Freedom House Report Reveals Extent of Beijing’s Global Media Influence

Last week, the NGO Freedom House released a special report titled “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience.” The report analyzes the growth of the CCP’s global campaign to influence foreign media outlets and news consumers through a combination of traditional, covert, and coercive tactics. Examining the information landscapes of 30 different countries, researchers mapped both the extent of the Chinese government’s media influence and the responses of democratic societies, in order to assess the resilience of media independence in the countries surveyed. As the report demonstrates, the CCP is deeply invested in propagating its messages to international audiences and deploying an increasing number of resources to shape its global image. Here are some of the key findings of the Freedom House report, authored by Sarah Cook, Angeli Datt, Ellie Young, and BC Han:

The Chinese government has expanded its global media footprint. The intensity of Beijing’s media influence efforts was designated as High or Very High in 16 of the 30 countries examined in this study, which covers the period from January 2019 to December 2021. In 18 of the countries, the Chinese regime’s efforts increased over the course of those three years.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its proxies are using more sophisticated and coercive tactics to shape media narratives and suppress critical reporting. Mass distribution of Beijing-backed content via mainstream media, harassment and intimidation of outlets that publish news or opinions disfavored by the Chinese government, and the use of cyberbullying, fake social media accounts, and targeted disinformation campaigns are among the tactics that have been employed more widely since 2019.

[…] Inadequate government responses leave countries vulnerable or exacerbate the problem. Declines in press freedom and gaps in media regulations have reduced democratic resilience and created greater opportunities for future CCP media influence. In 23 countries, political leaders launched attacks on domestic media or exploited legitimate concerns about CCP influence to impose arbitrary restrictions, target critical outlets, or fuel xenophobic sentiment.

Democracies’ ability to counter CCP media influence is alarmingly uneven. Only half of the countries examined in this study achieved a rating of Resilient, while the remaining half were designated as Vulnerable. Taiwan faced the most intense CCP influence efforts, but it also mounted the strongest response, followed in both respects by the United States. Nigeria was deemed the most vulnerable to Beijing’s media influence campaigns. [Source]

Covering the report for VOA, Liam Scott described the lack of transparency and risks associated with content-sharing agreements between Chinese state media and foreign media outlets:

“Paid-for content often doesn’t undergo editorial scrutiny, and falsehoods or misleading information is published by local outlets which people trust,” Freedom House’s [Angeli] Datt told VOA.

This proliferation of content-sharing agreements is concerning to Idayat Hassan, the director of the pro-democracy research group the Centre for Democracy and Development, in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

“Nigerians end up consuming mostly polluted information in an era of information disorder,” Hassan said, because it can be easier for Nigerian outlets to just repost articles from Chinese outlets like Xinhua. [Source]

CDT has also documented many of the CCP’s global media-influence tactics that were described in the Freedom House report, particularly attempts to embed Chinese state-media content in news outlets around the world. Over the past year, attributed and unattributed Chinese state-media content has cropped up in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Ethiopia, South Africa, and the Pacific Islands. China-Africa media scholar Emeka Umejei spoke with CDT about these forms of influence and China’s often unequal relationship with African media. In Francophone Africa and beyond, people-to-people exchanges and foreign influencers have been vital channels through which the CCP spreads desired content abroad. Russian state media has also played a significant role in both hosting and supplying Chinese state-media content. 

External propaganda continues to be both an important mission for Chinese state media and a method that allows the CCP to increase its global influence. In the latest Discourse Power newsletter, Tuvia Gering highlighted a recent article by Xinhua’s editor-in-chief Fu Hua, who stated that for both its domestic and foreign coverage, the “primary political task of Xinhua News Agency is to do a good job of propagating General Secretary Xi Jinping and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era”:

“Faced with a complex international public opinion environment, Xinhua News Agency has taken an important first step to improve its international communication capability by strengthening its overseas social media accounts.

“We promptly clarify and retort to attacks and smears involving our core interests; “like pearls, big and small, falling on a platter of jade” 大珠小珠落玉盘, we have been able to turn up the “volume of China” in the international public opinion arena.

[…] “Accelerate the development of the Chinese discourse and narrative systems. Create new concepts, dimensions, and expressions that merge between the Chinese and the foreign.

“Focus on the facts, be logical, speak justice, and vividly declare China’s position, Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions, so as to promote a credible 可信, lovable 可爱, and respectable 可敬 image of China. [Source]

One recurring influence tactic used by the CCP is leveraging Western social media platforms to reach global audiences. On Tuesday, Fanny Potkin, Eduardo Baptista, and Tony Munroe published a Reuters investigation on Chinese state media’s use of Twitter for promotional ads aimed at boosting China’s image:

A Reuters review of publicly available government tenders, budget documents and promoted tweets from 2020 to 2022 shows local authorities and Chinese Communist Party propaganda offices for cities, provinces and even districts across the country have flocked to Twitter to buy ads.

The promotions, often outsourced by local governments to state media, pitched local attractions, as well as cultural and economic achievements, to an international audience, and were permitted under an exemption to Twitter’s ban on state-media advertising.

[…] “Life is always unusually brilliant because we are in Wuhan,” one promoted tweet from the @Visit_Wuhan account in July 2021 read, part of a 2 million yuan ($289,000) government tender. [Source]

Describing the Freedom House report, Deutsche Welle highlighted ways in which journalists, governments, and civil society can defend against the array of Beijing’s media influence tactics in democracies

“We call for media outlets to discontinue content sharing agreements, but if they do have them to be very transparent about them,” says [Freedom House’s Angeli] Datt.

“We also call for media to be more transparent with any pressure or intimidation they receive.” 

Politicians also need to stop targeting journalists in their own country for political gains.

“One thing we call for governments to do, which is really within their remit to do, is to stop domestic attacks on independent media and civil society,” says Datt. “Media and civil society form the strongest backbone of resilience to Beijing’s efforts to influence the media.” [Source]


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