China’s Global Influence Campaign, With Joshua Kurlantzick

LINDSAY:
Welcome to The President’s Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I’m Jim Lindsay, director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week’s topic is China’s Global Influence Campaigns. With me to discuss how China is seeking to use its media power to influence domestic politics in other countries, including the United States, is Joshua Kurlantzick. Josh is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at CFR. He has written six books, the newest of which is Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Josh, congratulations on the publication of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, and thank you for joining me on The President’s Inbox.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Thanks for having me, and thanks for all your help in producing the book. It’s invaluable.

 

LINDSAY:
Well, it’s very kind of you to say, Josh. Before we start our discussion, I would like to let listeners know how they can win a free copy of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive. All they have to do is go to cfr.org/giveaway, to repeat, cfr.org/giveaway. There they can read the terms and conditions for the giveaway, and register their entry. The registration will remain open until January 17th. After that, we will pick ten entries at random to win a copy of the book. And for any listeners trying to jot down this information, please note that you can find a link to the giveaway in the show notes for the President’s Inbox on cfr.org. 

 

Okay Josh, we have all those logistics out of the way, let’s talk about Beijing’s global media offensive. My sense is that China has consciously decided over the last decade or so, to try to use media power to influence politics in other countries. Can you tell me a little bit about what China has been doing, and why it’s pursuing these efforts?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Well, I think within the last ten years to twelve years, China, under Xi Jinping decided that the global discourse, both about China and about all sorts of events that relate to China, because virtually every event relates to China, the discourse or the discourse power, as China refers to it, are being dominated by liberal democracies and their media outlets. Not necessarily in their state media outlets, but the discourse about all sorts of issues that impacted China was dominated by outlets ranging from the BBC, to the Nikkei, to the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to Le Monde, and we can make a whole list of these. And these defined how much many people in the world, because many of them were highly respected, are highly respected, viewed China’s domestic policies, China’s foreign policies, China’s economic policies, et cetera. 

 

It was a longstanding goal with the Xi Jinping administration, wanted to change that dynamic and create a way in which China could influence global narratives about China’s domestic policies, about its foreign policies, as well as about the policies of other countries’ own actions. And so, they have invested, over the last ten years, no one knows the whole amount, but massive sums in upgrading their three main state media outlets, CGTN, which is the China Global Television Network, which is a global TV network, China Radio International or CRI, and Xinhua, which is a newswire, as well as they’ve taken other steps to gain control of the Chinese language media in most countries around the world. They’ve taken many other steps as well that I talk about in the book, but in terms of media those are the main two actions.

 

LINDSAY:
So, help me understand what is driving this effort by the Chinese to change the discourse, to borrow your phrase. Is it aimed primarily at creating a more favorable image of China abroad? Is it designed to undercut opposition to its policies? Undermine the West more broadly? Sell a particular model of authoritarian state capitalism? Something else?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Well, I think for the ones that we would characterize as publicly available and aren’t being hidden, which I also talk about in the book, these big state media outlets are a kind of soft power, similar to Voice of America or Radio Free Asia in terms of being efforts of soft power, although they are in no ways at this point comparable to Radio Free Asia or Voice of America, in that those are limited by charters and editorial independence. With these soft power efforts, in other words, open public efforts to try to woo foreign publics and make China more attractive, I think the goals were to just present a more favorable image of China’s own domestic and foreign policies, tamp down, or at least try to reduce the circulation of coverage of some of China’s worst abuses in the global media by sticking Chinese coverage in there. I think originally Xi Jinping’s administration wanted to produce something like Al Jazeera, which was viewed credibly, which the Chinese channels would be viewed credibly by consumers around the world.

 

LINDSAY:
This is a news outlet that was created by the government of Qatar, which is now obvious obviously in the news given the World Cup.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Right. So, Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, an authoritarian monarchy, but at the same time, other than coverage of Qatar and some of Qatar’s relations with perhaps other Arab countries, Al Jazeera, in other parts of the world, produces highly credible journalism and has hired many, many excellent journalists. And I think China wanted that as well, to be viewed as a credible outlet, and that would also allow them to boost their public image and sort of deflate some of the critiques of China’s own domestic policies. As soft power works the stronger they’re public images among publics and elites in other countries, in theory that should help them pursue a more effective economic and foreign policy. And I think that some aspect of the state media outreach was also designed to kind of quietly promote an idea that China had. I shied away a little bit from just talking about only authoritarian capitalism, but a kind of managerial authoritarian capitalism that supposedly was more effective in governance than liberal democracies, which in the last decade, many liberal democracies have not done a great job.  

 

No matter the effectiveness of China state media, the last three years of highly ineffective management and governance in China, as well as other things, has very much undermined that appeal of that model in places that were favorable to China, and places that are unfavorable, et cetera.

 

LINDSAY:
So Josh, let me ask about how the Chinese efforts to change the discourse resemble or differ from those efforts by the United States, by many of America’s allies, to shape the narrative. And people will come and say the United States has Voice of America, in addition to all of the activities of American private sector news media, Britain has the BBC, the French have, you mentioned Le Monde, but also AFP, which is a state run news agency. So, is what China’s doing all that new or different?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Well, I think China has not only attempted to copy Al Jazeera, but they’ve definitely made the argument that what they’re doing is not that different from all of those state linked or controlled news agencies. There’s others too, like Germany has one, Japan has one, Korea has one, et cetera. Most of the soft power accrued by the media in major liberal democracies is not accrued by the state media outlets other than the BBC, which enjoys complete editorial independence. I was actually just watching a recent episode of The Crown. I don’t want to give away too much, but I mean the BBC was not shy about directly attacking the British monarchy. Most of the soft power comes from private sector media outlets, which enjoy massive global reach ranging from the New York Times, to the Nikkei and the Yomiuri, which are the biggest circulation newspapers in the world, to Fox News, to CNN, to et cetera. So, all of those enjoy editorial independence because they’re private companies and they report highly critically about the U.S., which no Chinese news outlet would ever do.

 

LINDSAY:
Oh, they will certainly say critical things about the United States. I take it you mean they would not say critical things about the Chinese government.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Right, yeah. Sorry. CNN and MSNBC, and Fox News have no problem saying critical things about the U.S. government, but no Chinese outlet would ever say that about the Chinese government. Now, when it comes to the actual state media, that critique might have had some validity during the Cold War, where in periods of the Cold War, VOA really did operate-

 

LINDSAY:
Voice of America.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Voice of America, sorry, really did operate as kind of a propaganda outlet, particularly impartial of the world where the Cold War was hot, like Southeast Asia. But Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and the BBC, and AFP, I’m not that familiar with the German outlet, but those main outlets all operate either with a specific charter that prohibits government interference in them, or with complete editorial independence controlled other ways. And in addition, they produce independent, often scathing reporting, about their own governments. In fact, the Trump administration launched this long investigation into VOA’s White House reporter, Steve Herman, because he was producing reports that, I don’t know if they were necessarily negative, they just captured some of the challenges of the Trump administration. 

 

And so, there’s no comparison anymore. I mean, these outlets produce legitimate independent coverage. They have stories like inflation rate in the U.S. continues to rise, Biden’s popularity in the toilet, Biden struggles with the presidency and age. I mean, the BBC is even more scathing in their coverage of the British government. It’s incredibly scathing. And so, no Chinese state media outlets can compare to that because they would never produce reporting like that.

 

LINDSAY:
Well, let me ask you about how the Chinese efforts in this space compare to what Russia has done in this space. Russia has Russia Today, but it’s clear that the Russians have also been operating below the radar with disinformation campaigns, which don’t seem to be aimed as much at changing the narrative as it is to sow confusion and chaos in Western liberal democracies.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Right. So, until the Ukraine war where Russia Today got severely curtailed or banned in a lot of places, Russia Today was quite successful, whereas Al Jazeera’s model was producing credible reporting Russia Today’s model was just producing a lot of conspiratorial … I don’t even want to call it reporting, but a lot of a conspiratorial opinion, which served to muddy the waters about all sorts of issues that Russia wanted to muddy the waters. And they were quite successful in that in a lot of places. I don’t think China could produce a state media channel like Russia Today because a Chinese state media outlet that was publicly linked to the Chinese government that was just producing wild conspiratorial thinking, you would have the same problem that Chinese reporters have overall now all over the world in that Russia Today, for all its conspiratorial thinking, was having various people come on and say things that were somewhat independent, even if crazy. And the Chinese state media, other than Xinhua, tend to be extremely turgid and controlled. And I don’t think they would want people coming on and even saying wild conspiracy theories because they just are so committed to control. 

 

Now, in terms of disinformation on social media platforms, that is something that China has definitely stepped up dramatically in the last three to five years, and has begun to copy Russia’s tactics. Those are not public efforts, those are more concealed efforts. But yes, it is true that on social media platforms China has shifted from just promoting Chinese narratives to a kind of more Russian style. They do promote certain politicians in certain countries, but they’ve generally shifted to a more Russian style of just trying to cause chaos, sow dysfunction, undermine democracy by just pointing out flaws of liberal democracies. They’re not as effective yet as Russia, but they’re definitely getting there. So, they are indeed moving in that Russian direction of not only promoting narratives, but just trying to sow chaos. And that’s obvious in China’s efforts in many liberal democracies on social media platforms.

 

LINDSAY:
So Josh, let’s talk about this question of effectiveness, and maybe it would help if we sort of discussed above board Chinese efforts first, and then we can talk about these disinformation efforts separately. But as you look at the efforts China has made to influence the discourse through things like its state media outlets by making deals with local media in training foreign journalists in terms of how to cover news stories, all things that have some analog in the West, how successful have the Chinese been with these efforts?

 

KURLANTZICK:
So, I think that when we get to talk about disinformation, I would also talk about another under the radar effort, which is to use, quietly, take control of virtually all the Chinese language media in the world, which they have been successful in. But the three big state media outlets that they spent huge sums on, and for a while hired a lot of quality foreign reporters in many places, most of whom have now quit because these state media outlets have become so controlled, of the three, China Global Television Network, which was the big push to make a global television network that could compete with the BBC, or CNN, or ideally they hoped China Radio International, which is their state radio, and Xinhua. CGTN and CRI have been pretty much complete disasters. I mean, I have a lot of polling and studies that have been done by Gallup.

 

The US government uses Gallup to assess the reach of foreign media in most countries around the world. And through the freedom of information process, I obtained that those Gallup studies of many countries, and the viewership of CGTN in most countries is minimal. The listenership of CRI in countries, even in places where people have fairly warm views of China, like in parts of Africa, is pretty minimal. So, I think those have been pretty much unmitigated disasters, even before the last three years of zero COVID, and protests in China no longer looking like a managerially, well functioning state. Xinhua is different because Xinhua can be kind of snuck into the news outlets around the world through content sharing agreements, which isn’t the case for the other two where you have to actively seek them out. Xinhua does have the possibility of becoming a very major weapon in China’s media arsenal. More and more countries’ news outlets are picking up Xinhua as a newswire and using it.

 

LINDSAY:
So, it’s sort of like AP or AF-

KURLANTZICK:
Like AP, or Reuters, or Bloomberg, except Xinhua is often free or cheap. And many developing countries can no longer … The media industry is not exactly like a growth industry in most places. Many developing countries, outlets just can’t afford to carry the AP, and AFP, and Bloomberg, etc. And Xinhua offers coverage. Xinhua also has in a lot of developing regions, many, many more reporters than those other news outlets. And so, they are able to produce a lot of stories that are appealing to editors of local news outlets. So, Xinhua alone I think has the possibility to really amp up China’s discourse power and become a real weapon, because remember, Xinhua is still a state controlled agency. So, if more and more news outlets around the world are using it, you are going to see coverage eventually of China in all respects subtly shifting.

 

LINDSAY:
So Josh, let’s switch and talk about what I might call the below the surface, or the surreptitious efforts by the Chinese in terms of their media offensive. And we have disinformation, we have what you briefly referred to instances in which the Chinese buy up Chinese language media in other countries, but also we’ve seen a number of cases in which the Chinese have been, in essence, paying off politicians in other countries. How effective is this prong of the Chinese media offensive effort to influence foreign governments?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Right. Well, I think now we’re going beyond the media offense because we’re talking about straight-up old-fashioned influence, like paying politicians. 

 

LINDSAY:
But that’s been a big issue as you know in a lot of countries. Australia’s gone through some big issues here, I think New Zealand as well. I think it’s worthwhile to talk about that.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Yeah, there’s a huge scandal in Canada right now in which multiple news organizations have reported that in the 2019 federal election, which was won by Trudeau and the Liberals, although they didn’t win an outright majority, but essentially won by them, that before the election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was briefed that Chinese operatives had delivered money to between nine and eleven federal election parliamentary candidates. Even that Chinese operatives had worked their way into serving as staffers, and even the chief of staff of some parliamentary candidates, that he was warned by CSIS, which I know is a think tank in Washington, but is also the name of Canada’s intelligence agency. After Trudeau released, in early November, this scathing statement basically saying that China was meddling directly in Canadian politics, and semi confirm … He didn’t confirm, but he seemed to be alluding to this, he has now backed off a little bit and said he was never briefed.

 

So, it’s a little confusing, but certainly it’s not limited to Australia, or New Zealand, or Taiwan, which were the first places where China was really directly trying to meddle by paying politicians, or inserting politicians who had questionable backgrounds in China into the political environment. It’s now spreading to Canada, and spreading to the U.S. a little, we don’t know the extent in the U.S., but there were Chinese operatives arrested by the Justice Department for trying to meddle in a New York Congressional primary in this midterm. I think that’s going to expand, for sure. Russia, before the Ukraine war, had some significant success with that, with a lot of right and far right parties in Europe. And I think China will continue to pursue that approach in countries that haven’t passed very strict foreign interference laws like the one that has been passed in Australia, and the U.S. has become much more attuned. 

 

Singapore has passed one, other countries haven’t applied such strict scrutiny, most of continental Europe, whether they’re thinking about it, Canada, New Zealand still hasn’t applied a high level strict scrutiny. So, I think we should expect to see a lot more Chinese meddling through paying politicians or other ways in actual political races.

 

LINDSAY:
What about the point you made of China buying up Chinese language media in other countries, understood that in many countries Chinese speakers may be a minority, maybe even a small minority, but I get a sense that there’s a concern that this will help promote divisions within countries because Chinese speakers could in theory get a very different story about what’s happening in the world. 

 

KURLANTZICK:
Right. And in some countries where the Chinese language media has been increasingly controlled by just pro-Beijing interests, Chinese speakers aren’t even a minority. Or some places like Taiwan, or the Singapore Chinese speakers are a minority, but they’re a very large minority, or Malaysia, et cetera. And in places like Australia and the United States, and Canada, there are a very large number of Chinese speakers. And in some of those places, they also happen to, for whatever reason, often have been concentrated in parliamentary districts or congressional districts that are contested, having nothing to do with them but just the vagaries of system.

 

Yes. So, that is a huge concern. In nearly every liberal democracy, plus most countries in Southeast Asia, most of which are not liberal democracies, the Chinese language domestic outlets have been bought up either by Chinese state companies themselves or by individuals, nationals of those countries who have very strong pro-Beijing sentiments, crushing the formerly independent coverage that some of these news outlets had and pushing the few remaining independent news outlets basically out of the market. So, there’s almost no independent Chinese language coverage of China’s actions in the U.S. based Chinese language media except for a few small outlets.

 

LINDSAY:
Do we have a sense, Josh, of how effective that is? Is there any evidence that this changes behavior of those people who are Chinese speakers, who consume this media that is being produced by corporations that are seeking to bias news coverage in favor of China?

 

KURLANTZICK:
In places where there isn’t really strict scrutiny of it, like in Taiwan where independent media have scrutinized it, that yes, it has had some impact. Before there was stricter scrutiny of it, news outlets in Taiwan … I got to be careful here because some of this reporting about news outlets in Taiwan being essentially linked to China or paid by China, Chinese government has tried to sue the Financial Times over some of that. But I think that in the past they have had effects in promoting the KMT, or the Kuomintang, which is one of the two parties in Taiwan, which tends to have a more pro-Beijing approach. It’s hard to say, but I think that images of China among that Chinese community in Australia, especially the Chinese only speaking community in Australia, have had a significant shift. And even as Australia has become harshly critical of China and public image of China, and Australia has badly deteriorated, these media efforts have had a pretty powerful effect in the Chinese language community there.

 

LINDSAY:
So Josh, many people listening to this conversation maybe say to themselves, “What about Confucius Institutes?” That was a issue that garnered a lot of tension, certainly here in the United States. To what extent do Confucius Institutes figure in this effort by the Chinese government to shape discourse power, as you put it?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Confucius Institutes, which we should say were like efforts backed by the Chinese Ministry of Education to set up Chinese language and cultural centers at universities around the world, including in many liberal democracies, were really one of the first casualties of the stricter scrutiny applied to China’s influence efforts around the world. Most liberal democracies, including the U.S., and there’s an organization called the National Association of Scholars, it used to chronicle a number of Confucian Institutes that were opening up, and some of the challenges that they created in terms of self-censorship about China, is now chronicling the number of Confucian Institutes that are shutting down and how quickly they are. Confucius Institutes, they were an obvious target. They increasingly became an embarrassment to a lot of U.S. universities. We don’t have time to go into all of that, but there were incidents of self-censorship linked to Confucius Institutes at prominent universities.

 

So, in the U.S., Confucian Institutes are increasingly being shut down. They’re being shut down in many prominent liberal democracies in Europe. They’re being highly questioned and shut down in other liberal democracies, like Australia, they continued on in a lot of countries which are less democratic, like Thailand and central Asian countries, and et cetera. But Confucius Institutes really were like the first knife from the U.S. Congress, and Australia, and a lot of other places where there was heightened concern about China’s influence tactics, particularly on campuses. Although Confucius Institutes might have had an effective role ten years ago in sort of building China’s soft power and encouraging self-censorship, they’ve really, really, really been knocked down, and I expect them to be almost completely absent from most liberal democracies within the next five or ten years. And most universities increasingly don’t want to be associated with them in liberal democracies.

 

LINDSAY:
So Josh, as you survey the scene in the United States, in Southeast Asia, other parts of the world, do you view this Chinese global media offensive as something that’s essentially a self-solving problem? That Chinese behaviors grab the attention of critical governments and they’ve taken steps to counter what the Chinese are doing? Or do you view it as something that, as uneven as Chinese efforts have been, require the United States, like-minded countries, to do more to counter? And if it’s the latter, what do you propose that they should do?

 

KURLANTZICK:
Just because someone with whom you have at least a confrontational relationship with is shooting themself in the foot about certain things, doesn’t mean that they can’t also be successful at other things. And that we know from China’s long history, and from the way they’ve handled BRI, the Belt and Road Initiative lending project, where they’ve begun to adapt somewhat, that they are capable of adaptation. Just because your adversary is undermining themselves, as China has in the last three years, doesn’t mean they can’t also be doing other things successfully. And doesn’t mean that you should just expect that they’re going to undermine themselves forever. There’s several steps that prominent liberal democracies and everyone should take. I just don’t expect countries like Egypt, and Rwanda, and Ethiopia, and Cambodia, all of which are very close to China, and have many ways adopted China’s authoritarian capitalist model of a controlled internet, I don’t expect them to adopt them. 

 

But the U.S. and other liberal democracies should take a number of steps. One is applying much stricter scrutiny to foreign investment in the media and information sector, treat it as a sensitive sector the same way that in the past scrutiny was applied to things that could have dual use for military technology. And some countries have begun to do that. Australia, the U.S. has begun to do that somewhat, Europe is considering doing that. Secondly, I think that there needs to be more research and more scrutiny of the real extent of how much Xinhua is expanding and being picked up, and what the impacts of that are. I did the best I could, but I mean, I think Xinhua continues to expand, and the next step is to sort of assess what the impacts are of Xinhua being picked up in so many news outlets, and to try to figure out how that changes discourse on China.

 

Liberal democracies need to vastly improve the digital literacy of their citizens, which is a huge problem not only related to China, but just the people now going online and not being able to tell the difference between outright conspiracy theories and the truth. That needs, in my opinion, needs to start very young, like in elementary school. And there are countries that prioritize digital literacy in elementary school and going forward, like Finland, like in northern European states, Australia increasingly, Taiwan does. And I think that the U.S. needs to continue to invest overseas in independent media, as well as to make sure that we continue to invest in Radio Free Asia, and Voice of America. And the Trump administration had some nascent plans to try to turn those into essentially propaganda outlets the way they were in the Cold War. That would’ve been an utter disaster.  

 

And then finally, I mean, I think China’s authoritarian model seemed appealing to some, including some in the West before zero COVID in part because democracy seemed to be failing. The stronger democracy is, at both just functioning as a actual democracy where votes are counted, and people concede, and elections proceed normally. And as democracies deliver effective management of policy making without utter gridlock, the more appealing democracies model will be and the less appealing China’s managerial authoritarian capitalism will be.

 

LINDSAY:
On that note, I’ll close up The President’s Inbox for this week. My guest has been Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at CFR. Josh is the author of the recently released book, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Josh, congratulations again on the book, and thank you for joining me.

 

KURLANTZICK:
Thanks for having me, Jim. And thanks again.

 

LINDSAY:
Please subscribe to The President’s Inbox on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us a review. We love the feedback. You can find a link to Josh’s book as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President’s Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed on The President’s Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes new institutional positions on matters of policy. 

 

Today’s episode was produced by Ester Fang, with Senior Podcast Producer Gabrielle Sierra. Molly McAnany was our recording engineer. Special thanks go out to Michelle Kurilla for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay, thanks for listening.

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