP articles, and Chinese state-media content in outlets across the Global South. This propaganda push reflects the variety of tactics available to the Chinese government for disseminating its messages, and the importance of international enablers that amplify them.
Analyzing the People’s Daily coverage of Pelosi’s visit for China Media Project, David Bandurski described China’s global soundbite factory of foreign sources in state-media articles, which are used to exaggerate international support for CCP claims:
[The] top piece, a compilation of remarks from a grab bag of international voices on the Taiwan question, merits closer scrutiny. It is a textbook example of a key tactic in China’s international communication – the grooming of token voices to relay the CCP’s position on any issue as required, often with quotes that shamelessly mirror official-speak, or are apparently invented out of whole cloth.
It has long been a priority for the Chinese Communist Party to maintain a network of quotable international sources. These sources often include minor political party leaders, particularly from socialist or other left-leaning parties, as well as scholars and political commentators who appear virtually nowhere outside of Chinese official state media reporting.
[…] None of this is to say there are no real voices in the world that oppose Pelosi’s Taiwan visit for reasons strategic, political, or personal. Real voices, however, are not the stuff external propaganda is made of. China’s leaders grumble that they cannot control the stage, that they lack sufficient “discourse power” to hold the realm of ideas. But shadow puppetry — that they can do. [Source]
Chinese diplomats led the propaganda charge over social and traditional media. In one chilling example, Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to France, appeared twice on French television to declare that the Taiwanese people would need to be “re-educated” should Beijing take control: “[The] authorities of Taiwan have made an education of ‘desinicisation’ on its population, which is effectively indoctrinated and intoxicated. It must be re-educated to eliminate separatist thought and secessionist theory.” In Australia, Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian warned the National Press Club to “treat the Taiwan question with caution” and “use your imagination” to decipher the meaning of “[reunification by] all necessary means.”
A large part of diplomats’ propaganda push also took place over social media. On Twitter, officials from the Chinese embassies in France, Pakistan, and Ireland shared an unflattering cartoon of the “six sins Pelosi committed by visiting Taiwan.” Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying, along with Chinese representatives in the U.S., South Africa, and Mexico, all retweeted a video of Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters claiming that Taiwan is part of China. Sinologist Sari Arho Havrén remarked that Chinese officials “see no ideological contradiction in using Twitter even though the Twitter Co-founder calls [for] the end of the CCP,” referring to a recent tweet by Jack Dorsey. At the German Marshall Fund, Joseph Bodnar, Bret Schafer, and Etienne Soula summarized the torrent of tweets sent out by Chinese diplomats during the week of Pelosi’s visit:
Other high-level diplomats were also firm in their opposition [to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan]. The MFA’s official Twitter account warned of “resolute countermeasures” and pleaded for the United States to “hear the voices of reason.” Assistant Foreign Minister Hua Chunying spoke of “safeguarding China’s national sovereignty” and quoted Xi’s “principled position on the Taiwan question.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States referenced the WWII-era Potsdam Proclamation promising the return of Chinese territories seized by Japan during war. And the ambassador to Australia warned of “dark clouds or even violent storms across the Strait.”
Diplomats further removed from the region and nationalist state media and their employees tended to be more bellicose in their responses to the speaker’s possible visit. The consul general in Belfast tweeted that “the [People’s Liberation Army] PLA will not sit idly by” and warned Taiwan “not to play with fire.” The consul general in Karachi advertised the PLA’s most recent armed drone’s flight around the island. A CGTN presenter repeated that the Chinese military “will not sit back.” The nationalist tabloid Global Times had several incendiary takes, depicting the United States as a “paper tiger,” boasting about an “’aircraft carrier killer’ hypersonic weapon,” and suggesting that “China can push the reunification process a step further.” But the most provocative commentary on Pelosi’s planned trip came from the former Global Times editor in chief, Hu Xijin, who remains popular on social media despite no longer holding an official position. He speculated about the “possibility of a military conflict,” called Mike Pompeo “sinister” for offering to accompany Pelosi, and, after the trip was confirmed on Monday, suggested the Speaker should “pray before departure.” [Source]
What he's saying is: one day, we will control you. And we'll remember what you did 10-20 years ago. Look at Xinjiang, look at Hong Kong. We'll do those same 回头看 exercises with you. So you better fall in line now to save your future. It's meant to be psychological warfare.
— Mareike Ohlberg (@MareikeOhlberg) August 7, 2022
Pelosi has already left 🇹🇼 and is on rout to 🇯🇵 but it will still take a while for 🇨🇳 diplomats and state media to move on. Here are the 10 most frequent terms in their messaging today. pic.twitter.com/chetCGMlQd
— Etienne Soula (@EtienneSoula) August 3, 2022
In another intriguing propaganda tactic documented by Michael Cannings, immediately after Pelosi’s visit, Amazon search results were flooded with low-quality, pro-CCP books about Taiwan, some of which even included Nancy Pelosi’s name in their title:
The language inside changes from perfect English to passages riddled with grammatical errors and back again. The books I have seen all appeared in the last week or so, and many mention Nancy Pelosi in the title. The overall bias is strongly pro-PRC. 2/4
— Michael Cannings (@formosaphile) August 5, 2022
The sheer number of new titles in a short space of time suggests this is a concerted effort to "flood the zone" with crap and make it harder to find genuine information on the subject. Hopefully @amazon will take swift action to remove them. 4/4
— Michael Cannings (@formosaphile) August 5, 2022
The Russian government and state media also played an important role in disseminating CCP narratives. Over the course of several days on Twitter, these Russian actors mentioned Taiwan more times than Ukraine. Russian embassies around the world shared the hashtags #WeStandWithChina and #ThereIsOnlyOneChina in support of Chinese government positions on Taiwan. At Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Reid Standish described the value of Russian state media in spreading Chinese government narratives about Taiwan:
Russian media, meanwhile, have copied these Chinese narratives, with state TV’s Yevgeny Popov saying that Pelosi intended to use the visit to “turn the planet into dust.”
[…] While Ukraine war coverage is still the big-ticket item for Russian propaganda, the Taiwan visit highlights how state-run outlets in both countries are increasingly laundering each other’s talking points.
[…] In the case of Pelosi’s trip, the development is noteworthy due to the broad reach to other countries in the former Soviet Union where Russian is still widely spoken, but where Chinese state outlets have minimal reach.
Even despite concerns from local governments set off by the invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda outlets still have a broad following in many areas, with my colleagues from RFE/RL’s Central Asian services telling me that Russian state-run media have been eagerly spreading alarm about Pelosi in their broadcasts and amplifying Beijing’s narrative to regional audiences. [Source]
This trend is holding up. Since Tuesday, Taiwan is the 2nd most mentioned country by Russian propagandists on Twitter.
During the past 48 hrs, Ukraine has been the 5th most mentioned country by Kremlin-affiliated accounts. https://t.co/D08gJ6VpPT
— Joe Bodnar (@joeabodnar) August 4, 2022
Countries in the Global South were a major target of the Chinese government’s outreach overseas. In the days following Pelosi’s visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that “those who offend China will be punished,” and many countries—including the Republic of Congo, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Oman, Mexico, Iran, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco—subsequently fell in line by issuing official statements supporting China’s position on Taiwan. Offering carrots as well as sticks, China’s State Council announced on the day of Pelosi’s arrival that China will waive import tariffs on almost all taxable items from 16 least-developed countries (LDCs), a measure that China Daily emphasized would be expanded to all LDCs that diplomatically recognize China over Taiwan. (Two of the 13 countries that recognize Taiwan—Haiti and Tuvalu—are officially LDCs.)
"By framing the Pelosi visit as a military incursion(CGTN noted prominently that the Speaker"landed in a military aircraft in Taiwan")the Chinese are positioning themselves as the victim of Western intervention– messaging that resonates in many African capitals"- @ChinaGSProject
— William Nee (@williamnee) August 8, 2022
In media outlets across the Global South, CCP propaganda appeared in various forms. Xinhua, CGTN, and China Radio International produced copious articles relaying Beijing’s talking points, and certain local outlets ran paid articles by Chinese officials. African editions of Chinese state-media outlets, such as China Daily Africa and ChinAfrica Magazine, as well as the pro-China-leaning Africa-China Review, posted numerous tweets over several days with content condemning Pelosi’s visit.
Brief but rather frenetic burst of activity from various Chinese diplomatic missions across the Pacific in the wake of Pelosi's Taiwan visit. In Suva, China's Ambassador Qian Bo has penned an op-ed on the subject in the Fiji Sun. It has a rather … forceful vibe 1/ pic.twitter.com/zQ2ko7zpS4
— Stephen Dziedzic (@stephendziedzic) August 8, 2022
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to South Africa, where he discussed Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and unveiled the U.S.’s new Africa strategy. The strategy document accused China of using Africa to “challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, [and] undermine transparency and openness.” Not only did Chinese state media and officials shoot back at Blinken’s statements, but CCP propaganda appeared in several local media outlets, often without attribution to the source.
In addition to official statements, several political parties across #Africa (with which the #CCP holds very tight networking relations), put out statements as well. Chinese ambassadors posted in #Africa were also busy with Opeds explaining #China's position. This means that 2/ pic.twitter.com/Oc3rGjGSKT
— Lina Benabdallah (@LBenabdallah) August 7, 2022
For example, in the week since Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, no fewer than nine articles by Chinese state-media sources appeared in the South African outlet Independent Online (IOL). Among them, two were labeled as statements by the Chinese foreign ministry under a “staff reporter” byline; one op-ed was written by the head of the Chinese embassy in South Africa; one was written by the Chinese defense attache to South Africa; another titled “Chinese embassy rubbishes Antony Blinken’s ‘peaceful visit’ by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan” was written under a local byline, with six of its eight paragraphs quoting or lightly paraphrasing the Chinese government’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit. Another five anonymous op-ed articles also appeared in IOL during this time; all of them were taken verbatim from China’s recent white paper on Taiwan, and only one mentioned at the bottom that it came from Xinhua. Beyond that, an additional eight IOL articles were attributed to the People’s Daily and Xinhua, sharing positive Chinese stories on topics unrelated to geopolitics in Hainan, Shaanxi, Sichuan, two in Guangxi, two in Qinghai, and Kenya. IOL brands itself as “one of South Africa’s leading news and information websites,” and Chinese state entities reportedly own 20 percent of the outlet.
In the South-Africa-based African News Agency, all but three of the more than 130 articles about China published since last Wednesday were taken from Xinhua, and among them 29 covered Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. These articles relayed statements by other governments, the “international community,” foreign political parties and social organizations, foreign “experts,” foreign envoys to China, UN officials, Chinese political figures, Chinese military figures, Chinese officials and spokespersons, and Xinhua commentaries, all criticizing Pelosi’s visit and reaffirming China’s territorial claim over Taiwan.
Updated on November 21, 2023 to clarify the status of Africa-China Review.