Many of the individuals who consume news around the world have no idea that China is involved in crafting much of the messaging they are seeing on a daily basis. Its silent media war grows stronger each month. Eventually, it will morph into something far more visible and pronounced, but by then, much of the world will already have been conditioned to accept Beijing’s view of the world.

 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was, from its inception, intended to be an extension of China’s soft power, whether by constructing infrastructure projects, strengthening bilateral ties, or building stronger bilateral bonds through student exchanges and disease prevention programs. As time has progressed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to realize that the dispersal of soft power has texture and depth, which cannot simply be tossed to a recipient nation without taking into account local context or accounting for inevitable shifts in public opinion—something Beijing has not exactly been accustomed to doing since the CCP’s inception.

As a result of the many painful lessons it has learned along the way, Beijing has sought to better define the BRI’s objectives and methods, attempting to rebrand the Initiative into a hybrid of aid disbursement, infrastructure promotion, and social and environmental awareness. The reboot is designed to minimize the CCP’s reputation risk, which hadn’t appeared to mean very much to Beijing when it launched the BRI in 2013, but came to represent one of the most important aspects of the entire program.

By refocusing on the Initiative’s original objectives, the CCP quietly pivoted away from financing megaprojects and decided to devote more resources toward influencing political, media, and academic institutions abroad. As China’s economy slowed toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, and was then was brought to its knees by the Covid-19 virus in 2020, the perceived benefits of creating goodwill through the execution of soft power became more appealing to Beijing, consistent with the reduction in financial resources available to invest in the largest infrastructure projects.

Beijing expanded its ability to influence societies around the world through its exercise of soft power with potentially profound implications for Chinese foreign policy through its growing influence in the Western press. China’s state-run media companies have expanded their integration with Western news outlets with some surprisingly significant impacts. The CCP rapidly expanded its efforts to influence discussion about China beyond its borders to attempt to suppress criticism of the Chinese government and mould international media to refer to China in a positive light.

Like other powerful countries (including, first and foremost, of course, the US), China utilizes aid, cultural programming, and the media to boost its global image. But Beijing’s current influence offensive is on a much greater scale. It can more easily shape global narratives through state media that reaches hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is pouring money into such outlets as the China Global Television Network, turning them into major global media players, as Russia did with RT and Sputnik. Chinese social media and messaging platforms have also spread globally, making it easier for Beijing to push Xinhua and other state-run platforms on to more social media users outside China.

Pro-China business owners are donating funds to influence research institutes, universities, and think tanks abroad. China’s Confucius Institute project, run by the Ministry of Education, helps set up Chinese language and culture studies programs at universities around the world, including many in the US. While the project has been successful in some countries, there has been a backlash against it in other countries, where they are seen as an attempt to enhance the influence of the CCP. Where they have been successful, some of the Institutes have not only promoted the Chinese language and cultural studies, but have created a climate of self-censorship at some universities around issues deemed sensitive to Beijing.

Many countries spend money projecting soft power in a similar manner. The challenge is to differentiate between benign types of cultural and political promotion versus more direct and potentially meddlesome influence-peddling and interference. While many Western intelligence agencies are focused on Russia’s information warfare, comparatively few of them have devoted a similar scale of resources to understand China’s influence operations and how the country is projecting power abroad. One could easily argue that Beijing’s influence operations are far more important, however, given that this is China’s century.

While Western media outlets were busy beaming visions of the Hong Kong protests to the rest of the world in 2019, China was silently working behind the scenes to craft an alternative narrative consistent with the alternative world order it is in the process of creating. That narrative painted a picture of a China that is strong, selfless, and wants nothing other than to live in a harmonious world. To Beijing, Hong Kong’s freedom fighters are little more than a bunch of trouble-makers and it is working hard to get the world’s media to conform to its desired narrative. It is trying to do the same as it rolls out its highly controversial new national security law in Hong Kong in 2020.

Many of the individuals who consume news around the world have no idea that China is involved in crafting much of the messaging they are seeing on a daily basis. Its silent media war grows stronger each month. Eventually, it will morph into something far more visible and pronounced, but by then, much of the world will already have been conditioned to accept Beijing’s view of the world.

Beijing’s influence campaign has morphed into a dizzying array of state-backed organizations taking ever more aggressive steps to control the nature and content of the conversation occurring about China around the world. The Chinese government created such bodies as the Belt and Road Media Cooperation Union and the Belt and Road News Alliance to engage with foreign media companies.

Beijing has also funded its own media ventures abroad, pushing pro-China news stories, particularly in Africa, where Chinese state media companies have in some cases overtaken local competitors and crowding out reporting from independent outlets. Chinese influence in Africa has been considered a national security threat to the US, particularly given that 39 of the 54 African nations are BRI member states.

The BRI has, at its core, always been about China’s and Xi’s legacy. As China has been forced to face the limits of its ambition and maneuver through the volatile global economic, political, and social landscape, it has come to the realization that the BRI may prove costlier and riskier than other methods of projecting its soft power. That has not prevented it from pursuing—even doubling down on—the BRI, in conjunction with a geopolitical strategy consistent with it.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book The Chinese Vortex: The Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on the World.