Beijing’s global media offensive — Q&A with Josh Kurlantzick

Foreign Affairs

China has poured many billions of dollars into influencing news coverage all over the world. Some of this money has been wasted — nobody takes Chinese state TV seriously in the U.S., for example — but Beijing has also had real successes in changing the conversation about China in several countries.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Earlier this week, we were baselessly and absurdly accused of being information agents of the Chinese Communist Party. But how does Beijing really seek to influence the global conversation? I talked to Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the author of the new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.

We chatted by video phone on November 3. This is an abridged, lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jeremy Goldkorn


Let’s start with the big idea of the book.

The book is about how China has, over the last 10 years, attempted to build both a state media apparatus that is actually credible. Something like Al Jazeera was originally their goal, and they wanted to nurture proxies, Chinese language and sometimes English language news outlets, around the world, including the United States. It’s about China’s attempt to build a global media and information and disinformation superpower, and about China’s desire to use that and traditional influence tactics to wield growing power within other countries’ politics and societies.

There are several aspects of this media campaign. One is they spent a huge amount of money upgrading their state media or attempting to do so. They wanted Xinhua and other networks like CGTN to be respected as legitimate news organizations, eventually competitors to CNN or the BBC or Associated Press.

This actually dates back to the Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 era, right? The $4 billion media push?

But they spend a huge amount more money now. Xi has upped the budget, and there also has been an uptick in pro-China individuals buying up Chinese language outlets in many countries, making it hard for Chinese speakers to gain credible news information.

The goal was to get Xinhua picked up as a legitimate newswire in a lot of places, which has actually happened in a number of countries in Southeast Asia and other regions.

Xinhua often offers its service for free, which you can’t beat. And it wanted to make CGTN a real global competitor to CNN and the BBC. Again, I think the goal was something like Al Jazeera, emanating from an authoritarian state but viewed in much of the world as a fairly credible source of information.

Whereas that hasn’t happened with CGTN at all. Why?

No, it’s been a complete disaster. There’s a number of reasons why.

Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, which certainly punches well above its weight on the world stage for such a tiny country. They’re hosting the World Cup and they have energy revenues that allow them to wield all sorts of soft power. But when it comes down to it, Qatar is a tiny country. and most people outside of Qatar other than probably the oil and gas industry don’t really care what happens in Qatar. It’s sad but true. And even though it’s an authoritarian monarchy, the fact that Al Jazeera doesn’t produce any credible information about Qatar, doesn’t really bother people.

They’re able to produce quality reporting about a whole lot of places around the world because no one really cares what Qatar’s views are about Indonesia or Malaysia. And so, for example, the Southeast Asia reporters for Al Jazeera do excellent work because the news team back in Qatar isn’t really telling them what to do.

That’s impossible with China, because China is not Qatar. Virtually any possible issue with any other country, virtually any major world issue…It’s almost impossible for a reporter for CGTN to produce something that doesn’t in some way have some relationship to China, and therefore potentially could get them in trouble with the Chinese government. And so, they send reports to editors who are too terrified to allow even the most decent reporting through, because of the intense fear of Beijing. There was more leeway in CGTN offices outside China in the early Xi era and in the Hu era — much more leeway.

And even when they do critical-style reporting, say, the human rights reports that Xinhua and sometimes CCTV or CGTN put out, they are not trustworthy because the viewer always has the feeling that this is done purely for propaganda purposes, not for informational purposes.

Yeah, so that’s the second problem. So, I actually argue in the book that a lot of what they’ve tried to do, to wield influence has actually failed in a lot of places.

Some obvious examples would be Australia, where there’s a lot of concerns about foreign influence, and there was a huge popular backlash against Chinese influence operations, as well as to some extent against Beijing’s de facto control of the local Chinese language media. The Australian government passed pretty strict foreign interference laws. It’s similar in Singapore and some countries in Europe, which are tightening foreign investment laws, and the U.S. has done so as well.

But it is true that increasingly, in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world China is having success in other ways — mostly by having pro-China business people buy up the local Chinese language outlets and shift them to pro-Beijing overage. For Chinese language media in Australia and much of the Asia-Pacific, even to some extent Taiwan, local media are increasingly controlled by probing tycoons or business people who are essentially pro-Beijing. In addition, China’s economic dominance of these states encourages self-censorship among some local journalists.

What exactly is their footprint? Like, what have they got in Australia? What have they got in the United States? What have they got in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa?

The actual state media has been significantly a failure, other than Xinhua, which I believe has some success being picked up as a legitimate news wire in a lot of developing countries. CGTN has been a disaster because although they spent a ton of money trying to hire all these citizens of other countries who were credible reporters, they just never were able to step away and become more like Al Jazeera because everything that they write or talk about has some relevance to China. And the level of fear now of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, the level of fear that anything that they write or say on CGTN…Most of the foreign reporters that were hired in recent years to professionalize CGTN have left already.

Where they have had significant success, again, is in taking over the Chinese-language media in countries all over the world; most of the countries in Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada. And this is not necessarily done by the Chinese government. It’s not done by the Chinese government itself. What usually happens is some sort of pro-China business person or tycoon, maybe they’re pro-China for their own interests or they are pro-China because they’re genuinely nationalistic or they’re pro-China or pro-Beijing because they have been pushed by the embassy. They buy up the local Chinese media in a lot of countries. And so, in places like Australia, the United States, a lot of countries in Southeast Asia, there aren’t really any Chinese media that are independent, that aren’t, in some way, controlled or influenced by the CCP.

In the U.S., the only two truly independent Chinese language outlets are NTDTV, New Tang Dynasty, which produces independent reporting but has a limited audience. And then there’s Epoch Times, which is another whole world in itself. It sometimes produces decent reporting, but sometimes its stories seem thinly sourced, and it has gotten involved in promoting misinformation in other environments unrelated to China.

So aside from those two organizations, which I believe are both connected to Falun Gong, there’s not much choice in Chinese-language content?

Overall, you’re correct that in the U.S. and in a lot of countries, there just aren’t a lot of Chinese-language media alternatives, and particularly in Southeast Asia, that’s certainly true.

And also increasingly, in regions like Southeast Asia, China is coming to play a significant role having significant influence over the local language media, not just the Chinese-language media.

Xinhua, for instance, has signed a number of content-sharing agreements with Thai language publications in China, which increasingly used Xinhua as their main newswire.

You might have seen this, but I don’t know, I mean, you got a lot going on, but over the last week…

You could say that.

Yeah. Over the last week there’s been a reporting of efforts by a prominent Chinese business person to basically buy up one of Thailand’s few remaining independent presses. I mean, Thailand in itself is not really a democracy. There are really two independent presses left, and a Chinese business person with no clear aims as to why he wants to buy one of them, has been pushing one of them to sell, and offering quite a substantial sum, but also veiled threats if they don’t sell. Most likely he wants to buy the press and kill their publication of any books even related to China.

Similar things in Malaysia, to some extent, in the Philippines. Not Vietnam. Vietnam is an exception to every rule about Southeast Asia and China because of their long, brutal history with China. But in Laos and Cambodia, China essentially de facto controls much of the local media.

Even the non-Chinese-language media?

Yeah. In Cambodia, there’s a station which is very loyal to Hun Sen. Essentially like, it’s like Hun Sen’s propaganda network. But it also, frankly, puts out a lot of interesting stuff about non-Hun Sen stuff like celebrities and gossip. It’s very popular, it’s called Fresh News, and they are very much influenced by China. They take their employees to China on training visits. Their CEO has said that he wants to model Fresh News on the model of Chinese news outlets.

That’s a very sad ambition.

Yeah, but it works well for the Cambodian government — and one concern about China’s spreading influence over media and information is that a lot of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments will try to foster channels like Fresh News. China actually has a huge program for training foreign journalists and for offering them long stays in China where they do some training and a lot of visiting and stuff. That was before COVID. The current status is ramped down because China is still in zero COVID, but they have developed quite a robust state policy of inviting quite a lot of journalists, mostly from developing countries, but not all developing countries, to come to China and see “the truth” for themselves. The program, as well as trips to China by journalists and other opinion leaders, has had an effect: After multiple trips to China, including Xinjiang, by Indonesian opinion leaders, including religious leaders who should have been condemning the Xinjiang horrors, many Indonesian religious leaders were strangely quiet on the atrocities and camps in Xinjiang.

In many of the countries in Southeast Asia, China increasingly wields an outsize influence on the local language publications as well, either by threats from prominent officials or just a building a climate of self-censorship because China’s so economically important, or like in Thailand, direct efforts to buy up local media. There’s also the increasing use in the region of Xinhua as a legitimate news outlet.

Xinhua is signing a lot of content sharing agreements with news outlets all over the world. Xinhua, actually, I think is quite dangerous and potentially problematic because the more news outlets in countries that adopt it, the more it’ll be seen as credible.

 

And they do, in fact, how to put it, they do a certain amount of reporting of facts. They’ll write, say, about a port opened in West Africa and that a million tons of concrete were poured on a 500-meter-long bridge or something. It somehow makes it easier to hide the propaganda in there?

Yes. That’s accurate. And also, I think that the problem is if it becomes accepted by more and more newswires because a fair amount of its coverage is just that sort of mundane stuff, and then they start taking their Xinhua stuff about China and China foreign relations.

Another aspect of it is that, other than journalists and a very small handful of ardent news consumers, most people don’t really pay any attention to where the news comes from or who the journalist is who produced it. Especially in this era in which people are getting the news from all sorts of different sources.

And so, there is this danger that Xinhua just becomes amalgamated into this whole mass of news sources. I don’t think that will happen with China’s other state media like China Radio International and CGTN, because you have to actively seek those out, whereas Xinhua just comes to you in the newspaper in Thailand or in Malaysia or in African countries. And for most people, it’s not a knock on these news consumers, They just don’t really pay attention, like whether the byline says Reuters or Xinhua. It’s always been that way, I think, for most news consumers, they don’t usually study the byline, etc.

Right.

The overall thesis of the book is that Beijing is using media, controlling the local media or influencing the local media in a lot of places, and increasingly adding more sophisticated use of information and disinformation online. Some of which they’ve picked up from Russia. There’s also old-fashioned political influence, like Australian politicians simply being handed money. That’s just old-fashioned influence.

What about in the United States?

FBI director Wray and other senior intelligence officials have warned that China increasingly is going to become the main external influence, potentially endangering quality information and just causing chaos in the run up to elections. They issued a warning about the midterms, though I think China is not going to dramatically swing the midterm elections in any way.

Can I ask, what would the vector be? I mean, is it Twitter? Is it English-language media? Is it YouTube videos?

I can’t read the FBI’s mind. Wray said this in a major speech, and others have said it, but some of the things that have been noted is that Meta, and Google, and Twitter have all taken down campaigns linked to China that were using bots and fake accounts, and all of this in the last few weeks, to do some of the things that Russia has done in the past. Creating false profiles or other things just to stir up chaos, or just pit Americans against each other over different issues.

How about in Taiwan?

There are a number of Taiwanese outlets that are very sympathetic to Beijing, and they promoted the KMT candidate in the 2020 presidential elections there. And China also barraged the island with disinformation about both the KMT candidate and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) of the DPP. It was a huge barrage. Ultimately, it didn’t work, probably for a number of reasons. The ties between the KMT candidate and China turned out to be negative, as China became more assertive. At the same time, China was cracking down in Hong Kong, so that dramatically hurt them in the Taiwanese election, where voters were terrified about what they saw in Hong Kong and that resonated against the KMT candidate. .

What else are the U.S. authorities worried about?

There’s also the general concern by the FBI, of growing old-fashioned influence efforts.

There was a warning specifically given out by a major U.S. counterintelligence organization to U.S. state and local officials and politicians that they are increasingly a major target of Chinese influence efforts. As Reuters reported, Beijing “understands that U.S. state and local leaders enjoy a degree of independence from Washington and may seek to use them as proxies to advocate for national U.S. policies Beijing desires,” the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said in July.

The warning was issued to state and local politicians in the United States and I think they are increasingly the biggest target because China’s become so toxic in the United States that I think the possibility of China using old-fashioned influence tactics, like they did in Australia, with U.S. senators or congresspeople, I don’t think that’s possible. I think no Chinese operative is going to get anywhere near prominent senators or congresspeople at this time because senators and congresspeople are so on the watch for Chinese influence efforts, and antipathy toward China is so high on Capitol Hill right now.

So, instead, the focus has shifted to local and state officials, and that was what the warning was explicitly about. And in one of the prominent FBI investigations, there was a penetration in the Bay Area by an alleged operative, you probably read about this, a woman named Fang Fang, who ingratiated herself to a lot of San Francisco, Bay Area politicians, as well as to the office of Eric Swalwell, although Swalwell says that he never knew anything about what she was doing, and that she acquired no sensitive information from his office. But she also ingratiated herself to a number of Midwestern mayors.

Was she just kind of charming or did she bring money?

Well, I think she had an intimate relationship with several of the Midwestern mayors, and she was just charming in the Bay Area and charmed her way into political circles. She fled the U.S. before the U.S. authorities were able to do anything to her.

The FBI confronts a double problem with some of these political influence campaigns, especially ones that also border on espionage in the United States in which Trump tasked the FBI with creating this massive China Initiative, by the Justice Department and the FBI. This massive program was designed to investigate Chinese espionage in all realms, including economic espionage, but also any type of espionage or political interference.

The China Initiative was so ham-handed! From my point of view, all it did was terrify Chinese scientists, and chased some talent back to China, and it doesn’t seem to have caught any real spies. Some of the cases just seemed like incompetent Keystone Cops bullshit.

Of course, we’ve recently been accused of being communist agents, which is just so patently absurd. With this level of ignorance in the government bodies that are supposed to look after our society here in the U.S., is it actually possible that they will ever catch anybody? Are they targeting the wrong people?

I can’t tell you whether they’re going after the wrong people, but there was such pressure to move quickly and come up with results that they wound up arresting people without fully formed airtight cases. It’s certainly true that they have alienated a lot of Chinese nationals, some of whom have gone back to China or have gone to other countries. And some of the people that they arrested were not Chinese nationals. They were Chinese Americans, and you are supposed to have actually a higher level of protection in your civil liberties as a U.S. citizen. I can’t tell you whether they went after the wrong people, but there was such a huge amount of pressure to make cases that they did so often hastily.

And they were slapped down multiple times by judges in many of these cases for not having enough information to actually pursue an espionage case. In the case of the professor from Tennessee, whose life was basically ruined, they really didn’t have very much against him. They switched ultimately, from pursuing cases for espionage to trying to pursue cases of people who were involved in joint research with China, like, they were engaged in being paid by Chinese universities and not reporting it to Harvard. There were some other cases like that. That’s not good, but that’s still a long way from…The rollout of the China Initiative was that they were going to catch all these spies.

What they wound up doing was terrifying a lot of Chinese citizens working in the U.S. as well as Chinese Americans, that they were coming after them specifically and not really making very many real espionage cases.

And so, they were settling for these cases where people might have failed to report to their university. These folks might have a partnership with a Chinese university they were getting some research money from, which is not good, if they are not reporting that to their U.S. university. I don’t know what the rules are at universities, but whether that’s a fireable offense, it probably is, though who knows with tenure. But it’s just not what the FBI presented — they said that they were going to round up a huge number of Chinese spies in academia who were stealing the crown jewels of the American economy as well as engaging in all sorts of influence.

What do you think America and other countries should do in the U.S. and globally about China’s attempts to influence the global conversation?

Some of our most important partners should be getting up to speed: All leading democracies should have programs like Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which investigates the origins of foreign investments. Australia has a new commission which also does that. The European Union is headed down that road, but there are dissenters.

Also, the scrutiny of foreign investment was traditionally limited to a very small number of sectors that have military implications, like semiconductors or other things that could be used to build missiles or bombs or whatever. But the scrutiny should be expanded to include media and information…Those commissions to scrutinize foreign investment should include media and information areas that they scrutinize because that’s really, really critical.

Second, countries need to educate citizens, particularly Chinese-language-speaking citizens, in both Chinese language dominant countries and places where there are large Chinese populations, about ways in which they can access information that is not either controlled by the CCP or by niche outlets like NTDTV

There are other sources of information in Chinese provided by things like Radio Free Asia, and there are other sources of information in Chinese provided by some European countries and by local outlets in many countries; in Taiwan it was local outlets that helped create resiliency against Chinese disinformation and de facto control of some major Taiwanese outlets.

Third, one of the things that had happened in the Trump administration was that some of these alternatives to China’s media and information like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were gutted, and Trump was trying to change them into sort of like propaganda channels that just pushed pro-U.S. propaganda, which is basically what Voice of America was decades ago, but it is not anymore. And instead, that ended because Trump didn’t really get his appointees fully through until the end of his term. But the United States and other countries need to up their own ability to get credible Chinese-language media out into other countries, and also to emphasize that it’s not propaganda, that it’s truly genuine coverage.