This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
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Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World” is available now from Oxford University Press. Radio Free Asia sat down with him this week to discuss its main takeaways. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: Your book examines China’s attempts at media influence, but I found it interesting that you argue that many of the attempts by Beijing to have influence through media have so far more or less failed and that many of the efforts have, in the end, been hamfisted. So why have you written this book now?
Joshua Kurlantzick: This book started in 2017. At that time, I thought I would capture an emerging Chinese media information and disinformation effort and an attempt by Xi Jinping to promote China’s model of authoritarian capitalism by spending massive amounts on state media to influence the domestic politics of other countries, and I expected to find a high degree of success.
That was kind of my working thesis from what I had seen in Taiwan, Malaysia and a few other places. Xi Jinping was also becoming more authoritarian and was becoming the first Chinese leader to promote the idea that China had its own model for development, and there had been some huge investments made in CGTN, Xinhua and China Radio International, which are their global state media outlets.
So actually my thesis originally was they had invested all this money, had a coherent plan and had some initial successes, so they were going to become a very influential actor. After five years of doing this, though, a number of things happened. There was the zero-COVID policy, which China handled terribly, and which has exploded the flaws of their authoritarian system. And there was China’s support for Russia, which has cost them a huge amount of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, where they had built up a lot of influence.
Then there was China menacing Taiwan. But overall I just found that the main state media outlets – other than Xinhua – had been completely ineffective. And now they’re totally ineffective because part of what they were selling was the appeal of China’s model, and people around the world can see that that’s kind of failing.
RFA: In what ways has Xinhua proved more successful?
JK: So in the book I talk about how China wanted CGTN to be like Al Jazeera. You wouldn’t trust Al Jazeera’s reporting on Qatar, and you might not trust Al Jazeera’s reporting on some other states that Qatar has had disputes with, but in general, in many parts of the world, like Southeast Asia for example, its reporting is excellent. But it just wasn’t possible for China to do this. Where they’ve had more success is getting newspapers around Asia to pick up Xinhua.
They couldn’t get CGTN to be like Al Jazeera because no one really cares about anything to do with Qatar – except for right now with the World Cup – because it’s a small petro state. But by contrast it’s very hard for any Chinese reporter from these state outlets to report on anything and not have it tied back to China. Restrictions put in place by the U.S., U.K. and other places have also just basically killed those state media outlets’ ability to have influence anywhere.
Xinhua is a little different for several reasons.
Xinhua has been much more successful in signing content-sharing deals with a lot of news wires all over Southeast Asia, including major news wires in Europe, news wires in Africa and others. That’s partly because Xinhua often offers news copy that is of decent quality. It’s wire copy, it does not look bad to a lot of editors, and it’s not that different necessarily than the Associated Press or Bloomberg, because wire copy is very standardized.
RFA: How is that translating into influence?
JK: Xinhua is often offered cheap or for free – particularly to developing countries – and so and so you have a lot of Xinhua content being picked up in a number of countries. In the book, I talk about Thailand and how a lot of Thai outlets who are hemorrhaging money have increasingly used Xinhua content for stories. Many Thai independent reporters see that their coverage of China has been shifted by the fact that they’re using Xinhua so much for their wire copy.
They’re translating Xinhua into the Thai press – and Xinhua may actually do some of the translating themselves – and so they are just running Xinhua stories about a lot of things about China or related to China. Whereas in the past they might have run Reuters or the AP. And it’s more subtle: Xinhua is more sophisticated in how they operate, simply because it’s a wire service and wire copy is “drier.”
I think more and more outlets are going to use Xinhua, because the journalism market is still continuing to be terrible as it has been for 20 years. Good journalism is being put out, but trying to get a job as a reporter in a lot of places is very hard, so editors are going to be tempted to use a free news wire, particularly in developing countries.
But also, if you turn on your TV, you have to scroll through the channels to watch CGTN. So you have to make a choice to watch it. But Xinhua is different: It just appears in many news outlets online and in print around the world. It’s just there, the same way as when you’re scrolling through The Washington Post and there are stories by their reporters, but also there’s plenty of stories like AP stories.
RFA: So what’s the end goal for China here?
JK: The China Daily has a content sharing agreement with a bunch of quality English dailies throughout Asia. And they also have these pernicious advertorials called China Watch, which has taken up a huge percentage of their budget for foreign activities in the United States. They’re now the biggest spender on foreign influence activities in the United States. They put these China Watch inserts in all sorts of elite publications – the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Telegraph – that are taken straight from China Daily.
What’s their ultimate goal here? I mean, I think the ultimate original goal was that Xi Jinping and China believed the entire narrative about the world, let alone just China was dominated by Western news outlets, and they were setting the tone and the framework of coverage about China as well as everything else. And Xi Jinping wanted to have greater control over global narratives – what they call “discourse power” – so that China could get its own views into that global sphere, make its own points about China and not let the Western liberal democracies dominate the “discourse power.”
So that was their goal, but I don’t think they succeeded at that. They certainly have really undermined themselves in the last three years with economic coercion, Wolf Warrior diplomacy and zero COVID, and their public image around the world is just in tatters.
RFA: Are they doing anything to rectify their failures?
JK: I think that’s a good question. In terms of economic coercion, they have backed off in some places a little bit, with Xi Jinping being a little nicer with Australia, for example. Xi Jinping also said he wanted to roll back Wolf Warrior diplomacy a bit and made a speech a couple of years ago when it wasn’t really working. But he hasn’t really followed through on doing anything about it, and instead he’s promoted Wolf Warrior diplomats throughout the foreign service.
In terms of the media, I expect them to deemphasize some of the CGTN efforts, as that’s not really working and they have already deemphasized that a bit. I mean, they won’t say this, but most of the foreign journalists have quit in a lot of places, like in the U.S. where they don’t want to be labeled Chinese state media as agents. It’s just not something you want on your resume as a journalist.
Another success I didn’t bring up earlier is that Chinese state companies and their proxies have bought up almost all the Chinese language media around the world. Most of the Chinese language media in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Southeast Asia and Europe is now owned by mainland Chinese owners, and so I expect them to expand on that and try to kill the rest of the independent Chinese media as much as they can, even if they can’t kill everything.
RFA: What can the world’s liberal democracies do to try and counter China’s efforts to exert more media influence?
JK: In the book, I suggest several things. One is that digital literacy needs to be improved. That’s one of the reasons why Taiwan has been effective at rebutting, years and years of Chinese control of some aspects of their media, as well as disinformation. Taiwan has a very good digital literacy training program for its citizens.
Secondly, stricter scrutiny needs to be applied to foreign investment by people from any foreign country or major companies from any foreign country in the media and information sector. In the past, strict scrutiny was applied in the U.S. to major foreign investments in certain sectors but those sectors tended to be the ones that could be easily applied to military and national security realms.
But I think many countries are beginning to realize that the media and information sectors are also just as important as a point of defense against other countries’ influence. So commissions that scrutinize foreign investments should scrutinize investment in media.
Third, the U.S. and other liberal democracies need to spend a lot more on supporting independent media in other countries, which has been critical to exposing Chinese influence tactics, particularly in Southeast Asia. I’m going to plug RFA here, but I think both the Voice of America and RFA are critical tools in providing independent sources of information, particularly RFA in local languages. The U.S. Congress needs to continue to commit significant amounts of money to them and ensure they’re completely insulated from politics.
Finally, liberal democracies just need to get their house in better order and improve their public image. Otherwise, there’s just no real contrast to the model being offered to China’s mode.