As part of Beijing’s attempt to exert influence in foreign affairs, its state-run media companies are expanding their integration with Western news outlets.
Beijing is expanding its soft power influence in a range of ways, none more important than its growing influence in the Western press. As part of Beijing’s attempt to exert influence in foreign affairs, its state-run media companies are expanding their integration with Western news outlets. The CCP has 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. In 2018, Xinhua, China’s largest state-run news agency, announced that it was expanding cooperation with the US news service The Associated Press (AP), declaring that the two news agencies had established broad cooperation in such areas as new media, economic information, and the application of AI.
At the time, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned that Xinhua was rapidly expanding globally in an effort to discredit Western media outlets. The AP maintained, in response to a Congressional inquiry on the scope of the agreement between AP and Xinhua, that Xinhua would not influence its reporting or have access to sensitive information in AP’s possession. In the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, no US media outlet would subsequently agree to partner up with RT or Sputnik. Some US members of Congress were of the view that Beijing’s influence operations inside the US represented a similar threat.
Like other powerful countries (including, first and foremost, of course, the US), China utilises aid, cultural programming, and the media to boost its global image. But for Beijing, the current influence offensive is on a much greater scale. Beijing 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.
Beijing is also seeking to shape media coverage of China by using state-owned media to train foreign journalists, especially from developing countries, inviting reporters from Southeast Asia to Latin America to visit China to participate in workshops and courses that offer an officially sanctioned view of Chinese foreign and economic policies. Recent purchases of local media outlets in South Africa, for example, by pro-China business tycoons are providing Beijing with direct access to target markets.
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. It appears to have been successful not only in promoting language and cultural studies but also in creating a climate of self-censorship at many universities around issues deemed sensitive to Beijing. A 2017 report concluded that the arrival of more than 100 Confucius Institutes in the US had led schools to self-censor programming about Taiwan, Tibet, and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
More pro-Beijing think tanks are also being created all over the world, some directly funded by the government and others endowed by pro-Beijing businesses. Nowhere has China been more successful in swaying research institutions and business organisations than in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, the Chinese embassy has established close links to several prominent business and cultural organisations that, over the past decade, have become regular mouthpieces for Beijing’s policy objectives in the kingdom and around the region. The German government levied that charge against China in 2017, claiming that Beijing had used LinkedIn and other social media to target more than 10,000 of its citizens, including lawmakers and other government employees, posing as leaders of think tanks and headhunters, and offering all-expenses-paid trips to China and meetings with influential clients.
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 are presumably devoting a similar scale of resources to understand China’s influence operations and how the country is projecting its soft power abroad. One could easily argue that Beijing’s influence operations are far more important, given that this is China’s century.
In addition to punching above its weight in influence peddling, Beijing is also punching above its weight in science. Success in modern science requires institutions of higher education, capable researchers, and a lot of money. Since China has all the necessary ingredients, it is rapidly climbing the rankings of scientific achievement. Apart from its achievement on the dark side of the moon, Beijing has spent many billions of dollars to detect dark matter, make great advances in quantum communications, and become a leader in renewable energy and advanced materials. In 2018, Nikkei and Elsevier found that more scientific papers originated from China than from any other country in 23 of the 30 most active fields of study. While the quality of American research has been consistently higher, China is nipping at its heels.
The looming prospect of a dominant China in science alarms Western governments not only because of the new weaponry Beijing is in the process of developing, but because of the implications for how else it may be used—whether for repression at home, AI development, or purposes of spying. Science may end up changing China, and the world, in ways no one is anticipating, but for China to be all it can be in the scientific realm implies granting its scientists an unprecedented degree of freedom to be all that they can be. That implies that President Xi and the CCP will need to ease up on the reins of the scientific community in China. Are they capable of doing that? It remains to be seen, but President Xi has already proven himself to be masterful at adapting when needed to accommodate new realities and keep his vision of an omnipotent China on course. Based on his deft projection of China’s soft power, there is little reason to believe that he will not be successful in doing so.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book China Vision.