Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Image credit: the Atlantic
The 21st century’s weapons of propaganda and control of one’s understanding are asymmetric. While soft power, if weaponised to political and national interests, can benefit, it remains limited in a political context. World media is something that drives understanding of issues and global affairs in the 21st century, and due to rapid internet infrastructure and transformation in the field of how we access and gather information, this media is now being used as a weapon of propaganda and sometimes to control the discourse around a particular topic. This weapon is lethal as it’s used for shaping a person’s political understanding.
China has created a global media circle that revolves around its orbit of party control. There has been a massive push from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) into the global media to shift the international discourse about China and the CCP. by discourse. The meaning is simple - themes, frames, and words used to describe and talk about a specific topic. China wanted to make its own CNN like the USA to propagate the Chinese way of news and understand various issues. In other words, looking at the world from the Chinese perspective. This is not something new. Nations like the USA, the UK, and other western countries have always used media to shape the global discourse around a topic but to weaponise it for a country and party’s interest is something new and alarming.
In 2016 Xi Jinping gave a speech about the need to create a Chinese ‘flagship media with strong international influence.’ more than $10 billion has been devoted to creating a Chinese media juggernaut. In 2011, the president of Xinhua News Agency, Li Congjun, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a ‘new media world order’. In today’s piece, we examine and discuss China’s global media influence.
CHINESE MEDIA’S CIRCLE
There has been a radical change around China’s image in the world. The media has mostly stopped talking about the atrocities happening with the Tibetians, minorities, and Uyghurs in China. Many other reports around China have been shaped so that they sound pro-China or not critical about it. This has been due to increasing Chinese influence on the media platform in the world. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the western media has faced a cash crunch which the Chinese have filled with their money. This has led to a massive change in the way of reporting on China. With a great deal of assistance from western media specialists, the Chinese have constructed a robust media infrastructure.
In 2016, Xi Jinping gave an important speech stating that ‘the media must be surnamed party’. CCP’s history of media loyalty goes way back in history. There’s an intricate system of control before and after publication or broadcast. In 1955, Mao Zedong instructed Xinhua to manage the globe and let the world hear China’s voice. Xinhua is China’s state-owned media goliath, and it was told to win over Asia-Africa before the west with its media coverage. The creation of international-level media was mainly accelerated in 2008. CCP started pouring loads of cash into global expansion. In 2018 CCP merged national TV broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), China National Radio and China Radio International into the China Media Group. This group gets its orders from CCP’s central propaganda department. The international arm of CCTV was branded as CGTN in 2016. It broadcasts in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian. It has centres in Nairobi, Washington D.C. and London. China’s Xinhua has 180 bureaus outside of China and HQs in Brussels, New York City and Moscow.
Another major player is the China Daily Group. It’s China Daily, China's oldest English-Language daily. It was founded in 1981 with funding from the Australian government. This group takes orders from the State Council Information Office, the name for CCP’s External Propaganda Office when interacting with the outside world. One of the well-known subsidiaries of this group is the Global Times. Whose editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, is famous for his nationalistic outbursts. These groups are mostly party owned but internationally, they present their commercial face of being independent of the party.
The example of Beijing’s control over these media outlets is shown through the Taiwanese Flag being cropped or other critical reports of China not being published. Xinhua’s employees sometimes have used their credentials to spy on leaders like the Dalai Lama in 2012. To make their news sound more credible and acceptable, China uses media localisation. Western anchors and reporters are used to report the news so that the western population presumes it to be reasonable. CGTN has been hiring local anchors and paying them handsomely.
Western journalists are used as mouth-pieces of the party like Martin Jacques, who said in 2017 that the West must learn from the Chinese and China’s rise is a great period of democratisation. China has also created many centres for media learning, like the China Media Centre at the University of Westminster. To learn and propagate news more like the westerners. This has been done so that the Chinese spokespeople can adequately answer the western media. China has also bought many media houses in Africa and Europe. They have established headquarters in North America and its important power centres like Canada and The USA. It is also using the belt and road media agreements to promote its own discourse in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
THE GREAT WALL OF MEDIA
The Chinese have restricted their media space like their internet. No critical media coverage is broadcasted. Content of foreign social media platforms is also censored, like LinkedIn, which has 40 million users in China. In 2018, LinkedIn blocked the account of Chinese Dissident Fengsuo Zhou. Despite the domestic curtailment, Chinese outlets use platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Youtube to propagate their side of news but censor the western side of the report. The CCP has used social media for disinformation.
In 2019, when Taiwan legalised gay marriage, the People’s Daily claimed it to be a progressive step by the People’s Republic of China. During the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy protests, the People’s Daily showed images of pro-democracy protesters as the supporters of the Extradition Bill. Paid ads are used on Twitter to promote China’s political system and stand on Xinjiang. On Youtube, the content is made in a way to appeal to the young watchers. These clips present China’s system as Meritocracy. The fact that the Chinese Authorities censor and restrict use for the local population and simultaneously use the same platforms for propagating its side shows how the Chinese have exploited the openness of democracies. China also has an army of online trolls, users, and commentators who generate more than 450 million comments online against topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Uyghurs every year. China also has strategic media tie-ups with many western outlets.
One such agreement is the China Watch, a supplement used to propagate China’s side in influential news outlets. News outlets like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and El Pais, among others. The Daily Telegraph in London gets $1 million per year for China Watch. China Watch, even after being a propaganda arm, gets credibility after being posted in these papers. Agreements with Associated Press, Reuters, British Metro and Agence France with Xinhua sometimes lead to biased reporting and self-censorship. China also has Chinese-Language newspapers for the Chinese diaspora.
There are also Chinese associations like the Association of Overseas Chinese Media in Europe. After the financial crisis of 2008, Chinese investors spent more than $3 billion in buying media houses and ads in Europe alone. Some of these are the Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias, Propeller TV London, influential American business magazine Forbes, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, etc.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists lament the passing of the once-independent SCMP (South China Morning Post). Which now posts uncritical news about China and censors critical news. Often, this enormous influence of the Chinese state media leads to self-censorship on the part of the foreign media to protect their interests. China has agreements and invested money in many foreign outlets, and these outlets depend on China for cash. This dependence has led to self-censorship, agreements of exclusive access to leaders and interviews also restrict foreign media from taking action as they will lose Chinese viewership or foreign viewership competitions. The Great Firewall of Media is shaping the New World Media World Order.
THE NEW ORDER
Promoting one's own side is in everyone’s favour, but when that gets weaponised to censor and shape the thinking and understanding of an individual viewer, that gets messy. That promotion is pure propaganda and should be restricted. The Chinese use their enormous money, power and influence to buy media houses and then censor and shape them. It is shifting these houses into the orbit of China’s media circle and propagating pro-China voices.
The Chinese have used this new media power during the time of coronavirus pandemic to shift the global discourse from negative to positive towards them. This also leads to downplaying human rights atrocities in Xinjiang and Tibet. This changing of media order could have been more equitable and unbiased due to central party control. It is being used to censor and suppress critical reporting. Image building is being done in favour of China and at the expense of global press freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights.
There is western bias in international reporting, but China’s reporting method is not doing good to end that bias but creating another one. This New World Media Order is Chinese. The Chinese are exporting this ‘New World Media Order’ that seeks to make censorship, critical reports restrictions, promote pro-china narrative, and downplay atrocities on the minorities in the press acceptable. Such power and influence in the hands of one nation will be detrimental to global press freedom and will lead to ‘New Media Blunder’.
BY HARSH SURI
CO-FOUNDER THE GEOSTRATA