For a regime that puts so much stock in propaganda and controlling the message, it is astounding that the Chinese Communist Party is so bad at it.
The stories and analysis put out by the CCP’s print, broadcast and digital media are almost uniformly turgid in style, rigid in thought, and, for the audience, like a route march through knee-deep mud.
So, in theory, countries targeted by the CCP’s campaigns of political warfare should not need to regard Beijing’s propaganda as a problem. But it is, and especially in those countries like my own, Canada, which are home to many of the estimated 50 million people in the ethnic Chinese Diaspora.
The problem is that over the last 20 years the CCP has spent many billions of dollars taking effective control of almost all Chinese language media outside China. For people among the 1.5 million Canadians of ethnic Chinese origin who are still most comfortable gaining news and information on current affairs in the Chinese language, Beijing controls the message.
This is now a divisive and complicating issue among immigrant Canadians of ethnic Chinese heritage. This is because CCP control of the Chinese language media goes hand-in-hand with President Xi Jinping’s increased political warfare operations by the United Front Work Department.
The older generation of ethnic Chinese immigrants to Canada came mostly from Hong Kong. Canada was also once a British colony, and many of the civic institutions and approach to governance were therefore familiar to the Hongkongers.
This is not true for the more recent and current immigrants from mainland China. For them, Canadian society is unfamiliar and sometimes difficult to fathom. The CCP’s control of media and the activities of the United Front are therefore a barrier to their integration in their new home.
These new immigrants are confronted daily with the message that while they may have changed their citizenship, in the eyes of the CCP they remain “compatriots” of the PRC.
I am just completing a national tour in Canada promoting my latest book, Claws of the Panada: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada.
In the course of this tour I have met several audiences made up mostly of Canadians of Chinese heritage. The consistent message they have given me is that they feel under siege because every day they are confronted by CCP propaganda through Chinese language media and the activities of United Front operations.
Many are affronted to find that having left the PRC to escape the tyranny of the CCP, they find themselves under much the same pressures in their new home.
Expanding their reach
The CCP’s campaign to control Chinese language media in Diaspora communities started during the leadership of Jiang Zemin in the early 2000s. It had a major boost under Hu Jintao in 2009 with a US$6.6 billion media expansion campaign involving TV, radio and newspapers. This has continued under President Xi with an aggressive campaign to expand control of Chinese language media abroad.
A recent study for the French Ministry for the Armed Forces, entitled “Information Manipulation: A Challenge for our Democracies,” calculates that the CCP and its agencies now control about 2,000 Chinese language newspapers and 10,000 magazines around the world. In broadcast media, Beijing directs globally more than 3,000 public television channels, about 2,500 radio stations and more than three million internet sites.
“Information warfare is an integral dimension of China’s strategy of influence and intimidation,” notes the French report.
“The PRC’s influence on information is global in scope. The ideological content is not only used to seduce or influence, but also to guide public opinion and interfere if needed.”
An analysis published by Reporters Without Borders at the end of March, called “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order,” says Beijing is spending at least $1.3 billion a year to embed its presence in overseas Chinese media.
At the same time, says the report, the CCP and its propaganda agencies are moving to establish themselves in English and other vernacular language media around the world.
Spreading the propaganda
For this initiative the CCP’s agencies have often used a strategy called “borrowing boats to go to sea.” This has involved the state-run English language newspaper China Daily making deals with more than two dozen foreign newspapers, including the New York Times, The Telegraph in Britain and the Washington Post to carry monthly inserts called China Watch.
These inserts are up to eight pages and carry feature articles presenting the CCP’s views on such things as its success in ending feudalism and bringing prosperity to Tibet, and the progress in de-radicalizing the Muslim Uighur population of Xinjiang.
The details of these agreements with the foreign newspapers contain confidentiality clauses, but the persistent rumors are that China Daily pays about $1 million a year to each of the 30-or-so media partners that carry China Watch.
Until the turn of the century, most media serving the Chinese Diaspora had their news about the PRC from news services in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both these produced news and analysis that was either professional, unbiased journalism or material critical of the CCP regime.
Unbiased journalism is just as unacceptable to the PRC as anti-communist bias. Starting in the early 2000s, Beijing began a counter-attack.
China News Service led the charge in 2003 when it hosted the first of annual conferences to which hundreds of foreign television, newspaper and radio companies are invited. Since then, similar gatherings have been held by The People’s Daily – the principal mouthpiece of the CCP – and the international department of the state broadcaster CCTV.
In the course of these conferences, foreign media are offered free access to the CCP news product. This approach has proved highly successful in supplanting the paid-for Hong Kong and Taiwanese product in global Chinese language media at a time when the finances of all classic media are being throttled by changing audience habits and digital outlets.
A recent study by the British newspaper the Financial Times found that in addition to the thousands of international Chinese language publications now directly controlled by the CCP, at least 200 nominally independent outlets reprint or broadcast free content provided by PRC state media.
Much of the material provided by the PRC outlets is excruciatingly didactic and formulaic. Indeed, a television reporter who was seen to roll her eyes in boredom while a colleague asked an interminable, politically correct question during a National People’s Congress press conference last year was severely disciplined by her station.
The age of Xi Jinping does not encourage innovation or experimentation in thought or presentation. So, for example, Beijing’s media has not noted the shenanigans of RT, the Russian English language television outlet that is Moscow’s main overt anti-western propaganda arm.
RT spotted, quite rightly, that one of the best ways of attracting a western audience is to make fun of western institutions. Farce and outrageous comments will get appreciative chuckles and some loyalty from a western audience where dry ideological analysis will not.
So RT often plays propaganda for laughs, interspersed with entertaining diatribes from people like Syria’s now victorious President Bashar al-Assad, American whistleblower and now enforced Moscow resident Edward Snowden, Britain’s Brexit crusader Nigel Farage, and even, before he became opposition leader, Britain’s Labour Party supremo Jeremy Corbyn.
At this point, the judgment on the CCP’s global propaganda blitz must be that it has been most successful in dominating the media in communities with limited access, for reasons of language or economics, to other sources of information.
But so far, Beijing has not cracked the problem of gaining a reliable wider global audience.
There is a simple reason for this. The CCP has always held that only the inner core of party officials can be trusted with true and accurate information. Party tenets hold that for the vast majority of China’s population the daily diet must be propaganda and highly selective, limited information.
Until that view changes, Beijing’s messages will remain unheard in most of the world.