New Reports on China’s International Media Strategy

Chinese state media’s external-facing content has become increasingly known for its aggressive stance towards Western geopolitical rivals and its ideological consistency under centralized leadership. Recent reports about Chinese state media, as well as reports from Chinese state media, emphasize this trend and demonstrate how it plays into Beijing’s efforts to exert international discourse power. 

On Thursday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a report titled “America’s Coercive Diplomacy and Its Harm.” The report states that it “aims to expose the evil deeds of US coercive diplomacy in the world and make the international community better understand the hegemonic and bullying nature of US diplomacy, and the serious damages caused by US actions to the development of all countries, regional stability and world peace.” Manoj Kewalramani from Tracking People’s Daily provided a summary of the main sections and points of the report:

First, the hegemony of the dollar “is an important foundation for US economic coercion.” In this bit, the report talks about sanctions, “cutting off other countries’ dollar supply and trading channels,” “long-arm jurisdiction” and trade control measures like “restrictions on imports and exports, imposition of tariffs, elimination of subsidies and quotas” and use of “lists to fit different purposes and targets, including lists of specially designated nationals, lists of entities, unverified lists, lists of military end users, and lists of industry sanctions.”

Second, democracy promotion and use of human rights “to carry out political coercion and interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Third, use of the US military.

Fourth, the use of “soft powers of culture and science and technology” as “covert means for the US to engage in ideological infiltration and coercive diplomacy.” This includes the use of the media, Hollywood, non-profits, etc. For instance, “US intelligence agencies have established a large number of ‘infiltration organizations’ around the world. Various foundations and non-governmental organizations have become ‘middlemen’ in exporting American values and ‘pioneers’ in cultural infiltration. The National Endowment for Democracy, the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other American ‘infiltration organizations’ and institutions have promoted American cultural and political views to other countries through financial support, training, publication and conference, to export American values and ideology to the world, and to pursue cultural hegemony.” [Source]

The report was amplified to foreign audiences by Chinese state media outlets. Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, Global Times, and People’s Daily all ran stories on the report. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin gave a lengthy endorsement of the report in his Friday press conference. On Twitter, the report was shared by not only statemedia accounts but also by Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying and Chinese diplomatic accounts in Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, Canada, Sweden, Latvia, France, the U.K., and the U.N.

This coordinated surge in combative coverage is a change under Xi Jinping’s tenure. In a blog post for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, researcher and former long-serving BBC international news journalist Vivien Marsh reflected on how China’s English-language state-media news has evolved over time to become more centralized and aggressive in its messaging:

The relaunch of CCTV-News as CGTN (China Global Television Network) on the last day of 2016 brought about a deliberate change of tone. If CCTV-News was the product of Hu Jintao’s ‘soft power’ China, CGTN reflected the more assertive, uncompromising era of Xi Jinping in which the media’s role was to ‘have the Party as its family name’. CGTN did not abandon soft power but added sharp power to its mix, including the deliberate sowing of doubt in Western news reports and a muscular use of the West’s open social media platforms to proclaim Beijing’s views. Instead of ignoring Western accounts of the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as was normal for Chinese media, CGTN tackled them head-on. It used news features, documentaries and YouTube videos to praise Beijing’s uncompromising anti-terrorism measures and its ‘re-education’ of disadvantaged minorities. The channel highlighted Western narratives in order to deride them.

[…] In the push-pull between CGTN’s news staff and a new shoal of managers, ‘small acts of journalism’ in the channel’s China news appear to have been snuffed out. Nowadays the stars of the network are, increasingly, those who proclaim the Party line. This is a tragedy for talented Chinese journalists, and for many foreigners who joined the channel to do a professional job on an alternative agenda. There is still evidence of robust and credible reporting by CGTN on matters that do not directly involve Beijing, but news about China itself is the channel’s Achilles heel.

[…] The Chinese state does not need to be loved, it now appears – just to be heard and seen. [Source]

CCTV is a textbook example of projecting narratives without necessarily seeking to win over audiences. As Phil Cunningham documents in his CCTV Follies substack, CCTV’s news broadcast “Xinwen Lianbo” typically ends each segment by portraying havoc in the U.S. and other Western countries, while showing daily, glorifying footage of Russian military attacks in Ukraine. China’s “fight” reaction to the narrative battle over the war has only intensified since the invasion, and Chinese state media have led the charge.

Personnel changes also point to a future tightening of state media’s external communication strategy. This week, China announced that Cao Shumin will lead the country’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA). Cao was previously deputy director of the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, tasked with censoring and managing content on the Chinese internet. She will now concurrently serve as a deputy minister of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. China Media Project described the global focus of the NRTA’s mission, and Cao’s ideological credentials:

A ministry-level agency directly under the CPD charged with overseeing state-run enterprises in film and broadcasting, the NRTA now also plays a much wider role in external communication activities through these media groups as well as through various subsidiaries and exchanges.

The NRTA was created in 2018 amid the same wave of mergers that resulted in the China Media Group. It has funded and promoted numerous film and documentary projects intended for external propaganda, many of these distributed through partnerships with global media companies. The Chinese Association for Radio, Film and TV Exchanges (中华广播影视交流协会), or CARFTE, is a unit under the NRTA often pursuing co-productions on documentaries overseas.

[…] In a November 2021 article on page 9 of the CCP’s official People’s Daily, Cao wrote about the importance of “ideological and political education” (思想政治工作). In the piece, essentially an act of loyalty signaling to Xi Jinping, Cao described political indoctrination as a primary task in higher education that should be implemented “throughout the whole process of education and teaching.” [Source]

Last week, Björn Alpermann and Michael Malzer published an article in the journal Modern China, titled “‘In Other News’: China’s International Media Strategy on Xinjiang—CGTN and New China TV on YouTube.” They describe it as the first comprehensive, systematic analysis of Chinese state media’s handling of the Xinjiang human rights crisis. The article assesses the types of discourse used to defend and shape China’s international image, and highlights the growing sophistication of state media messages over time:

[A]s our quantitative analysis demonstrates, Chinese state media use YouTube to methodically disseminate mostly positive depictions of Xinjiang, while directly countering criticism has been the primary mode only during heightened episodes of contention. Since July 2020 in particular, they scaled back the terror narrative and the showing of atrocities committed in China and tremendously expanded the development narrative as well as culture and nature broadcasts. Thus Chinese state media are more productive in spinning their own yarns than refuting accusations directly.

[…Our analysis] finds that the media messages and forms of delivery have become more variegated and sophisticated over time. Within the development narrative we highlight the recently introduced genre of personal development stories as a major tactical innovation to increase persuasive power. This has even spilled over into the usually staid and statistics-laden white papers themselves. We also stress how different tropes, such as women’s liberation, expected to hold sway among international audiences, are woven into the fabric of the development narrative. The culture- and history-related narratives clearly serve political ends too, with their emphasis on long-term territorial integrity, multiethnicity, multireligiosity, and multiculturalism in Xinjiang. In addition, they present a glimpse of what the Chinese state envisions as goal of its current Xinjiang policies: a reformed, secular, modern lifestyle and a Uyghur identity centered on the Chinese nation-state in which ethnic difference is only expressed in nonthreatening (or nonprofane) ways, such as different food preferences. This is indeed “social re-engineering of Uyghur identity” (Smith Finley, 2019: 10), as critics allege, however benign may be the outcome presented in official propaganda videos. [Source]

Africa is one target region where CGTN and other Chinese state media have increased the dissemination of  assertive, anti-Western content. CGTN Africa’s homepage currently displays an article summarizing a report titled “The Record on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2022,” the latest edition of its traditional retort to the U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. It contains graphics highlighting gun violence, hate crimes, souring attitudes towards democracy, and other issues with American society and politics, largely drawn from American media, civil society, and official material. Discussing the influence of Chinese state media in Africa, Bob Wekesa and Paul Nantulya held a conversation last week at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, during which Wekesa highlighted the CCP’s model of total state control of information in the export of Chinese state-media content to Africa:

Chinese disinformation practices in Africa are not new and until recently have been explicitly described by the Chinese government as propaganda campaigns, according to leading media scholar Dr. Bob Wekesa with the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Speaking from his experiences working in Kenyan media houses and researching Chinese media, Dr. Wekesa defines China’s approach to the media sector as the “total state control of information.” This conceptualization views information as capital to be exploited by the state rather than a public good grounded in journalistic standards.

[…] Dr. Wekesa relates how many African media professionals seek to preserve their independence and journalistic standards as watchdogs of state officials, leading them to push back on Chinese influence in African media. He recommends that African media professionals continue to seek out educational opportunities to understand changing digital media ecosystems and form partnerships with journalistic enterprises of similar standards. [Source]

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