Interview: Joshua Kurlantzick on Beijing’s Global Media Offensive

Surveys have shown that Xi Jinping’s hardline foreign policy is increasingly unpopular abroad. Given the CCP’s mixed success using soft power to repair China’s image, party propagandists have increasingly resorted to sharper global-influence operations, often via foreign media. Pro-CCP narratives are propagated through the media, particularly on sensitive topics such as former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. These narratives reveal that the media is a major component of China’s influence operations abroad. Understanding how the CCP leverages the media is crucial to assessing both China’s international appeal and the resilience of other countries’ information ecosystems. 

CDT has extensively covered Chinese media engagement in the international arena, particularly in the Global South. In the Pacific Islands, Chinese delegations have attempted to sideline local journalists in order to evade scrutiny. In the Horn of Africa, China has leveraged local media outlets to circulate positive narratives about Chinese conflict-mediation efforts and “palace diplomacy.” Across the African continent, Chinese media forums and other people-to-people exchanges have promoted collaboration between Chinese and African journalists. A combination of carrots and sticks has accelerated the dissemination of Chinese state-media content (often falsely or misleadingly attributed) to local African media outlets. As China prepares for increasing confrontation abroad during Xi’s third term, the CCP is deploying a growing number of resources and tactics to shape its global image through the media.

Joining CDT to discuss this topic is Joshua Kurlantzick, author of the recently published Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He focuses on China’s approach to soft and sharp power, including state-backed media, and previously worked as a correspondent in Southeast Asia. Our interview explores the history of China’s influence campaigns, the features that make other countries vulnerable, the power of localization and content-sharing agreements, Xi Jinping’s priorities, and how to ethically report on these issues. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity. 

China Digital Times (CDT): How has your background in journalism informed the way you approach analysis of the Chinese government’s foreign influence operations via the media?

Joshua Kurlantzick (JK): My background as a journalist definitely helped me find sources for the project. That included finding sources who had worked for Chinese state media, as well as a wide range of journalists who had interacted with Chinese state media over the years and signed content-sharing agreements with them. I think it also made it easier for me to understand some of the appeal of some Chinese media, like Xinhua, since I knew that the journalism job market was and has been terrible, and that many publications are struggling around the world. As a result, many, particularly in developing countries, are turning to Xinhua as a viable newswire, for news, since Xinhua is cheaper than other, more credible wires like the AP or Reuters, etc.—and sometimes Xinhua is free. Also, as a journalist I knew a fair amount about the Freedom of Information process in the U.S., which helped me in my research. 

CDT: You describe how the Chinese government’s “charm offensive” in the 1990s and 2000s provided a blueprint for its modern global influence efforts. What went wrong in the earlier campaign, and what lessons does that provide for assessing the current one?

JK: I think what went wrong with the earlier “charm offensive,” which I wrote about in an earlier book, was that China moved away from its idea of itself as a power that did not interfere in other states’ affairs, which is clearly untrue now. That undermined its earlier charm offensive. The growing authoritarianism in China also badly undermined the charm offensive, since it killed most of China’s soft power emanating from the Chinese private sector, which has been decimated by Xi’s increasing authoritarianism and statism—even to the point of undermining China’s most globally successful private-sector firms. And China just got bigger, more powerful, and more assertive regionally, and it became harder for it to wield soft power, while it was also scaring its neighbors with its diplomacy and military activity.

CDT: How does democratic backsliding provide opportunities for influence operations, notably through sharp power?

JK: Democratic backsliding provides opportunities for China and other authoritarian states to wield sharp power, since democracies are focused on their own internal problems, and many do not have the resources or time to deal with sharp power and other types of influence activities. 

CDT: What patterns appear to make countries particularly vulnerable to influence operations through the media? Are there certain regions that stand out above others?

JK: What makes countries vulnerable to influence operations are places that have not adopted tough laws on foreign investment in media and information sectors, as well as tough laws (like Australia, Singapore, or the U.S. has, or like Europe is considering) on foreign interference in politics in those countries. In addition, countries can be vulnerable to influence operations when they lack independent media that could expose influence operations; Taiwanese and U.S. and Canadian and Australian independent media proved critical in exposing alleged influence operations. Also, countries are vulnerable if their citizens have low levels of digital literacy, and if there is limited or no independent Chinese-language press.

CDT: Among all of the forms of influence in foreign media ecosystems, which do you feel is the least understood and the most effective in Western countries? How about for countries in the Global South?

JK: Among developing countries, Xinhua has been probably the most effective media influence tactic for Beijing, since many media outlets in developing countries are picking up Xinhua and using it as a normal newswire, even though it is owned by Beijing. Rich democracies have not yet used Xinhua much in this way. In richer democracies, probably the most effective tools have been Beijing’s near-total control of Chinese-language media in most rich countries, as well as non-media influence tactics like gaining control of student groups, and some diaspora community organizations.

CDT: Content-sharing agreements between local media outlets and Chinese state media such as Xinhua have proven attractive for local outlets, especially those unable to afford Western newswires. How can these local outlets and their readers insulate themselves from Xinhua content-sharing agreements and the potentially-skewed information that is subsequently disseminated?

JK: I don’t think they can insulate their readers, if they are signing these content-sharing deals with Xinhua, which is only going to speed up in the future. They do however need to clearly label that the content comes from Xinhua, which often does not happen in outlets in developing countries, and such labeling might allow some readers to understand that the content is coming from Xinhua, and ask questions about Xinhua’s fairness in covering issues related to China.

CDT: What was your most surprising finding in the course of writing this book?

JK: I think I entered the project expecting to find that China had been highly successful in its influence offensive around the world and the most surprising result was finding that Beijing actually had not been that successful—that it had had very mixed success with many of its efforts.

CDT: Chinese state media operating abroad have found it difficult to overcome the tension between their need to attract local readers by producing cutting-edge stories on sensitive topics, and their need to please bosses back in Beijing by producing sterilized content that strictly adheres to the Party line. How do you view the evolution of their efforts to overcome this tension? Are there ways in which these outlets have managed to succeed in achieving both goals, or may do so in the future?

JK: I don’t think most Chinese state media have overcome this tension, although they have a huge number of reporters and have done a decent job at producing a great deal of local content, which then gets recycled back into the local press. This is especially true in developing regions, where they produce so much locally-relevant content that it does sometimes get picked up by local press, although they still have to be careful not to alienate Beijing, which can make their stories more boring and more turgid than necessary.

CDT: From Xi Jinping’s perspective, which forms of Chinese soft power or sharp power in the media realm are most important, and therefore likely to be expanded over the next five years?

JK: I think Xi was, before zero-COVID, focused on expanding the big state-media outlets, using the United Front to drastically expand China’s sharp power efforts, and advertising China’s model of development and governance—he is really the first Chinese leader since Mao to advertise that China has a model of development and governance that could challenge liberal democracy. But right now, I think Xi is just trying to hold on at home and abroad. China’s image ratings are disastrous abroad, in leading liberal democracies and even in many countries in Asia. Xi’s partnership with Vladimir Putin is a disaster. Xi has to focus on the dramatic shift away from zero-COVID and what that will mean for China, and also hope it doesn’t result in widespread, mass death, especially among the elderly, and so basically he is mostly consumed right now with domestic problems—which he needs to solve if China is going to wield the type of global influence it desires.

CDT: How should the global media report on influence operations in a way that conveys the gravity of the threats involved without inflaming xenophobia and racism against the Chinese diaspora and people of Chinese descent?

JK: The global media should report on influence operations stemming from the Chinese state, the CCP, the United Front, etc., without in any way suggesting that these operations are necessarily supported by people of Chinese descent. After all, it is people of Chinese descent who are often the targets of such operations, from Taiwan to Canada to the United States to Southeast Asia.

CDT: What scholars and other sources do you recommend our readers consult to learn more about China’s global media initiatives and to hear impacted communities’ perspectives on this topic?

JK: I would strongly recommend books on China by Susan Shirk (about China’s strengths and weaknesses), Maria Repnikova (about China’s soft power), and a forthcoming book by Vivien Marsh about CGTN, the BBC, and China’s global media in general. 

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