In Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explores the various influence campaigns being conducted by Beijing across the world. Revealing China’s overt and covert involvement in media and politics overseas and its use of soft and ‘sharp’ power, this book will be of particular interest to journalists, policymakers and students of international relations, writes Vivien Marsh.
Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. Joshua Kurlantzick. Oxford University Press. 2022.
What has happened to China’s ‘charm offensive’ – its attempt to accrue soft power and make its voice heard clearly in the world? Few scholars are better placed to adjudicate on this than Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, whose 2007 book Charm Offensive charted Beijing’s attempts to gain friends and influence through the optimistic early years of the 21st century. Kurlantzick’s new and more ambitious work, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, lands in a darker time: an era of pandemic, disinformation and war.
China’s recent rapprochements with Russia and Belarus, combined with its newly combative ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, are giving democracies cause for concern. One might conclude that China has made a direct transition from an attitude of ‘to know us is to love us’ to the football supporters’ chant of ‘no one likes us; we don’t care’. However, Kurlantzick tells a more nuanced story – of multifaceted influence campaigns conducted by Beijing all over the world, with varying goals and degrees of success. Significantly, his book says almost as much about the failings of a complacent West as it does about the rise of a newly assertive China.
Even seasoned China scholars may flinch at the scale of China’s overseas influence operations assembled by Kurlantzick here. The author painstakingly draws on scores of noteworthy studies and his own knowledge of Southeast Asia and beyond to construct a driving narrative. It reveals how deeply Beijing is involved both overtly and covertly in media and politics overseas and how it exercises soft and ‘sharp’ power to achieve its aims.
Kurlantzick explains how the atmosphere has soured since China’s charm offensive of the 1990s and 2000s. Beijing’s initial strategy, involving the external expansion of state media and the promotion of foreign aid and investment, had been well received even in Asian countries traditionally suspicious of China’s actions. Beijing’s assumption was that China was poorly understood and that all would be well once it had explained its actions. The strategy went wrong when global alarm grew at Beijing’s heavy-handed treatment of dissent at home and sharp practices in investment overseas. Enter an ‘information offensive’ containing both sharp power and a reworked form of soft power.
As Kurlantzick points out, while soft power is designed to attract and persuade, sharp power aims to confuse and disinform. The array of tools at China’s disposal for both soft and sharp operations is staggering. From traditional state media and Confucius institutes, Beijing has diversified into ‘borrowed boats’ (content-sharing deals and co-productions on foreign outlets) and ‘bought boats’ (ownership takeovers that exert covert influence). In many regions, most intensively in Africa, Chinese companies have assumed control of what Kurlantzick calls the ‘pipes’ of information, such as telecoms networks and platforms for content distribution. These can throttle unfriendly narratives or make it more expensive to obtain them.
Beijing’s external media influence reaches back into China itself, where foreign journalists are harassed and surveilled or forced to play the ‘visa game’: procedures that can lead to self-censorship or self-exile. In overseas universities, pressure through party-linked networks of Chinese students or circles of China researchers is aimed at creating silence around sensitive subjects. The media capture is particularly insidious in the diaspora. In the past decade, the author estimates, China has gained control of nearly all Chinese-language media outside its borders.
The ‘China Model’ outlined by Kurlantzick is not an immediately attractive one. Yet this ‘technology enabled authoritarianism’ does provide a development model for other countries at a time when Western notions of democracy have taken a battering. While China learned from the West in its early charm offensive, more recently it has been learning from Russia, particularly in the realm of disinformation. Beijing may previously have been reluctant to go – in Kurlantzick’s words – ‘full crazy, Kremlin style’, but it is now adept at using polarising and divisive tactics, especially on Western social media.
What has worked well for China in this information offensive? Kurlantzick sees the Xinhua news agency as capable of having a ‘transformative’ impact worldwide. This is not necessarily bad in terms of perspective: Western news agencies have, after all, long dictated which parts of the world should be seen as important. However, Kurlantzick contends that Xinhua has ‘borrowed credibility’ through low- or no-cost content-sharing deals with foreign news outlets. In Thailand, this led to the widespread adoption of Beijing’s narrative on COVID-19, which ignored the early cover-up of the outbreak and the silencing of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang. Kurlantzick also points out that outlets such as China Global Television Network (CGTN) can plug gaps left by the scaling-back of Western foreign news coverage. Yet my own research suggests that in Africa at least, CGTN has spurned the opportunity to expand, leaving many news reporters shackled to their bureaus and narrating agency footage.
What hasn’t worked so well for China is its choice of tone. The author contends that China has attempted to model the ‘alternative’ voice of its media on Al Jazeera – but coverage of China news is Beijing’s Achilles heel. While Al Jazeera English can skate over its relationship to power in Qatar, there is too much China news for Chinese state media to ignore. The more Chinese media try to explain China in a manner acceptable to their managers, the less they are likely to appeal to foreign viewers. The alternative model, Russia’s RT, may be too ‘full crazy, Kremlin style’ for China, but anti-Western invective is certainly showing up in Chinese narratives on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Despite their huge Twitter and Facebook follower counts, Chinese media abroad appear to suffer from low audience engagement. It is difficult to bid for global supremacy if no one likes your media messaging, even if you profess not to care.
Kurlantzick does not shrink from blaming Western democracies for the impact of China’s actions. After the 2008 financial crash sowed public discord in the West, populist and authoritarian politicians exploited widescale disaffection with traditional media and institutions. The open media systems of the West allowed the Trojan dragon in. China was afforded space to insert itself as an alternative model, and emerging democracies were swayed by Beijing’s influence. Western countries – until recently distracted by Russia – are belatedly turning their attention to China and wondering what should be done.
Here, Kurlantzick lays out a blueprint for what amounts to the recapture of media and society in the democratic world. According to the author, democracy is ‘badly tarnished’ and needs bolstering along with its institutions and norms. He envisages a concerted effort by democracies to root out Beijing’s ‘bought boats’ and enable the setting up of independent Chinese news outlets. His retrieval plan is concerned primarily with the US, but also includes the recent experience of Australia and New Zealand, targets of disinformation that have succeeded in rolling back Chinese political meddling.
This book sets out the big picture, mainly from the point of view of governance and geopolitics. States can certainly push back against Chinese influence, yet they cannot dictate everything that happens in journalism or social media and news outlets run on the whim of business tycoons. Unpicking ownership will be time-consuming. What is needed is a mechanism that targets disinformation on all sides, not a mechanism specifically against China. Not everything in Chinese media is propaganda; the wholesale blocking of media outlets prevents news consumers from stepping outside their domestic terms of reference and value systems. Kurlantzick is aware of the dangers of exacerbating a global divide between open and closed internet systems – a ‘digital Berlin Wall’. It is certainly important to know what Beijing is thinking and saying, while pointing up untruth, irrespective of its source.
Journalists, policymakers and students of international relations can usefully read Kurlantzick’s work in conjunction with Joanna Chiu’s China Unbound, a more person-centred account of the global impact of China’s authoritarian influence operations. Whether the democratic world is capable of organising resistance to such encroachment is not clear. Trust in national media, once lost, is not easily regained. Institutions, once corrupted, eroded or questioned, no longer bind. As Kurlantzick highlights in his conclusion, transparency needs to become the 21st-century equivalent of garlic or the crucifix, identifying and repelling malevolent infiltration and rebuilding media credibility at home.
- This review first appeared at LSE Review of Books.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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