.
I

n January, one of China’s most prominent “wolf warrior” diplomats and a former official spokesperson, Zhao Lijian was transferred to a much more obscure office dealing with boundary and ocean affairs. Zhao was emblematic of Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy on the global stage, regularly taking to Twitter to attack Australia and the United States, and to promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Beijing is also expected to promote Xie Feng, a vice foreign minister and U.S. specialist, to become its next ambassador to Washington. Both moves could be interpreted as efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to rein in its aggressive diplomats and promote a more positive, engaging image of the country at a time when global antipathy is increasing towards Beijing and its behavior.

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive | Joshua Kurlantzick |Oxford University Press

There is a risk in seeing broader trends in smaller moves, in assuming that such reshuffling is indicative of a broader change in Beijing’s direction. In reality it is perhaps at best a shift in tone and style, but certainly not substance. Understanding that tone and style is, however, critical to better understanding how China presents itself to the world and seeing how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to influence friend and foe alike. As such, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive” by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, and timely entry.

Kurlantzick’s efforts are certainly impressive. There are few areas of the world left untouched by China’s media operations and Kurlantzick follows these, finding examples of how Beijing attempts to sell itself and limit criticism. His weighty analysis (backed by a lengthy works cited section) is buttressed by his own reporting and field research, making it a fine blend of abstract analysis and real-world examples of how China is seeking international influence through the media.

His measured approach is welcome. Indeed, while he rightly does raise concerns about China’s behavior in the media space, online, and about mis- and dis-information, it is done coolly and without the often-attendant hyperbole seen in some analyses about China. Indeed, he writes, “many of China’s influence and information tactics have not worked. Doomsayers suggesting that Beijing’s influence is, right now, exceptionally skillful and effective are wrong. China has built a giant influence and information apparatus but currently wields it clumsily and often poorly.” This does, however, not mean that this will remain the case or that China is comfortable with the status quo.

Kurlantzick presents a far more complex narrative about China’s media efforts than is often found. He differentiates between the traditional “soft power”—culture, language, products, and messaging, from “sharp power”—more covert efforts to influence and manipulate a country’s perspective on China, including by sharply limiting acceptable topics of discussion and through groups like state-owned and operated Confucius Institutes found on university campuses across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe—though there are moves in nearly every case to rollback engagement with these entities.

In the case of soft power, his exploration of China’s media and journalist training is quite interesting. Beijing has undertaken a concerted effort to bring foreign journalists to the country in hopes that the “training” and cultural exposure will engender goodwill back at home. Some of the journalists Kurlantzick interviews state that while the hospitality is welcome, any queries about press freedom in China are quickly quashed. There is little long-term goodwill generated from these programs.

There are, of course, the state-owned and state-backed media outlets, but as Kurlantzick shows, China also attempts to leverage and influence Chinese-language media in foreign countries. While there are elements of direct intervention (albeit through proxies and straw-owners of newspapers), there is also the self-censorship that many of these papers undertake, either out of nationalist sympathy for Beijing’s point-of-view or out of fear of losing advertisements and revenue from companies in mainland China or Chinese businesses in the country in question. This self-censorship was also the subject of Erich Schwartzel’s “Red Carpet,” which looked at how Hollywood, at least until recently, censored content out of fear of losing access to the Chinese market.

Beijing’s efforts to create a global media and information operation run directly into the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to retain control and limit debate at home. It wants to encourage a domestic media industry within the confines of what the party allows, but those limitations constrain the efficacy of those state-owned and state-backed outlets. In one example, “the entertainment quality that gets Hunan TV in trouble with the CCP also makes it desirable to some Chinese-speaking foreign audiences.” This also reflects the challenges facing Chinese soft power writ large—there remain very few Chinese analogues to Japan’s anime and manga industry, South Korea’s K-Pop and television drama, or other global, national brandings that are both profitable and effective at communicating a favorable image of Tokyo or Seoul.  

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to China’s media operations is China’s behavior itself. All of the favorable stories, positive coverage, spin, and soft and sharp power count for little when the operations themselves are exposed or Beijing’s actual behavior is on full display. No amount of make-up can beautify a swine, as it were. Indeed, as Kurlantzick shows, the earlier days of China’s “charm offensive” have largely been replaced with the aforementioned far more aggressive and assertive “sharp power.” He writes, “After all, it is difficult to convince other states of your good intentions when they also catch you meddling in their politics, spreading disinformation throughout their media, making aggressive military moves, or overseeing covert actions to influence their universities.” The reality of behavior versus messaging also affects the country’s efforts to export its authoritarian capitalist model, something it hopes to do and with which it has had limited success.

It is particularly interesting to read Kurlantzick’s book alongside “Spies and Lies” by Alex Joske. In his book, Joske explores the role of the Ministry of State Security in China’s overseas influence operations, and how Beijing uses think tanks and similar organizations as fronts for broader campaigns. Joske cites “China’s peaceful rise” as one such example—an influence operation that pandered to what the West wanted to hear and one that was parroted by Chinese intellectuals and policy organizations. In reality, it is “essentially a propaganda framework and not a policy position.”

This parallel reading also highlights one of the challenges of Kurlantzick’s own book. At times Kurlantzick seems to chafe at his own analytical boundaries. It is as if he wants to write more on a subject or feels that a tangential subject needs more exposition, but then quickly pulls back from doing so. Where the book is especially focused and drills down into a subject, it is superb. His exploration of China’s media market including state-owned, state-backed, and merely state-influenced is fascinating. Indeed, the core “media” aspect of his book is exceptional. When it starts to wander a touch, it can feel a bit distracted. This is not wholly Kurlantzick’s fault. attempting to grapple with the totality of China’s information campaigns to include the Confucius Institutes, the Belt and Road Initiative, and Digital Silk Road, etc.—would undoubtedly take multiple volumes.

Had he focused almost exclusively on the “media” aspects of these global operations, it would have made for a tighter and more focused volume, while leaving room for follow-on entries. For example, he is right to note China’s efforts to control the “pipes” of the global information backbone and influence the standard-setting agencies that govern the internet, spectrum management, and more. Indeed, this could well be the subject of its own book. While perhaps not directly “media,” these remain critical elements of how media is transmitted and controlled, and is something about which the West has been aware, but is now working to address with greater alacrity.

While Kurlantzick does explore how China has adapted and changed its media operations in response to global reactions, one wishes there was more. At the opening of his book he rightly notes it is patently wrong to assume China won’t, can’t, or simply isn’t learning from its failures. It is as much learning from what parts of its media operations work and which do not, as it is from those of other countries. By way of example, China’s attempts to model parts of its media on Qatar’s Al Jazeera vice Russia’s “RT” are particularly interesting. Thus far, save for Xinhua, Beijing hasn’t really succeeded in copying the former, and the country’s harder-line news outlets haven’t mastered the (at least pre-Ukraine) subversiveness.

Writing about Beijing’s disinformation efforts, he says they have, “to now, remained relatively unsophisticated and easy to expose, especially compared to the more nuanced and effective Russia efforts.” This is certainly unlikely to remain static. Indeed, in October 2022, cybersecurity firm Mandiant announced that it uncovered a pro-People’s Republic of China online influence campaign called “DRAGONBRIDGE.” Most notably, if perhaps a touch ham-fisted in execution, the campaign’s narrative included “aggressive attempts to discredit the U.S. democratic process, including attempts to discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.” It is wholly possible we’ve not yet seen the extent of these influence efforts.

Indeed, China’s future success in its media operations may come from not its own strengths but the West’s weaknesses. The gradual and continued erosion of “trusted” information sources, the proliferation of social media, postmodern ideas of what is “truth,” and questioning the core tenets of democracy itself create space for dis- and mis-information to run rampant. The spread of apps like TikTok creates opportunities for those who control the algorithms to control what viewers see. Beijing doesn’t have to create the content, it just has to ensure you don’t see what it doesn’t want you to see. That stifling effect could become all the more concerning as Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to get their news primarily from social media than traditional sources.

“China’s Global Media Offensive” shines a much-needed light on an often-underappreciated element of strategic competition. It is one that is striking in its contrast with the West’s conception of a free and independent press. This fundamental difference serves to create a blind spot in Western policymaking due to mirror imaging and other cognitive biases. That blind spot is, however, a critical risk and vulnerability. This is not to suggest that the West becomes more like China, but that the West needs to better understand how Beijing uses the media to its advantage, while playing to the advantages of the West’s free and open press. No amount of State Department press releases or White House statements can be as effective as Beijing’s own behaviors in shaping global opinion. Indeed, sometimes it is best to get out of the way and let an adversary undermine itself.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

All the News that Beijing Sees Fit to Print

Beijing, China. Photo by zhang kaiyv via Unsplash.

January 21, 2023

There are few areas of the world left untouched by China’s media operations. Joshua Kurlantzick's "Beijing's Global Media Offensive" follows these, finding examples of how Beijing attempts to sell itself and limit criticism, writes Joshua Huminski in his latest book review.

I

n January, one of China’s most prominent “wolf warrior” diplomats and a former official spokesperson, Zhao Lijian was transferred to a much more obscure office dealing with boundary and ocean affairs. Zhao was emblematic of Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy on the global stage, regularly taking to Twitter to attack Australia and the United States, and to promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Beijing is also expected to promote Xie Feng, a vice foreign minister and U.S. specialist, to become its next ambassador to Washington. Both moves could be interpreted as efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to rein in its aggressive diplomats and promote a more positive, engaging image of the country at a time when global antipathy is increasing towards Beijing and its behavior.

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive | Joshua Kurlantzick |Oxford University Press

There is a risk in seeing broader trends in smaller moves, in assuming that such reshuffling is indicative of a broader change in Beijing’s direction. In reality it is perhaps at best a shift in tone and style, but certainly not substance. Understanding that tone and style is, however, critical to better understanding how China presents itself to the world and seeing how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to influence friend and foe alike. As such, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive” by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, and timely entry.

Kurlantzick’s efforts are certainly impressive. There are few areas of the world left untouched by China’s media operations and Kurlantzick follows these, finding examples of how Beijing attempts to sell itself and limit criticism. His weighty analysis (backed by a lengthy works cited section) is buttressed by his own reporting and field research, making it a fine blend of abstract analysis and real-world examples of how China is seeking international influence through the media.

His measured approach is welcome. Indeed, while he rightly does raise concerns about China’s behavior in the media space, online, and about mis- and dis-information, it is done coolly and without the often-attendant hyperbole seen in some analyses about China. Indeed, he writes, “many of China’s influence and information tactics have not worked. Doomsayers suggesting that Beijing’s influence is, right now, exceptionally skillful and effective are wrong. China has built a giant influence and information apparatus but currently wields it clumsily and often poorly.” This does, however, not mean that this will remain the case or that China is comfortable with the status quo.

Kurlantzick presents a far more complex narrative about China’s media efforts than is often found. He differentiates between the traditional “soft power”—culture, language, products, and messaging, from “sharp power”—more covert efforts to influence and manipulate a country’s perspective on China, including by sharply limiting acceptable topics of discussion and through groups like state-owned and operated Confucius Institutes found on university campuses across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe—though there are moves in nearly every case to rollback engagement with these entities.

In the case of soft power, his exploration of China’s media and journalist training is quite interesting. Beijing has undertaken a concerted effort to bring foreign journalists to the country in hopes that the “training” and cultural exposure will engender goodwill back at home. Some of the journalists Kurlantzick interviews state that while the hospitality is welcome, any queries about press freedom in China are quickly quashed. There is little long-term goodwill generated from these programs.

There are, of course, the state-owned and state-backed media outlets, but as Kurlantzick shows, China also attempts to leverage and influence Chinese-language media in foreign countries. While there are elements of direct intervention (albeit through proxies and straw-owners of newspapers), there is also the self-censorship that many of these papers undertake, either out of nationalist sympathy for Beijing’s point-of-view or out of fear of losing advertisements and revenue from companies in mainland China or Chinese businesses in the country in question. This self-censorship was also the subject of Erich Schwartzel’s “Red Carpet,” which looked at how Hollywood, at least until recently, censored content out of fear of losing access to the Chinese market.

Beijing’s efforts to create a global media and information operation run directly into the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to retain control and limit debate at home. It wants to encourage a domestic media industry within the confines of what the party allows, but those limitations constrain the efficacy of those state-owned and state-backed outlets. In one example, “the entertainment quality that gets Hunan TV in trouble with the CCP also makes it desirable to some Chinese-speaking foreign audiences.” This also reflects the challenges facing Chinese soft power writ large—there remain very few Chinese analogues to Japan’s anime and manga industry, South Korea’s K-Pop and television drama, or other global, national brandings that are both profitable and effective at communicating a favorable image of Tokyo or Seoul.  

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to China’s media operations is China’s behavior itself. All of the favorable stories, positive coverage, spin, and soft and sharp power count for little when the operations themselves are exposed or Beijing’s actual behavior is on full display. No amount of make-up can beautify a swine, as it were. Indeed, as Kurlantzick shows, the earlier days of China’s “charm offensive” have largely been replaced with the aforementioned far more aggressive and assertive “sharp power.” He writes, “After all, it is difficult to convince other states of your good intentions when they also catch you meddling in their politics, spreading disinformation throughout their media, making aggressive military moves, or overseeing covert actions to influence their universities.” The reality of behavior versus messaging also affects the country’s efforts to export its authoritarian capitalist model, something it hopes to do and with which it has had limited success.

It is particularly interesting to read Kurlantzick’s book alongside “Spies and Lies” by Alex Joske. In his book, Joske explores the role of the Ministry of State Security in China’s overseas influence operations, and how Beijing uses think tanks and similar organizations as fronts for broader campaigns. Joske cites “China’s peaceful rise” as one such example—an influence operation that pandered to what the West wanted to hear and one that was parroted by Chinese intellectuals and policy organizations. In reality, it is “essentially a propaganda framework and not a policy position.”

This parallel reading also highlights one of the challenges of Kurlantzick’s own book. At times Kurlantzick seems to chafe at his own analytical boundaries. It is as if he wants to write more on a subject or feels that a tangential subject needs more exposition, but then quickly pulls back from doing so. Where the book is especially focused and drills down into a subject, it is superb. His exploration of China’s media market including state-owned, state-backed, and merely state-influenced is fascinating. Indeed, the core “media” aspect of his book is exceptional. When it starts to wander a touch, it can feel a bit distracted. This is not wholly Kurlantzick’s fault. attempting to grapple with the totality of China’s information campaigns to include the Confucius Institutes, the Belt and Road Initiative, and Digital Silk Road, etc.—would undoubtedly take multiple volumes.

Had he focused almost exclusively on the “media” aspects of these global operations, it would have made for a tighter and more focused volume, while leaving room for follow-on entries. For example, he is right to note China’s efforts to control the “pipes” of the global information backbone and influence the standard-setting agencies that govern the internet, spectrum management, and more. Indeed, this could well be the subject of its own book. While perhaps not directly “media,” these remain critical elements of how media is transmitted and controlled, and is something about which the West has been aware, but is now working to address with greater alacrity.

While Kurlantzick does explore how China has adapted and changed its media operations in response to global reactions, one wishes there was more. At the opening of his book he rightly notes it is patently wrong to assume China won’t, can’t, or simply isn’t learning from its failures. It is as much learning from what parts of its media operations work and which do not, as it is from those of other countries. By way of example, China’s attempts to model parts of its media on Qatar’s Al Jazeera vice Russia’s “RT” are particularly interesting. Thus far, save for Xinhua, Beijing hasn’t really succeeded in copying the former, and the country’s harder-line news outlets haven’t mastered the (at least pre-Ukraine) subversiveness.

Writing about Beijing’s disinformation efforts, he says they have, “to now, remained relatively unsophisticated and easy to expose, especially compared to the more nuanced and effective Russia efforts.” This is certainly unlikely to remain static. Indeed, in October 2022, cybersecurity firm Mandiant announced that it uncovered a pro-People’s Republic of China online influence campaign called “DRAGONBRIDGE.” Most notably, if perhaps a touch ham-fisted in execution, the campaign’s narrative included “aggressive attempts to discredit the U.S. democratic process, including attempts to discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.” It is wholly possible we’ve not yet seen the extent of these influence efforts.

Indeed, China’s future success in its media operations may come from not its own strengths but the West’s weaknesses. The gradual and continued erosion of “trusted” information sources, the proliferation of social media, postmodern ideas of what is “truth,” and questioning the core tenets of democracy itself create space for dis- and mis-information to run rampant. The spread of apps like TikTok creates opportunities for those who control the algorithms to control what viewers see. Beijing doesn’t have to create the content, it just has to ensure you don’t see what it doesn’t want you to see. That stifling effect could become all the more concerning as Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to get their news primarily from social media than traditional sources.

“China’s Global Media Offensive” shines a much-needed light on an often-underappreciated element of strategic competition. It is one that is striking in its contrast with the West’s conception of a free and independent press. This fundamental difference serves to create a blind spot in Western policymaking due to mirror imaging and other cognitive biases. That blind spot is, however, a critical risk and vulnerability. This is not to suggest that the West becomes more like China, but that the West needs to better understand how Beijing uses the media to its advantage, while playing to the advantages of the West’s free and open press. No amount of State Department press releases or White House statements can be as effective as Beijing’s own behaviors in shaping global opinion. Indeed, sometimes it is best to get out of the way and let an adversary undermine itself.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.