Democracies Imposing Media Restrictions Invite China’s Influence: US Expert

Josh Kurlantzick, who has extensively chronicled China’s use of soft and sharp power to expand media influence, says that if democratic leaders undermine the country's media, people will turn to problematic foreign media.

New Delhi: China has massively expanded its influence networks all over the world, especially under President Xi Jinping, but it has failed to create a globally respected media brand like Al Jazeera due to its chronic necessity to minutely control the narrative, said a US expert on Chinese media.

In a recently published book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzick has extensively chronicled China’s use of soft and sharp power to expand media influence, especially in Southeast Asia. These efforts have resulted in successful content-sharing agreements with state news agency Xinhua, but have also shown the limits of its strategy.

Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at Council for Foreign Relations, spoke to The Wire in an email interview about the factors that raise concerns about Chinese influence networks, their limitations and that the best way to combat the appeal of the Chinese model is to stop undermining press freedom in democracies.

Don’t all countries have, or at least aspire to have, an influence network in other countries? Why should ‘x’ country worry about a Chinese network, than say another backed by the US? 

It’s a good question – indeed I think all major powers have influence networks. It’s a question of what they are being used for. Certainly, countries do have concerns about what US influence networks are used for. But if China is using its networks to stifle debate about China, to meddle in elections and university campuses in other countries, to undermine democracy and affect the media, those are problems with its influence efforts.  

Can you give a quick overview of how you have categorised the different stages of Chinese influence operations over the years and how they have evolved in the Xi Jinping era? 

China has long conducted influence operations in its near neighbourhood – Southeast and Northeast Asia, Taiwan, etc. To some mild extent in South Asia but not as effectively. What has changed in the Xi era is the massive expansion of these influence efforts to countries all over the globe – and also to a wide range of developed democracies, where Beijing is attempting to penetrate them, and has had some success, but also a lot of pushback. 

Josh Kurlantzick. Photo: Twitter/@JoshKurlantzick

While you have examined cases of China’s influence in Southeast Asia in your book, many of those conditions required for an effective influence operation as you have listed are not present in India. But, especially during the Doklam crisis, it was rather striking to see Chinese state media conducting an aggressive media campaign. What led to this change – and what did they hope to achieve by it?

I think part of it is the same as the media campaigns in other countries – to try to flood the media sphere with China’s point of view, what Beijing calls “discourse power” and not let discourse about an issue be totally dominated by non-Chinese media. Also perhaps to inject false information to confuse media consumers in the targeted country, a very common tactic with Chinese media and information efforts. But India is indeed less affected than some countries in, say, Southeast Asia, in part because China often uses influence efforts with the ethnic Chinese diaspora in countries in the region, and India does not have much of an ethnic Chinese diaspora at all.

The Indian media often responds to reporting in the Global Times due to its provocative language and the fact that it is written in English. When reading a Global Times article, what should Indian journalists consider? Is every article published by the Global Times a direct reflection of Chinese official policy?

I  think they should consider that Global Times is like the most hawkish end of Chinese policy ideas – it for sure isn’t a direct reflection of Chinese official policy, but rather the most extreme end of what Beijing might be thinking – and [is] putting [it] out in Global Times as a test to see how Chinese and foreign audiences respond. It’s also a paper that is a provocateur that just wants to stir the pot with foreign audiences and get angry reactions from foreign audiences, so that should be considered.

In your book, you referred to music, film, and literature as “passive soft power cultural exports” that hold more sway than government-supported soft power initiatives. It appears that a thriving art industry within a relatively free environment could be the key to producing influential soft power exports, such as films. Is this the reason why China has been comparatively lacking in this area, as opposed to smaller countries like South Korea and Japan?

Yes, absolutely. China does have great painters, musicians, fashion icons, filmmakers, etc, but the rising authoritarianism in China is crushing them – or pushing them into exile, so that deflates passive soft power cultural exports. Then, you have the Chinese government cracking down on big private Chinese tech companies that also are sources of soft power – Tencent, Alibaba, etc – so that further hurts any Chinese passive soft power, and why China lags far behind, say, South Korea in passive soft power. 

Despite the emergence of well-reported English news outlets like Sixth Tone in recent years, there has yet to be a Chinese equivalent of Al Jazeera, despite China’s financial resources to support such a channel. Why is this the case, and is it possible for China to adapt to Western news markets and create a Chinese Al Jazeera in the future? 

No, I don’t think so. China wanted to create a Chinese Al Jazeera and for a time hired a lot of great journalists from other countries, but CGTN, China’s global TV network, simply can’t be like Al Jazeera because Beijing wants far more control over it than Qatar wants over Al Jazeera, so CGTN’s offerings are turgid and boring and propagandistic. That said, Xinhua is becoming a highly effective information tool because of its content-sharing deals with many major publications.

Xinhua News Agency’s Shanghai bureau. Photo: N509FZ/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

In your book, you mentioned that Xinhua has been China’s most effective information tool. During the Trump administration, Xinhua and CGTN had to register as foreign agents, and India has expelled Xinhua journalists from the country twice in recent years, with the latest incident occurring after China retaliated by freezing the visas of Indian journalists. How effective are these tactics in reducing the influence of Chinese news brands? Should they be viewed solely as political moves, or do they have genuine value in curbing their influence? 

I don’t think Xinhua’s main targets are the US or India, two countries with enormous suspicion of China. I think that Xinhua has built extensive influence through content-sharing deals in Southeast Asia, Latin America and increasingly the Middle East and Africa – and so Xinhua content is showing up in all sorts of local press, without most readers realising where it’s coming from. Xinhua is going to continue expanding this, making it the most effective tool – even if Xinhua does not fare well in a few big democracies.

Why do you believe that wholesale bans of Chinese apps like TikTok, such as the one implemented by India or currently being considered by the US Congress, are not an effective approach to curbing the potential risks of Chinese surveillance and disinformation?

I’m not totally sure I believe that any more. I don’t know. TikTok is a hard question. In general, I think that many of the problems with TikTok are also problems with social media platforms based in the US, so a better solution would be a strict privacy regime that protected users’ privacy on all apps. That said, TikTok is de facto controlled by Beijing and data has been exported back to China. So it’s a tough question now.

China and Russia are now working closely together at the political level. Do you see any collaboration among their state media to provide similar narration on issues where they have a common interest or are they still marching to their own drum beat?

They work very closely together on disinformation efforts, and China is learning a great deal from Russia’s much more sophisticated disinformation. Their state media also collaborate a great deal to push certain key narrative points that they both want to push out into the world.

You have proposed that one effective way to counter Chinese influence networks is for democratic governments to refrain from undermining the free press and attacking journalists. While your recommendation was made in response to the Trump administration’s labelling of the media, a similar scenario has played out in other countries. You have suggested that this type of behaviour creates a beneficial opportunity for Chinese state news brands to expand their influence. How does this dynamic play out?

The more democracies fail to be democratic and also don’t deliver good policies for their people, the better China’s model of authoritarian capitalism, which it touts in the Xi era, looks to outsiders. The best way to combat the appeal of China’s model is for democracies to uphold rights and freedoms, including press freedoms, and also to deliver policy goods for their people. Also, if democratic leaders are curtailing all media, or calling all media liars, then it opens the door for really problematic foreign media like [those] from Russia and China to enter, since the leaders are suggesting that no media can be trusted, so why not trust Russian or Chinese media as much as local media?