Chinese expands tentacles of sinister media influence across the globe

A Chinese woman eats at a newspaper and magazine kiosk in Beijing, China. Picture: EPA/Michael Reynolds
A Chinese woman eats at a newspaper and magazine kiosk in Beijing, China. Picture: EPA/Michael Reynolds

Over the past decade, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have overseen a dramatic expansion in the regime’s ability to shape media content and narratives about China around the world.

This includes South Africa, says a new report, titled Beijing’s Global Megaphone, from Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.

The report revealed that in 2013, “two companies with ties to the Chinese government and state media purchased a 20% stake in Independent Media, the second-largest media firm in South Africa.

“Five years later, Azad Essa had his weekly column suddenly cancelled by the media group after he wrote about the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang.”

This is one of the ways in which CCP media influence – in the form of censorship, propaganda and control over content delivery systems – extends beyond the borders of mainland China to reach countries and audiences around the globe, the report says.

It also says that “media groups in countries as diverse as Mongolia, South Africa and Argentina have established a financial or otherwise

cooperative relationship with Chinese state entities and then reportedly shifted towards less discerning and even fawning coverage of Chinese activities.

“Even when overseas media investments are  undertaken by private Chinese companies, some coordination with the government likely occurs.

“Beginning in March 2018, news media became one of several industries listed as ‘sensitive’ for investment abroad, meaning any acquisitions

valued at more than $300 million [R4.33 billion] would require approval from the National Development and Reform Commission.

“Chinese state media content reaches hundreds of millions of television viewers, radio listeners and social media users abroad, in many cases without transparency as to its origins,” says report author Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House.

Meanwhile, journalists, news consumers, and advertisers in countries ranging from Sweden to Russia, South Africa, the US and Australia are encountering intimidation or censorship of political content that the CCP considers undesirable.

Beijing’s media influence not only distorts the information environment in the affected settings, it also undermines international norms and fundamental features of democratic governance, including transparency, the rule of law and fair competition.

The CCP and various Chinese government entities have long sought to influence public debate and media coverage about China outside the country, particularly among Chinese-speaking communities and through obstruction of foreign correspondents within China, but the reach, aggressiveness and complexity of the current tactics are new.

“They combine widely accepted forms of public diplomacy with more covert, corrupt and coercive activities that undermine democratic norms, reduce national sovereignty, weaken the financial sustainability of independent media and violate the laws of some countries,” says the report.

Beijing’s Global Megaphone provides a comprehensive guide to the evolving ways in which CCP media influence extends beyond mainland China. The report presents evidence of the impact this is having around the globe, as well as an analysis of the growing pushback it is encountering from governments, media, technology firms and civil society.

The report finds that the following changes in Beijing’s overseas media activities since early 2017 deserve special scrutiny:

  • Russian-style social media disinformation campaigns and efforts to manipulate search results on global online platforms have been attributed to China-based perpetrators.
  •  Tactics which were once used primarily to co-opt Chinese diaspora media and suppress critical coverage in overseas Chinese-language publications are now being used to influence mainstream media in various countries.
  • Beijing is gaining control over crucial parts of some countries’ information infrastructures, as Chinese technology firms with close ties to the CCP build or acquire content-dissemination platforms used by tens of millions of foreign news consumers.
  • Chinese-owned social media platforms and digital television providers in multiple regions have engaged in politicised content manipulation to favour pro-Beijing narratives.
  • Chinese officials are making a more explicit effort to present China as a model for other countries and they are taking concrete steps to encourage emulation through trainings for foreign personnel and technology transfers to foreign state-owned media outlets.

“Chinese state media, government officials and affiliated companies are achieving increased influence over key nodes in the global information flow, exploiting the more sophisticated technological environment and showing a readiness to meddle in the internal political debates and electoral contests of other countries,” said Cook.

“Governments, journalists, technology companies and civic activists are responding with initiatives to counter these efforts and protect the free flow of information, and they have scored some victories. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an economically powerful authoritarian state is rapidly expanding its influence over media production and dissemination channels around the world. This has serious implications for the survival of open, democratic societies.”

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