Author: Kingsley Edney, University of Leeds
When China’s infamous list of 14 grievances with Australia was leaked in 2018, commentators noted that certain complaints — including ‘unfriendly’ media coverage of China in Australia — were issues that are viewed in liberal democracies as rightfully outside the control of the government of the day.
While perhaps unlikely to succeed in Australia’s case, this tactic of putting pressure on foreign governments to reign in negative local media coverage is one that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has employed all over the world, as detailed in a new report from Freedom House.
The report argues that alongside ongoing efforts to ‘tell China’s story well’ through public diplomacy and propaganda, Beijing’s use of coercive and covert tactics to shape the international media environment is on the rise.
The report notes that China is gaining some degree of influence or control over ‘key portions of the information infrastructure’. This desire to exert control over media infrastructure — the platforms through which messages are disseminated — rather than having to rely on ‘hostile’ foreign media outlets has long been part of the CCP’s international media strategy.
The initial push was to expand China’s own media brands into global players, with outlets such as CCTV News (now known as CGTN) receiving increased funding in the years following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But the idea of exerting leverage over key gatekeepers is nothing new.
An important technique in media control in China’s domestic market has been to pressure gatekeepers, such as the editors and owners of media outlets, to police their own employees and users. That has made it possible to effectively control media content without the need for the authorities to check each individual item prior to its dissemination. The Freedom House report shows that Beijing has attempted to internationalise these tactics, with varying degrees of success.
But at issue is not simply the scale or nature of the problem of authoritarian media influence, which has now been widely recognised in Western capitals, but how best to respond. What the report makes clear is that pushback against CCP influence can come in forms that reinforce liberal democratic values and in forms that undermine those values. The most resilient countries benefit from robust media transparency and ownership laws, vibrant and diverse civil society, and independent media, backed by strong local China expertise.
Recent polling shows that public attitudes towards China are extremely negative across the Western world. But public scepticism toward Chinese authorities does not remove the need for careful policymaking in this area. Politicians can exploit negative public sentiment in illiberal ways, positioning themselves as tough on China while stoking racism against minority communities or introducing laws that stifle freedom of speech.
Some concerns about Beijing’s activities noted in the Freedom House report, such as cyberbullying and the spread of disinformation via social media, overlap with broader international trends. The privileged and powerful, including wealthy businesspeople and domestic political figures, are not averse to using legal or economic threats to intimidate investigative journalists and critical news outlets.
It is no surprise that foreign state actors would employ similar tactics, given the opportunity and motivation to do so. The good news is that tackling these issues should garner a wide coalition of support from across the political spectrum in liberal democracies, not just from those with a close eye on the CCP’s activities.
There are serious concerns that authoritarian states such as Russia and China are exploiting the openness of the information environment in liberal democracies to spread disinformation and propaganda while maintaining strict control over public discourse within their own borders.
But this asymmetry can also cause problems for the CCP’s global propaganda efforts. CGTN was ordered to stop broadcasting in the United Kingdom after the regulator ruled it was controlled by the CCP. The channel has faced similar challenges in a range of jurisdictions over its airing of forced confessions.
The Freedom House report correctly points out the importance of regulations that enforce transparency and limit foreign media ownership for curbing Beijing’s influence in ways that are fair and do not undermine liberal values. But even the successful implementation of these steps cannot guarantee that China’s influence will not grow over time — it just makes it more likely that any such influence will flow through legitimate channels.
The social and economic links with China that have greatly expanded over previous decades, combined with the sheer size of China’s economy, make some form of Chinese influence over public discourse in other countries inevitable. Absent a dramatic collapse in China’s economic strength or significant decoupling, it is worth reminding ourselves that a realistic outcome would likely involve channelling Beijing’s influence into more benign forms rather than eliminating it altogether.
Ironically, policymakers in Western capitals now appear to be facing a similar puzzle to the one that has vexed Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping — how to access the benefits of globalisation while keeping out the ‘flies and mosquitoes’ that might undermine domestic values and institutions.
Kingsley Edney is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations of China at the University of Leeds.