China Engages in ‘Media Warfare’ Abroad

Beijing is now extending its censorship and propaganda operations to the United States and other countries, analysts say

President Francois Hollande receives Xi Jinping for a working dinner at the Élysée Palace / AP
December 15, 2015

The Chinese government is escalating its efforts to disseminate propaganda abroad and influence foreign governments and populations, according to analysts who say the operations undermine free speech and expression globally.

In some cases, the Communist Party of China has succeeded in pressuring Western media and companies to remove content that Beijing considers to be sensitive and overly critical of the government. Chinese state-run radio, using opaque ownership structures to assume control of local stations abroad, has also expanded its presence in the United States and around the world to broadcast pro-government messages.

Sarah Cook, an expert on East Asia for Freedom House, wrote on Friday that the censorship and propaganda operations of President Xi Jinping’s government are "affecting an ever-broadening array of institutions and economic sectors overseas."

"Since November 2012, when Xi took the helm of the [Communist Party] CCP, Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin has noted over 40 instances—in 17 countries and international institutions—of Chinese information controls negatively affecting free expression outside China," she said. "These are likely only the tip of the iceberg. The CCP’s interventions and influences extend to a surprising range of media, including pop music, hot air balloons, and video games."

Reuters reported in July that, according to emails released as part of the massive hacking attack against Sony, company executives had scrapped scenes from upcoming movies in order to placate Chinese censors and earn more profits in the country. And last year, Reader’s Digest was reported to have dropped the publication of a condensed novel due to concerns raised by a Chinese printing firm, among them that the work contained references to religious persecution in China.

Additionally, China is pursuing more subtle forms of influencing foreign content, such as substantial investments from Chinese production companies in English-language feature films.

For radio, state-owned China Radio International has established a network of at least 33 stations in 14 countries, including the United States, Reuters reported last month. China Radio often uses subsidiaries in the country to conceal its majority ownership of stations abroad—unlike outlets such as Voice of America, which openly declares that it receives funding from the U.S. government.

WCRW, a radio station that broadcasts in the Washington, D.C., area and is owned by a subsidiary of China Radio, has featured reports that attribute tensions in the Asia-Pacific region to the United States and other foreign powers, rather than China. U.S. officials, by contrast, accuse Beijing of instigating potential conflicts through its construction of manmade islands and military outposts in the South China Sea.

China-based news outlets also attempt to shape the opinions and decisions of foreign governments through "media warfare tactics," wrote Alison Bartel for the Project 2049 Institute. One example is the propagation of a "false dilemma" narrative in which a U.S. ally is portrayed as facing a choice between closer relations with Washington or Beijing.

While Xi visited Britain in October, one Chinese outlet published a piece titled, "China is rising, America is declining, England is choosing," Bartel noted. The article was apparently a translation of an item in the Guardian that argued for closer economic cooperation between London and Beijing, though the Chinese version omitted criticism of rights abuses in China.

"Conventional knowledge expects the Chinese government-backed publications to tow the CCP line, but U.S. audiences often take for granted China’s growing influence in non-CCP publications," Bartel said. "Foreign audiences consistently fail to calculate the impact of Chinese propaganda, which exists not only in Chinese state-run publications, but also in rhetoric and ideas that trickle into publications around the world."

Published under: China