Subverting the Global Narrative

Subverting the Global Narrative

The Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Apparatus Seeks to Rule the World’s Media


In its quest to control the global story line, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) propaganda machine is operating at full bore.

In the past decade or so, the CCP has dramatically increased its efforts to systematically gain control of the world’s media to implement its agenda, which seeks to trample democracy, free speech and human rights globally, according to analysts. To spread its coercive messages, the CCP is employing a range of strategies and tactics, from increasing its international broadcasting capacity to undertaking extensive advertising campaigns abroad to subverting foreign media outlets.

The scale, scope and nature of the CCP’s propaganda organization and overall strategy could undermine the foundation of civil governance worldwide, many experts worry. “While some aspects of [the Chinese party-state’s] effort are in line with traditional public diplomacy, many others are covert, coercive, and potentially corrupt,” according to “Beijing’s Global Megaphone,” a December 2019 report published by Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization funded by the U.S. Congress. 

“The CCP and its proxies have demonstrated no qualms in deploying economic leverage to neutralize and suppress critical reporting — not only on events within China, but also on China’s engagement abroad. There is ample evidence that the PRC has used propaganda and disinformation to influence voters in democracies. Meanwhile, many of the same tactics are being applied in sectors beyond the scope of this report, like education, the arts, literature, and the entertainment industry,” Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for Freedom House, wrote in the report. 

Protesters in Hong Kong walk on photographs of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping on October 1, 2019. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

By infiltrating foreign media organizations, the CCP is damaging legitimate journalism, which serves as a critical check and balance on the power base of countries around the world, experts contend. “What is at stake is not only the Chinese authorities trying to spread their own propaganda … what is at stake is journalism as we know it,” Cedric Alviani, East Asia Bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, told Time magazine in March 2019.

The CCP not only restricts press freedom in China but also is repressing journalists overseas by using tactics similar to those the party uses at home to silence dissent, including “employing blackmail, intimidation and harassment on a massive scale,” according to “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order,” a 2019 report by Reporters Without Borders. For example, “Chinese ambassadors extend their role outside of the regular diplomatic roles. They denigrate journalists anytime they write something that does not meet Chinese propaganda,” Alviani told Time.

“There are limits to the [CCP] campaign’s effectiveness at present, but the strategies being pursued have long-term implications, particularly as the CCP and its international affiliates gain greater influence over key portions of the information infrastructure in developing countries,” Cook concluded in the Freedom House report. “The potential future impact of Beijing’s practices should not be underestimated.”

Building an Influence Network

How did the CCP and various Chinese government-related entities get to this point? While world leaders have largely been focused on security and economic threats in the Middle East, the CCP has been steadily building its influence network everywhere else. In 2002, the CCP revised the People’s Liberation Army’s doctrine to include the use of media warfare to influence foreign governments and populations to view the party favorably, according to The Guardian newspaper. Since then, the Chinese party-state has embraced the internet as a battlefield in recognition that whoever controls the information, and the tunnels through which that information flows, will win the ideological war. 

To fight this information operations war, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been spending heavily. The regime spent between U.S. $7 billion and U.S. $10 billion in 2015 alone to amplify its global media outreach, The Guardian reported. The Chinese government pays for much of these efforts through a propaganda tax imposed on public businesses, according to Anne-Marie Brady, professor of political science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The rise of social media over the past decade has helped the CCP’s media expansionism by obfuscating awareness of the breadth and depth of the CCP’s financial stake in global media infrastructure.

Besides money, three key tactics make the CCP’s strategy effective. First, the Chinese party-state focuses on the long term, which experts contend is the only way to erode a population’s ideological base. Other countries generally demand immediate short-term wins and effects, which do not permanently change behavior. The CCP understands that lasting behavior change is a slow and methodical process conducted over a long period of time. Many first-world countries and militaries do not appreciate this requirement. Those that do often lack the patience or political wherewithal to implement such long-term strategies, experts observe. 

Second, the CCP uses every state-owned enterprise in every country where it operates as an asset to collect, distribute, influence or fund the party’s propaganda. In this way, the CCP “borrows boats” in foreign countries and dispatches them to do its bidding. The CCP-controlled, state-owned radio company introduced the strategy jie chuan chu hai, or “borrowing a boat to go out to the ocean,” to pursue financial control of foreign radio stations and their programming content. CCP-controlled companies also use their host nations’ own laws and freedoms against them, another tactic that democratic countries are not generally willing or inclined to leverage. 

Third, the CCP pushes its centralized ideology down to every node that can disseminate information. There are no authorities, no permissions and no legal roadblocks, provided an entity pushes the messages that the CCP wants. 

Global Penetration

The level of CCP influence and propaganda is at global proportions. The CCP and PRC have been investing as much as U.S. $1.3 billion annually to increase the footprint of Chinese media. With such funds, Chinese state-run TV and radio outlets have significantly expanded their international reach. China Global Television Network is seen in 140 countries, according to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 report. The network also operates propaganda production centers in London, Washington, D.C., and Nairobi, Kenya, to spread CCP influence across Europe, Africa and the United States, the report found. 

The CCP has also used such funds to buy up the global airwaves. State-run China Radio International (CRI), which broadcasts in 65 languages, operates more than 70 stations from Finland and Nepal to Australia and the U.S., Reuters reported. CRI also wholly owns Guoguang Century Media Consultancy, which in turn holds a 60% stake in three subsidiaries: GBTimes, Global CAMG Media Group, and G&E Studio Inc., according to Reuters. Global CAMG Media Group, for example, operates 70 foreign radio stations, according to Reporters Without Borders; 11 of the stations are in Australia, The Guardian reported. Host country governments have allowed the PRC to buy and lease AM radio stations unencumbered for the most part. Beijing’s 60%-owned WCRW AM radio station, for example, broadcasts into Washington, D.C., the U.S. capital, according to Reuters. From Mexico, XEWW AM broadcasts PRC propaganda into Southern California, according to  

Demonstrators don bear costumes and display banners with insults to General Secretary Xi Jinping during a coronavirus-related protest March 27, 2020, in Brazil. REUTERS

The CCP manages a formidable print news portfolio as well. People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the party and the nation’s largest newspaper, has a circulation of 3 million. Its offshoot Global Times, an ultra-nationalist, state-run tabloid, has a print run of 1 million copies. Its English-language version, launched in 2009, has a print run of 100,000. Its website, which is produced in 10 languages, claims to have 15 million visits a day. Published solely in English, China Daily, which is a fully owned subsidiary and propaganda arm of the CCP, targets non-Chinese people, English-speaking Chinese and the diaspora. It claims a print run of 900,000 copies and a total of 150 million readers for its print and online versions combined. China Daily spent more than U.S. $20 million on influence operations in the U.S. alone between 2017 and 2019, according to a June 2019 article in the Human Events newspaper. The CCP has struck deals with at least 30 foreign and U.S. newspapers to carry “China Watch,” a four- to eight-page propaganda insert, which has an estimated circulation of 5 million. 

The CCP has also acquired major stakes in newspapers worldwide and continues to censor their content in insidious ways. Companies linked to Beijing hold a 20% share in South Africa’s second-largest media group, Independent Media, for instance. When a South African journalist and columnist wrote an article for the Independent Online in 2018 highlighting the CCP’s human rights abuses of Muslim minority Uighurs, his syndicated column “At the World’s End” was canceled, according to Reporters Without Borders. 

Meanwhile, Xinhua, the CCP’s state-run news agency, had established 162 foreign bureaus as of 2017 and was projected to have at least 220 bureaus by 2020, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report, “Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access.”

The CCP also strives to make its state-controlled media seem legitimate. In Thailand, Xinhua signed a memorandum of understanding with Matichon Group, parent company of Thailand’s Khaosod newspaper, to enable Khaosod to publish Xinhua’s news wire at no cost, Foreign Policy magazine revealed in a 2019 report. This allows Xinhua’s propaganda to reach Khaosod’s 13 million Facebook followers and the 900,000 daily readers under the guise of a legitimate newspaper. The Khaosod English news chief served as a liaison for the deal and is also a contributor to the “China Watch” insert. Xinhua also pushes its content through similar agreements to Laos’ Vientiane Times, Cambodia’s Khmer Times and Cambodia Daily, and the Philippines’ Manila Bulletin. 

Protesters display a banner criticizing Chinese Communist Party leaders including General Secretary Xi Jinping in protest over proposed amendments to an extradition law in Hong Kong in June 2019. REUTERS

Wielding Media Weapons

After acquiring its media arsenal, the CCP has craftily wielded its weapons. During the past five years, for example, the CCP has gained influential control over four foreign boats in Cambodia: Fresh News, People’s Daily and Phnom Penh Post newspapers and NICE TV, according to the Reporters Without Borders report. With Beijing’s help, Prime Minister Hun Sen won Cambodia’s parliamentary elections in 2018. The Cambodian government later arrested, killed or drove out all journalists, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as human rights watchdogs who spoke out against the government, and anyone who highlighted the Chinese government’s land grab of Sihanoukville or its secret agreement to build and use that province’s Ream Naval Base, a move that would violate Cambodia’s Constitution, The Wall Street Journal newspaper reported. The CCP’s use of foreign boats externally influenced Cambodian politics to the detriment of its people.

The CCP similarly uses its media weapons to control the environmental narrative. The PRC is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases and the largest consumer of coal, as documented by the Climate Action Tracker website, yet its various media platforms promote propaganda about the PRC’s so-called green forest cities and other supposedly green activities. The PRC is engaged in some of the Indo-Pacific’s worst environmental degradation in the Mekong region, where its dam-building along the great river is destroying entire ecosystems and people’s livelihoods and challenging sovereignty of the Mekong countries, as Dr. Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, explained in a 2019 article in the Taipei Times newspaper. These dams will put the countries along the Mekong at the mercy of the PRC and its ruling party, which will effectively control the flow of the river. The PRC is potentially infringing on the sovereignty of the Mekong countries with each dam it convinces these countries to let it build, all abetted by the CCP propaganda machine.

The 50-Cent Army is yet another propaganda tool the CCP has been using to sway online followers. In 2004, the Chinese party-state launched the 50-Cent Army, also called the 50-Cent Party, which consists of roughly 2 million people who are used to disrupt mobilization and collective action, derail and dilute criticism, and promote a positive CCP narrative online. While predominantly used within the PRC’s domestic platforms to control and monitor the country’s people, the Chinese government also employs these online trolls to support propaganda efforts targeting the outside world. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, CCP operators virtually attacked foreign athletes who defeated Chinese competitors. The CCP also deployed the trolls to push its agenda during the runup to Taiwan’s 2020 elections and the Hong Kong protests and to cover up abuses in Uighur “reeducation” camps and organ harvesting operations, according to media accounts. The Chinese party-state’s biggest fears are a domestic and global collective action and the mobilization of a movement or idea counter to the CCP, experts explain. 

For this reason, much of CCP propaganda targets overseas Chinese and non-Chinese foreign audiences. For many years, the CCP has also applied political levers to control the content of foreign media even in the U.S. For example, in 2013 Bloomberg News nixed an investigation into the accumulation of wealth by elite members of the CCP because its executives feared repercussions by the Chinese government, NPR reported. Bloomberg feared it would lose access to China after the investigative reporter and his wife received death threats. “It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country,” Bloomberg’s founding editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, said in October 2013, according to NPR. “So, I just don’t see that as a story that is justified,” referring to the investigative piece.

Bloomberg’s fears proved justified given the CCP’s ongoing pressure to control foreign media outlets. For example, the CCP expelled journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Voice of America from China in March 2020 allegedly for coverage critical of the party. 

Firefighters stand outside offices of the Xinhua news agency, which is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, after the agency’s windows were smashed by protesters in Hong Kong in November 2019. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Often the CCP’s propaganda campaigns backfire, however, in large part because of its “diplomatic belligerence.” Its demands for absolute loyalty to the party are offensive to citizens from other countries. For example, a music video intended to highlight the PRC’s efforts to aid the Philippines during the coronavirus pandemic instead stirred widespread anger because many Filipinos interpreted it as a “veiled attempt by Beijing to reassert its claims over the whole of the South China Sea,” as The Straits Times newspaper reported. The music video appeared within days of the Philippines filing a diplomatic protest against the PRC for creating two new districts that are not internationally recognized to administer islands in the South China Sea, including expanses that the Philippines claims.  

 “While engaging every side in full-fledged narrative warfare may reinforce China’s nationalism at home, the belligerency is antithetical to the image of a ‘responsible major power’ China is trying to portray and undercuts Xi’s vision of ‘building a community with a shared future for mankind,’” journalist Jo Kim explained in a commentary published in late April 2020 in The Japan Times newspaper.

A woman walks by a propaganda poster with the word “wear” outside a Beijing residence in March 2020. Chinese Communist Party propaganda penetrates all aspects of Chinese society. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Emerging Countermeasures 

To manipulate foreign audiences to ensure the CCP’s perpetuity, the Chinese party-state recruits and trains foreign journalists, purchases media outlets, leases majority air time and holds influential amounts of shares in media outlets, among other approaches. In essence, the CCP pushes its propaganda in any outlet that will take its money. 

World leaders are increasingly concerned about the CCP’s activities that not only push its propaganda globally but also exploit fissures in democracies, divide governments and use host nation laws, bureaucracy, policies and freedom of speech against host interests. In a growing number of countries, government, military and civil society actors are awakening to the CCP’s activities to deepen its foreign influence in its quest for global dominance and regional hegemony. As a result, they are exploring ways to protect media freedom and democratic structures from the harmful influence of the CCP’s propaganda machine, but much work remains to implement them. 

“Their efforts to identify policies and legislation to increase transparency and restrict cross-ownership, punish coercive and corrupt actions by Chinese officials, and insulate independent media from threats to their financial sustainability will not only address Beijing’s encroachments, but also strengthen democratic institutions and independent media against other domestic and international threats,” according to Freedom House. “Such action may require considerable political will, as certain measures designed to uphold media freedom and fair competition in the long term will be opposed by Beijing and could hinder Chinese investment in the short term. But it is increasingly clear that allowing the authoritarian dimensions of CCP media influence campaigns to expand unchecked carries its own costs.”  

Policy Recommendations to Counter the CCP’s Propaganda Machine

Policymakers in democratic nations should help counter the negative impact of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) foreign media influence campaigns. They can, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House:

  • Increase transparency. Governments should adopt or enforce policies that enhance publicly available information about Chinese media influence activities in their countries. These could include reporting requirements for media outlets’ spending on paid advertorials, ownership structures and other economic ties to Chinese state actors.
  • Impose penalties for transgressions by Chinese officials. When Chinese diplomats and security agents overstep their bounds and attempt to interfere with media reporting in other countries, the host government should vigorously protest, warning that such behavior may violate diplomatic protocols. If the act in question is repeated or particularly egregious, the host government should consider declaring the offenders persona non grata.
  • Scrutinize international censorship and surveillance by PRC-owned companies. Lawmakers in democracies should hold hearings to better understand the scope, nature and impact of politicized censorship and surveillance on Tencent’s WeChat platform, ByteDance’s TikTok, and Chinese-made mobile phone browsers, then explore avenues for pressuring the companies in question to uphold users’ rights to free expression and privacy. Politicians who choose to use WeChat, TikTok or other Chinese government-owned or controlled platforms to communicate with constituents should monitor messaging closely to detect any manipulation, register their accounts with international phone numbers when possible, and republish messages on parallel international social media platforms.
  • Tighten and enforce broadcasting regulations. Media regulators should revise or better enforce their broadcasting rules to curb abusive practices by the People’s Republic of China’s state media and related companies, such as the airing of forced confessions by prisoners of conscience or the manipulation of media distribution infrastructure in which the companies have acquired an ownership stake. Regulatory agencies should conduct investigations into potential violations and impose conditions on purchases and mergers to address conflicts of interest.
  • Support independent Chinese-language media. Media development funders should ensure that exile and diaspora outlets are included in projects that offer funding, training and other assistance opportunities to Chinese-language media. Governments should proactively engage with such outlets, providing interviews and exploring other potential partnerships, while resisting pressure from Chinese diplomats to marginalize them. Funders should provide technical and financial support to strengthen cyber security among independent Chinese-language outlets.
  • Discuss responses with democratic counterparts. Diplomats, media regulators, lawmakers and others should regularly discuss the CCP’s foreign media influence tactics and best-practice responses as part of the agenda at bilateral and multilateral meetings among democratic governments. A growing number of governments and other actors are engaging in initiatives to mitigate the problem, and these are likely to yield new lessons and more effective tools. Organized sharing of the resulting knowledge will magnify its impact and encourage the adoption of practices that are fit for purpose and consistent with democratic values.

Source: “Beijing’s Global Megaphone,” Freedom House, December 2019