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Pushing Back Against China’s Media Offensive

When I was a wee little thing, I sniffed at the idea of being a journalist, reasoning that I would rather make the news than report it.

After a while in this job, though, I realized that if I didn’t report something, it wasn’t news. No wonder, then, that governments focus on controlling the media and ensuring that their citizens — and the world — hear the story that they want told.

Xi Jinping gets it. Early in his tenure as China’s supreme leader, he called for greater “innovation” in China’s external communication, demanding that the media “tell China’s story well.” His country “must meticulously and properly conduct external propaganda, innovating external propaganda methods, working hard to create new concepts, new categories and new expressions that integrate the Chinese and the foreign, telling China’s story well, communicating China’s voice well.”

China’s desire to reshape the global media landscape is both understandable and laudable. It doesn’t make sense to trust a media ecosystem created and dominated by countries and cultures that are skeptical of, if not hostile to, and certainly patronizing toward your own story. The expansion of China’s media conglomerates, Xinhua and the China Media Group (which controls radio and TV), makes perfect sense as China’s global presence spreads, its audience grows and its views are of increasing relevance.

But it’s one thing to promote a preferred narrative and quite another to use coercion to shape and suppress critical reporting or to deceive audiences with ostensibly “neutral” analysis that is anything but.

China’s efforts to control the narrative have been explained and exposed in studies from Freedom House and the Stanford Internet Observatory, among others. Joshua Kurlantzick, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, covers the same ground in a more colorful way in his book, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive,” reviewed in The Japan Times in February.

Last week, The Mercator Institute for China Studies published its report, “Image Control: How China Struggles for Discourse Power.” It’s a Europe-centered analysis on the problem (as befits a Berlin think tank). Like all of MERICS’ work, it’s a pithy take on China’s effort, concise and compelling. It identifies four types of actions that the Chinese Communist Party uses to manage global public opinion: enhance and correct; mobilize and amplify; erase and deter; and crop and filter.

They are used to advance three themes that MERICS identified as guiding Chinese thinking. First, Beijing’s “long-term vision is to ensure that fewer and fewer critical viewpoints and information enter the public debate.” Second, the CCP “perceives it has the right to define what people discuss about China and how they discuss it.” And third, the party’s “broader ambition is to guide global public opinion — ultimately Beijing wants to be the dominant source of information about China, replacing undesired original foreign media reporting.”

The day after that study was released, the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) — which is legally tasked with countering foreign disinformation and propaganda — published a special report on China’s efforts “to reshape the global information environment.” It too is a compelling read (governments and think tanks are getting much better at marketing and design) and its conclusions echo those of the others.

After acknowledging that “every country should have the ability to tell its story to the world,” the authors add that a preferred narrative “should be based on facts and rise and fall on its own merits.” Beijing, it argues, uses “propaganda, disinformation and censorship” to shape the international information environment.

The GEC report warns of Chinese attempts to leverage propaganda and censorship, maximizing the distribution of pro-CCP content to global audiences through overt (state media outlets) and covert (“laundering official commentary”) means. The former is well established and somewhat traditional, with regular sources such as Xinhua complemented by the provision of free video and TV scripts to foreign media groups, diplomatic engagement with media, partnership deals and sponsorship of online influencers.

The covert stuff recalls Cold War tactics, making up sources and hiding funding. As one example, the GEC report calls out China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for using “a manufactured persona named Yi Fan, often credited as a ‘Beijing-based international affairs commentator,’ to deceptively promote pro-Beijing views on a wide variety of topics and regions.”

Censorship beyond China’s borders is promoted through the use of trolls, bots and coordinated campaigns to either boost pro-China content or drown out critical voices. Communications infrastructure can also be compromised to expand or mute discussions. For example, Lithuania’s National Cyber Security Center discovered that Xiaomi phones had settings that allow censorship of certain phrases. And while they were inactive in handsets in Europe, they could be activated remotely. Garden-variety coercion — threats, boycotts, sanctions — is a tool of increasingly frequent resort.

The State Department report also warns of efforts to promote digital authoritarianism. This too is accomplished through old means and new. There is the courting of journalists and diplomats to inculcate new norms of digital governance, responsible journalism and the use of aggressive diplomacy in international standard-setting organizations. New tactics include the export of technologies for surveillance, control and censorship.

Central to China’s global media campaign is the aggressive use of new technologies to target and spread messages, silence critics and create a digital infrastructure that is more easily controlled by governments. Artificial intelligence is growing smarter by mining terabytes of information generated daily. That information is used to identify and “surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in (China’s) favor.”

The most worrisome development is the embedding of censorship capabilities in the digital infrastructure that is the essence of “smart cities.” As the GEC explains, “on paper, these systems promise to make life more convenient by fusing ubiquitous data gathering in urban environments with advanced machine processing capabilities. These same systems can also facilitate pervasive invasions of privacy and pose national security risks.”

The GEC report is a good thing — if it is the start of a campaign to push back against China’s aggressive messaging and not the end of the effort. The West has been hobbled in the competition of ideas with China first by a failure to recognize Beijing’s focus on and success in spreading its narrative. That is being addressed through refinement of the GEC mission in 2019 and creation of the Foreign Malign Influence Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2022. Success demands, however, that both work closely with partners and allies to present a united front against disinformation. Japan knows well the stakes following the Chinese campaign to shape debate over the discharge of wastewater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

A second powerful constraint is the belief that “we are the good guys” and that the facts speak for themselves. The United States has assumed that its superiority — economic, political, cultural — in any geopolitical competition is self-evident and there is no need to show that it offers better answers to problems that China says it can solve. The U.S. may be the better choice but it must be proven. Especially today, when the Chinese government is doing much to materially improve the lives of its citizens and those similarly situated around the world. That is real news, no matter who is reporting.

Source: The Japan Times