In the last couple of months, any consumer of international news has probably received a direct hit from China’s propaganda machine.
It’s not just the flurry of “sponsored” articles in Western newspapers promoting the merits of Beijing’s claim over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, timed around the tribunal in The Hague. Soon after these articles appeared, defending the construction of airstrips and military installations, the world’s biggest online news site announced a partnership with the China People’s Daily. The biggest selling paper in China is now officially in partnership with MailOnline, the digital arm of the Daily Mail Group.
This unholy alliance of the Communist party mouthpiece and the bastion of British right wing press that led the charge to Brexit so far seems content to share human interest stories and showbiz gossip that fixate its millions of readers. Yet such tie-ups present a risk that Western newspapers will play down or ignore questionable actions by China such as human rights for commercial reasons.
The pro-Beijing articles on the Spratly and other islands that appeared in numerous media were produced and paid for by China Daily, an English language paper produced in Beijing, but with a wide circulation of US, African, Asian and European editions. The newspaper is far more liberal than most Chinese organs, but nevertheless toes the Beijing line and is very much in the vanguard of promoting China’s perspective around the world.
Beijing’s world media focus is part of a step change in policy. China, of course, has a long history of internal propaganda efforts – an important part of controlling a vast populace and educating them about Communism. But it was a speech by President Hu Jintao in 2007 outlining the case for Chinese soft power that opened the door to an expansion in messaging. Over the last decade, more and more effort has been directed into delivering propaganda to a global audience. The program has three main prongs:
Social and cultural
Beijing has opened around 400 Confucius centers around the world to help promote the spread of Chinese culture and language. Learning Mandarin has become ever more popular, despite its difficulty for European students.
Along with China Daily, Chinese Central Television (with the unfortunate moniker CCTV) is broadcast to millions in English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and Korean. The station can learn from the impact that Russia Today has had in carving out a niche audience across the West to promote the Kremlin’s world view.
Without a doubt, it’s China’s economic activities that have made the biggest impact overseas. Its embrace of international trade has made China No. 1 exporter and second largest importer globally.
Investment policies like One Belt, One Road – an ambitious plan to connect Eurasia through large scale infrastructure projects – highlights China’s economic clout and ability to influence other nations. Its achievement in lifting millions of its own citizens from poverty lends kudos in parts of the developing world desperate to emulate such success.
New Chinese-led multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank are combining with the home-grown China Development Bank and others to take a lead in determining economic policy on a global scale in a way that will increasingly challenge the World Bank and IMF.
While China’s political system wins it few advocates among ordinary people, it’s attractive to strongmen and authoritarians the world over.
But China’s actions in South China Sea and Pacific – building airstrips and quays to bolster its territorial claims – continue to rankle and push governments away. Being the region’s most powerful economy means China can get away this to an extent.
Yet, in terms of Beijing’s propaganda push, all the sponsored articles in the world won’t make it easy for China to claim the high moral ground as it flouts an international tribunals ruling in favor of the Philippines. China risks becoming a pariah in its own backyard by pursuing such an aggressive stance.
While the country has made major progress in promoting its interests through “soft power,” it continues to alienate global opinion through its diplomatic actions and growing economic heft.
Merlin Linehan has worked in development finance within Eastern Europe and Asia, and spends much of his time investigating the risks and opportunities that are created from the ongoing expansion of Chinese businesses that invest overseas in emerging markets.