The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Sarah Cook – research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and author of “China’s Global Media Footprint: Democratic Responses to Expanding Authoritarian Influence” (National Endowment for Democracy 2021) – is the 267th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in countering China’s global media footprint.
Non-governmental entities — including journalists, civil society groups, think tanks, and technology firms — are playing a crucial role in documenting and countering the coercive and covert aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global media footprint, often with some effect. One key example has been the exposure and analysis of disinformation campaigns and tactics on global social media platforms, a relatively new tactic in the Chinese party-state’s toolbox that has emerged since 2017. Over the past two years, investigative journalists, think tanks, technology firms, and cybersecurity companies have generated a body of literature on the topic and set the stage for improvements in prevention, monitoring, and response. International social media companies have also taken new measures to track inauthentic activity linked to China, take down problematic accounts, and implement labeling that clearly designates Chinese state-funded or state-affiliated accounts.
NGOs across several countries and regions have launched new initiatives to monitor Chinese state media and other forms of CCP influence. These include projects to support investigative journalism related to China, documentation of media narratives and social media activity by Chinese state outlets and diplomats, in-depth case studies of influence networks in various settings, and well-informed policy briefs offering concrete legislative, regulatory, and other solutions to decision makers.
Identify the four categories of China’s information campaign to influence perceptions.
The CCP’s tactics range from widely accepted forms of traditional public diplomacy and other forms of soft power, to more covert, corrupt, and coercive activities. These practices go beyond simply “telling China’s story.” Their sharper edge often undermines democratic norms, erodes national sovereignty, weakens the financial sustainability of independent media, and violates local laws.
The various tactics employed in Chinese state-linked efforts to manipulate foreign information environments can be divided into four categories: propaganda, or the active promotion of Chinese government content and pro-Beijing media outlets and narratives; disinformation, meaning the purposeful dissemination of misleading content to divide audiences and undermine social cohesion, increasingly via inauthentic activity on global social media platforms that are banned inside China; censorship, including the suppression of unfavorable information and obstruction of outlets that are critical of the regime; and gaining influence over key nodes in the information flow, which usually entails Chinese technology firms with close government ties building or acquiring content dissemination platforms in other countries.
Collectively, these tactics have expanded over the past decade to the point that hundreds of millions of news consumers around the world are routinely viewing, reading, or listening to information created or influenced by the CCP, often without knowing its origins.
How is the CCP exploiting democratic vulnerabilities?
Alongside China’s emergence as a global power and the sheer amount of human and financial resources that the CCP, state media, and Chinese tech entrepreneurs have invested specifically in expanding their reach to foreign audiences, the CCP’s success in influencing foreign media coverage and information flows is aided by existing weaknesses within democratic and semi-democratic countries, even when those are not actively exploited by the CCP.
One such weaknesses is the financial vulnerability of local media, due in part to market forces and technological change, which renders them more likely to accept paid advertorials or sell ownership stakes to companies or individuals with close ties to the PRC government. The structure of media financing, including dependence on advertising revenue, also creates an opening for Chinese diplomats and companies to exert influence by funding advertising or bullying other businesses into removing ads from disfavored outlets, harming their sustainability. Another dynamic is that in many parts of the world, there is an imbalance of expertise — especially about the CCP itself — between Chinese actors and local politicians, journalists, think tanks, and civil society that benefits Beijing.
Identify additional factors used to shape public perceptions in democracies.
There are other factors that increase the vulnerability of democracies — particularly to certain forms of political or electoral manipulation. One is the widespread use of Chinese-owned social media or news aggregator applications among both local Chinese diaspora members and non-Chinese speakers. Another is a high level of political polarization, which sows distrust in mainstream media and creates natural cleavages or allies that Chinese state-linked actors could exploit to Beijing’s benefit. A high degree of anti-U.S. or anti-Western sentiment among the public in some countries, especially in regions like Latin America, the Middle East, or Africa, can also undercut any warnings by the United States or European powers about the dangers of media investment from authoritarian states.
How should U.S. and Western civil society stakeholders collaborate with their respective governments in managing China’s media machinery?
Civil society can help lawmakers and regulators unpack the convergence of media, content, telecommunications, and data policy. More press freedom groups and think tanks could produce reader-friendly policy briefs and engage in outreach to policymakers to improve the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks while preventing infringements on access to information, such as arbitrary or blanket bans on Chinese-owned mobile phone apps. Civil society groups can also file relevant complaints with regulators to prompt stronger oversight, where the necessary laws and institutions already exist, as we have seen in the United Kingdom and Australia recently. Advocacy goals could include regulatory scrutiny of Chinese state media outlets and associated individuals, laws that enhance transparency or screen investments, legal provisions that restrict cross-ownership to protect content dissemination channels, and strong data privacy protections. There have also been some very interesting and effective government-civil society-technology firm joint initiatives to counter CCP disinformation in Taiwan, including surrounding the January 2020 election.