The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu believed that it is better to attack the enemy’s mind than to attack fortified cities. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a rather keen disciple of Sun Tzu, and it has been using modern media and social networks to “attack the minds” and win the hearts of Europeans in a rather skillful and so far underreported way.
A prime example of China’s strategy to dominate the discourse in European media has been its attempts to change the narrative on Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a network of China specialists in the region, discovered that during the protests in Hong Kong from August to October, PRC embassies in Central and Eastern Europe approached local media with an offer to publish an ambassador’s op-ed or an interview with the head of the embassy promoting the official “real account” on the protests.
In the Czech Republic, PRC Ambassador Zhang Jianmin wrote an op-ed critical of the Hong Kong protests and mentioning foreign influence behind the scenes; the piece was published in Parlamentní listy, an alternative, yet widely read news server. In Latvia, Chinese chargé d’affaires Sun Yinglai gave an interview on the issue to NRA, one of the biggest newspapers in the country. In Estonia, the Chinese ambassador’s op-ed got published in Postimees, the largest newspaper in the country. Vilniaus diena in Lithuania carried a similar article signed by the ambassador. A left-wing outlet, Trybuna, in Poland and extreme left Nové Slovo in Slovakia also carried op-eds signed by China’s respective ambassadors criticizing the Hong Kong protests. Moreover, in Slovakia, a mainstream business daily, Trend, published a paid article (advertorial) by Lin Lin, the PRC ambassador to Slovakia, on the same issue. Apart from the Central and Eastern EU member states, similar articles were found in media outlets in North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
What some articles in the above mentioned media had also in common was a reference to the “bright” or “better future of Hong Kong” that would follow if and when the protests stop. Interestingly, this identical phrase was found in Czech, Estonian, Latvian, North Macedonian, Polish, and Slovak articles, revealing a coordinated, region-wide effort to swing the narrative in favor of the Chinese Communist Party’s discourse.
The media outlets where pro-China narratives on the Hong Kong protests were published ranged from alternative to mainstream, including a high ratio of left-leaning outlets. The proportion of articles published in formally commercial sections was relatively high, which suggests the editors saw a lack of credibility of the texts. Moreover, interviews with journalists in Estonia uncovered that op-ed published in Estonian Postimees was allegedly facilitated by a PR company hired by the Chinese Embassy. A similar strategy of hiring a public relations companies to get the Chinese Communist Party’s message to the European public has not been confirmed (yet) in other outlets. The incident itself, however, presents a rather disturbing example of how far China is willing to go to whitewash its actions in Hong Kong.
It has been known to China scholars dealing with influence that to overcome the credibility gap, China has increasingly employed a strategy which can be literally translated as “borrow a boat to go to sea” (jian chuan chu hai). It aims at identifying outlets that can carry messages on behalf of China whether through outright acquisition, co-ownership (whether the share is above or below controlling level), and/or forming partnerships through content-sharing.
This “boat” strategy has been identified in the region of Central and Eastern Europe by project ChinfluenCE, which carried out a large-scale mapping of media outlets and their reporting on China in connection to economy and politics. ChinfluenCE analyzed the evolution of discourses in Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian media throughout the period from 2010 to mid-2017. Discourse analysis uncovered that in 2015, when the allegedly private Chinese company CEFC invested in the Czech company Empresa Media, the tone of the reporting by its two media outlets (TV Barrandov and the magazine Týden) changed significantly. Before the acquisition the media produced a mixture of positive, negative, and neutral reports on China; however, from the day of the acquisition, they started reporting on China only in a positive manner (both negative as well as neutral reports on China disappeared completely from the media discourse of these two outlets). Not only has the tone changed, but also its China-related focus shifted — especially on TV Barrando. The network, already famous for weekly interviews with the Czech President Miloš Zeman, who backed China’s narratives, now started to cover China’s Belt and Road and 17+1 initiatives with a frequency unparalleled in comparison to 40 other Czech media outlets — both publicly as well as privately owned.
If a direct acquisition is not possible, China employs content-sharing tactics. In the Czech Republic, in connection with the 70th anniversary of establishing bilateral diplomatic relations, the Chinese embassy produced an eight-page supplement to the local nation-wide daily Právo. The section was obscurely labeled as a “theme and commercial supplement.” The articles were exclusively positive on China and were signed by the daily’s reporters, easily misleading readers into believing that the supplement was the usual reporting by the media.
Despite the numerous aforementioned cases and many others, some of them well documented, policymakers in Europe still do not consider media as strategic assets and are not aware of how easily media can be turned by foreign influence into heralds of undemocratic narratives. Those narratives can then contribute to further divisions of society, questioning of pro-Western and pro-EU foreign policy leaning, or backing of economic interests of authoritarian regimes. The cases of China’s narratives on Hong Kong being placed in European media outlets should serve as a wake up call to policymakers in the European Union.
It could be argued that the investment screening mechanism adopted by the EU in April aims at protecting media from foreign hostile influence. The mechanism, however, is insufficient as it only maps and does not block unwelcome investment in the media sector. National investment screening mechanisms and other legal regulations together with a mental shift toward understanding the vulnerability of media are absolutely crucial.
Ivana Karásková, Ph.D., is a China Research Fellow and founder of projects ChinfluenCE and CHOICE at the Association for International Affairs (AMO). She lectures on China’s foreign policy and EU-China relations at Charles University in Prague.