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How to repel China's creeping media influence

September 8, 2022

A new report shows the Chinese Communist Party's effort to expand sway over international media — and what a democracy's response must be.

A group of people hold a Chinese flag in front of the Museum of the Communist Part of China
A new report reveals the Chinese Communist Party's extensive efforts to influence China's perception around the worldImage: Andy Wong/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Chinese Communist Party does not take kindly to criticism, either at home or abroad.

But while its extremely low Press Freedom Index ranking reveals the extreme measures it takes to control information in China, influencing media narratives around the world is more difficult.

But that hasn't stopped it from trying. A new report, released on Thursday by US-based free speech think tank Freedom House, reveals that from 2019 to 2021 China made a concerted effort expand its media footprint and silence critical reporting.

The report examines 30 democracies around the world and finds that in 18 of them, the Chinese Communist Party has increased attempts to influence media from 2019 to 2021.

In 16 countries, their efforts are ranked "high" or '"very high," meaning China has attempted to establish multiple methods of exerting pressure.

These methods include intimidating journalists and news outlets, providing Chinese state media content to local and national news organizations, amplifying pro-China voices on social media, controlling information flows to the Chinese diaspora and gaining a hold in content distribution platforms.

It is all a large-scale effort to control China’s image abroad, explains Freedom House’s Angeli Datt, co-author of the report. "Beijing's goal in undertaking this aggressive and expensive global campaign is to shape public opinion and distort how people view the party and its actions," she told DW.

Protesters carry a banner with the words give me back my press freedom along a street
China makes conditions for Chinese journalists inside and outside the country very difficultImage: May James/SOPA Images/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

China's aggressive tactics

Intimidation and censorship, what the report refers to as the "sharper edge" of Beijing's influence, are the most open attempts to sway international coverage.

The report refers to censorship and self-censorship by worried journalists and businesses in Israel, Ghana, the UK, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia, Taiwan and India among others. It specifically highlights campaigns of cyberbullying directed at a Chinese-American journalist and Chinese-Australian researcher who published critical pieces.

DW also spoke to a Chinese journalist based in Europe, on the condition of anonymity, who spoke of fears of what might happen to their family if they were to report openly and critically about China. "It's not just yourself you have to worry about," they said.

But other efforts to expand Chinese control can be more difficult to expose and counter, especially as China's actions are not always negative.

The media and telecommunications infrastructure that China has established in multiple African countries has allowed many more people to access the internet and satellite TV services.

"[China] would not have achieved even its limited success to date if it were not addressing genuine needs," the report acknowledges. "The availability of Chinese mobile technology and digital television services has expanded access to information and communication for millions of people, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia."

A man surrounded by four young children puts together an orange satellite dish
Chinese companies have brought important media infrastructure to Africa, but retain control over itImage: Zhang Gaiping/Xinhua/picture alliance

Chinese state media provides stories for Africa

Africa is one of the continents more susceptible to Chinese influence, owing to the comparatively less stable state of democracy, institutions and media financing.

According to Nigerian media expert Emeka Umejei, who has published a book on Chinese media in Africa, the efforts are often based around providing African media outlets with stories and sources.

"You have content sharing agreements between Chinese media and African media," explains Umejei, describing how Chinese state-run media works with and provides stories to African journalists and outlets.

"Most media organizations [in these agreements], they are not going to report critically about China," Umejei told DW. "You also have partnership agreements between Chinese embassies and local media organizations. These exist everywhere in Africa."

That influence, says Umejei, was apparent in the coverage of Pelosi's trip which in some African media, he says, "was reported with a pro-China narrative, and then you will find that the sources stringing that narrative are mostly pro-China sources."

There was, according to Umejei, little room for any other view.

Populist attacks on media undermine resilience

There are ways in which journalists, governments and civil society can successfully counter Beijing's media influence in democracies. Primarily, these boil down to transparency, safeguards and exposing of what China is trying to do.

"We call for media outlets to discontinue content sharing agreements, but if they do have them to be very transparent about them," says Datt.

"We also call for media to be more transparent with any pressure or intimidation they receive." 

Politicians also need to stop targeting journalists in their own country for political gains.

"One thing we call for governments to do, which is really within their remit to do, is to stop domestic attacks on independent media and civil society," says Datt. "Media and civil society form the strongest backbone of resilience to Beijing's efforts to influence the media."

Playing the long game

Despite the Community Party's best efforts, Freedom House and other organizations say global perceptions of China are more negative than they were in the beginning of 2019, when it first started stepping up its efforts. 

"That's when a wave of global of global condemnation started over the human rights atrocities in Xinjiang, protests in Hong Kong, and really since 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic," explains Datt.

"A lot of Beijing's own actions have really resulted in global attention on what the party is doing."

However, according to Umejei, Chinese officials are likely to be undeterred.

"These new partnerships are influencing reporting on the ground. I often say, today is just now but if we look in 10 to 15 years' time, we will look upon it differently." he said.

China is attempting to play the long game. As the Freedom House report concludes, democracies will have to be ready to do the same.

DW has contacted the Ministry for Foreign Affairs for comment.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Journalists flee repression in Hong Kong