The Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to control the global narrative are increasingly backfiring, causing targeted audiences to challenge its authority
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is waging a relentless information war against the rest of the world. Its campaigns, however, are waning in their effectiveness and increasingly fueling backlashes that diminish the party’s influence.
Despite the CCP pouring billions of dollars every year into propaganda efforts across its expansive network of multimedia platforms and other influence tools, growing numbers of citizens are rejecting the party’s messaging. The Chinese government’s influencing failures have been widespread during the coronavirus pandemic but also frequent during events such as the 2020 elections in Taiwan and the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
The CCP’s propaganda is backfiring in large part because reality is getting in the way. The messages and promises clash with the experience of everyday citizens, analysts say. Moreover, the CCP’s core values blind the party to the belligerence and arrogance of its messaging, exposing the party’s self-centered intentions. If instead the CCP’s arrogance and belligerence are a deliberate attempt to show the party’s superiority of will and readiness to use force, the outcome is also negative. Use of such coercive and repressive tactics only serves to undercut CCP messaging abroad and at home.
The coronavirus crisis opened the eyes of many around the world, especially younger generations, to the negative consequences of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) brand of authoritarian government. When the CCP silenced whistleblowers such as Wuhan ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang, who later died from COVID-19, the world saw the harm caused by restricting freedom of speech. Clever media campaigns and cascades of messages from paid online armies and automated bots, no matter how sophisticated or massive, couldn’t change the reality or the perception that the PRC government withheld the truth about the outbreak — its origin, its severity and how it spread — not only from the world but also from its people and then tried to cover up the party’s malfeasance.
“In China, when doctors and journalists warn of the dangers of a new disease, the CCP silences and disappears them, and lies about death totals and the extent of the outbreak,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a June 6, 2020, statement addressing the CCP’s “obscene propaganda.”
The coronavirus “has dispelled the myths around the Beijing consensus,” Vijay Gokhale, India’s former foreign secretary who retired in 2020, wrote in March 2020 on the Strat News Global website. His comments referred to the PRC’s model of authoritarian rule, which promises economic growth and security yet is void of transparency, human rights concerns and democratic institutions.
“Try as the Chinese authorities might to showcase their system as having efficiently tackled a national emergency, even the remotest nation on Earth has learned about their failure,” Gokhale wrote. “This time it will not be so simple to whitewash. After all, it has adversely impacted the last person on Earth.”
The PRC’s attempts to blame the United States and other countries for the outbreak that originated in Wuhan fueled lasting disdain. Washington forcefully repudiated PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s suggestion in March 2020 that U.S. military personnel had brought the virus to China. Likewise, the PRC’s attempts to spread rumors the virus might have originated in Europe, likely in Italy, were quickly repudiated by scientists and a disinformation watchdog agency of the European Union, The Washington Post newspaper reported in April 2020.
The PRC’s efforts to prop itself up as a hero in the coronavirus battle also backfired, especially after the medical and protective gear it delivered to many countries, even paying ones, were found to be faulty. The Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Spain, among other nations, had to recall defective Chinese masks and test kits. Further analysis also revealed that during the pandemic, the PRC tried to control the supply of protective gear internationally, hoarding the best equipment for itself.
The PRC’s propaganda didn’t stop at extolling itself, however, but cast aspersions on other countries from Europe to the Middle East to South America. “In France, the Chinese embassy posted on its website a wild accusation that French retirement homes leave old people to die,” described Bloomberg columnist Andreas Kluth. “In Italy, Chinese sock puppets [fake online users] disseminated tales that the coronavirus had in fact originated in Europe, or doctored video clips to show Romans playing the Chinese anthem in gratitude. In Germany, Chinese diplomats (unsuccessfully) urged government officials to heap public praise on China.”
The PRC’s practices spurred many countries, including France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S., to immediately reevaluate their dependence on the PRC for key health and security supplies, Lucrezia Poggetti, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, Germany, told The Washington Post in April 2020. “There will be a reckoning after the pandemic ends,” she said. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic and India, incensed by the PRC’s bungling of the coronavirus crisis, began looking to forge stronger trade relationships with Taiwan.
Overall negative sentiment toward the PRC has increased worldwide as a result of the party’s callous mismanagement of the pandemic. “Anti-Chinese sentiment was already rampant in the developing world before the coronavirus, thanks to issues as varied as rising debt, aggressively hostile media and online fights, and China’s mass imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs. The CCP’s demonstrably poor initial response to the pandemic’s outbreak has added fuel to the fire,” wrote Charles Dunst, an associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics.
The PRC has extended loans to many countries for projects that aren’t financially viable, such as the one that forced Sri Lanka in late 2017 to hand over its Hambantota port to China for 99 years.
“Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan each owe more than 45% of their GDPs [gross domestic products] to China over Belt and Road [One Belt, One Road] projects, and are at risk of similarly ceding control of areas of interest to Beijing. For these countries, along with two dozen that owe at least 20% of their GDPs to China, the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus poses a tangible threat to sovereignty,” Dunst wrote.
African nations, which make up half of the top 50 nations most indebted to China, find themselves under similar strain from the PRC, which as of mid-2020 was slow to offer debt relief to countries struggling as a result of the PRC facilitating the spread of the virus.
Hegemonic Blind Spot
Often, the CCP’s diplomatic belligerence in its demands for absolute loyalty also sparks retribution because such campaigns offend citizens from other countries, analysts explain. For example, a music video released in mid-April 2020 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 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 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 [CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’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.
“The CCP’s compulsion with ‘finding enemies and uniting the front’ created the ‘China-versus-all’ scenario and thereby constricted partnerships. The purpose of propaganda is, after all, not to alienate the audience,” Kim wrote. In its propaganda campaigns during the coronavirus pandemic, however, the CCP has publicly antagonized officials from Brazil to Iraq and Nigeria to Sri Lanka.
“As in the case of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s information warfare in the international arena may not be as good as it hoped. This, however, doesn’t mean that the Chinese information warfare is so poor that it can be ignored,” Kuni Miyake, president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, wrote in a March 2020 commentary in The Japan Times.
“That Beijing could not successfully deflect criticism in the international community that China had started a global pandemic is welcome. This, however, doesn’t mean that China’s domestic information control is also poor. The government’s skill to control the flow, quantity and quality of information inside the modern Chinese empire should not be underestimated,” Miyake said. “Some people in Tokyo may hope the pandemic will eventually lead to the fall of the People’s Republic of China. This is wishful thinking. As long as the Chinese government can tightly control information internally, the regime will survive for the foreseeable future. That’s what authoritarian dictatorship is all about.”
Failures at Home
Signs indicate, however, that the CCP’s propaganda is increasingly backfiring on the homefront as well, causing some Chinese citizens to question authority. In the past year, the CCP’s narrative stumbled domestically because the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation hard, and the party’s messaging contradicts the reality that Chinese citizens experienced, King-wa Fu, an expert on Chinese censorship at the University of Hong Kong, told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in February 2020. Even worse, the PRC negated its tacit agreement with its people who trade their individual rights for security, causing them to question the competence of the CCP’s governance, analysts said.
The PRC was unable to contain the truth about the virus’s toll on its citizens, given the volume of online chatter, which included accounts of the horrible treatment of patients and anecdotes of corpses piling up and cremated remains being improperly handled. “The sheer amount of criticism — and the often clever ways in which critics dodge censors, such as … by comparing the outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe — have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message,” journalist Raymond Zhong wrote in The New York Times newspaper in January 2020.
“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times. “It is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative,” said Xiao, who founded China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls.
The CCP’s attempts not just to censor but to manipulate the narrative failed at home, too. For example, a CCP campaign by its Communist Youth League to introduce a brother-and-sister pair of “virtual idols” to win over the younger generation fell flat. “The announcement was swiftly swamped with criticism from Weibo users, who accused the organization of gimmickry that cheapens China’s image,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “While people are painfully persevering on the battle front against the epidemic, why are you messing around with two-dimensional idols?” a Weibo user wrote, according to the Journal. Another Weibo poster accused the league of “wasting resources and ignoring the national disaster.”
The CCP quickly pulled down the memes.
Instead of trending virtual heroes, the CCP’s campaigns and suppression of voices during the coronavirus created real heroes who encouraged a new generation of resisters to the CCP. “If we can’t become a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let’s be a person who can hear the whistle blowing,” Beijing-based novelist Yan Lianke said during a lecture at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in February 2020, according to The New York Times. Yan’s books and short stories are satirical, which has resulted in some of his most renowned works being banned in China. To avoid CCP censorship, he has admitted to self-censorship while writing his stories “If we can’t speak out loud, then let’s become a whisperer,” Yan said. “If we can’t be a whisperer, then let’s become a silent person who remembers and keeps memories. … Let’s become a person with graves in our heart.”
Taiwan Election Rejection
The January 2020 Taiwan elections, in which voters strongly repelled the CCP’s attempts to influence and interfere in the vote, represent another prominent example of the diminishing influence of the CCP’s propaganda machine. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party won by large margins despite massive interventions by the CCP, which views Taiwan as part of the PRC’s territory and engages in coercive measures to get it under its control.
The CCP’s hackers, disinformation bots and microblogging services were no match for a public and a political leader attuned to the CCP’s tactics and accustomed to barrages of propaganda and misinformation. “China has a long history of meddling in Taiwan,” Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in November 2019 on the council’s website.
The extent of the CCP’s operations were revealed that same month when two executives from a Hong Kong-listed company were detained on suspicion of violating Taiwan’s National Security Act, Taiwan prosecutors said. A PRC defector alleged the two suspects were working to control Taiwan media to influence election outcomes, Reuters reported. “Taiwan was the most important work of ours: the infiltration into media, temples, and grassroots organizations,” Wang “William” Liqiang, the asylum seeker and a self-described Chinese spy, said through a translator on Australia’s 60 Minutes program on November 24, 2019, CNBC reported. Wang gave a sworn statement to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation about the PRC’s activities to influence politics in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Reuters reported.
In Taiwan, the CCP had long since shifted from methods of persuasion to those of coercion without violence, according to Brookings Institution scholar Richard Bush. For some time before the elections, the CCP had been employing its “troll factory” to establish accounts on Weibo, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms to conduct “cognitive space combat,” the Taiwan News, an English-language daily newspaper, reported in November 2018. For example, the CCP’s 50-Cent Army, which is composed of netizens who are paid nominally to make pro-CCP comments on social media sites, was regularly launching at least 2,500 attacks per day against websites in Taiwan, according to a January 2019 edition of Asia Report.
In the lead-up to the 2020 Taiwan elections, the PRC also used other aggressive tactics such as stealing Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, restricting mainland tourists from visiting Taiwan and increasing air and naval military exercises in the area to intimidate Taiwan, according to Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The CCP’s efforts to oust Tsai hit new levels of political manipulation, however. The CCP helped promote a pro-Beijing candidate, Han Kuo-yu, who challenged the incumbent president in 2020. Analysts allege the CCP manipulated Taiwan media during 2018 local elections to help Han be elected mayor in Kaohsiung to enable his later presidential bid. The CCP employed a professional cyber group based in China to help Han achieve victory in the mayoral contest, Foreign Policy magazine reported in June 2019.
Not only did Tsai win by a landslide in the January 2020 contest but voters in Kaohsiung ousted Han as mayor six months later in June. The number of votes to recall Han far exceeded the threshold required to pass the measure, according to The Associated Press (AP). Analysts hailed the success of the recall, which was Taiwan’s first such vote, as another sign of the strength and accountability of the island’s democracy, AP reported.
To counter the CCP’s information war in Taiwan, the incumbent president and Taiwan’s lead intelligence agency issued warnings about the PRC’s activities and introduced new laws to combat foreign infiltration and political interference in the democratic process. “The Chinese government attacked Taiwan purposely before our presidential and legislative elections, obviously aiming to meddle with the voting. The government strongly condemns this and urges people to hold on to its sovereignty and the value of freedom and democracy,” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said in September 2019, according to Reuters.
Information platforms were put on high alert to monitor fake news as the election drew close. In early December 2019, Facebook said it removed 200 accounts, pages and groups for violating the platform’s standards as they related to fake news regarding the Taiwan elections. Fact-checking groups in Taiwan also held seminars and created websites and chat rooms to help voters identify fake news, Reuters reported.
Milk Tea Alliance
Another example of CCP messaging gone bad is the emergence of a social media opposition network in April 2020 known as the Milk Tea Alliance, so named for a shared passion for tea drinks popular in Southeast Asia and elsewhere outside China.
Two Thai celebrities tied to a popular Thai soap opera that is also watched in China were targeted by the PRC’s online armies for supporting Hong Kong and Taiwan independence in their online comments. Thai citizens battled back by forging an online alliance that kept growing across borders. A Hong Kong pro-democracy activist posted a meme of three figures clinking glasses of milk tea and called for pan-Asian solidarity “to fend off all forms of authoritarianism from China.” The hashtags #MilkTeaAlliance and #MilkTeaIsThickerThanBlood appeared in over a million tweets.
The pan-Asian network reflects the difference between official opinion and public opinion in these countries when it comes to China, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an international relations professor with Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Voice of America. “There is divergent posture between Southeast Asian governments and their people,” Pongsudhirak said. “Their governments actually are pro-China, such as the Philippines and Thailand.”
What began as a petty online attack by the CCP caused #MilkTeaAlliance and its memes to become symbols of solidarity among internet users in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond to resist the PRC’s coercive propaganda. In the ensuing weeks and months, users in the Philippines joined the online coalition to show their opposition to the PRC’s militarization of the South China Sea. Australians and Indians also entered the online fray to oppose PRC aggression.
The resulting online alliance could enable powerful dialogue among transregional pro-democracy groups, some analysts say. “When your shared adversary is as big as the Chinese Communist Party, there’s an increased recognition of the power that comes with banding together,” Dan McDevitt, a technology and human rights researcher, told the Axios website. The alliance has led to “increased awareness, attention and sympathy” across the region, he said, “especially when they’re facing their own pro-democracy struggles at home.”
Already there is evidence the alliance may have real-life ramifications. In June 2020, Thai student activists baked cookies in the shape of the Tiananmen gate in Beijing and the iconic “Tank Man” figure and handed them out in front of the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Khaosod English news website reported. The cookies had milk tea flavor in a nod to the Milk Tea Alliance. Meanwhile, Taiwan President Tsai has conveyed her solidarity with Hong Kong in a Facebook post. Taiwan has also pledged to help Hong Kong residents who want to move to Taiwan as a result of the PRC passing a restrictive national security law that has had chilling effects on civil liberties.
Danny Marks, an assistant professor with the City University of Hong Kong, told Voice of America that the online discussion has evolved into a wider political protest because residents of these countries are increasingly dissatisfied with China’s one-sided actions. “It also shows the limited ability of Chinese to wage internet warfare,” he said. “They had previously been pampered by the one-sided Chinese internet.”
Despite the scale of the CCP’s propaganda war on the world, its campaigns seem to only be deteriorating the party’s image. Its tactics during the coronavirus pandemic, in particular, may have caused irreparable damage to the CCP’s credibility and reputation abroad and to its authority at home.
“As China started getting control over the virus and started this health diplomacy, it could have been the opportunity for China to emphasize its compassionate side and rebuild trust and its reputation as a responsible global power,” Susan Shirk, a China scholar and director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, told The New York Times in May 2020. “But that diplomatic effort got hijacked by the Propaganda Department of the party, with a much more assertive effort to leverage their assistance to get praise for China as a country and a system and its performance in stopping the spread of the virus.”
Moreover, the resulting backlash against the CCP was more severe because the CCP sought to fuel its propaganda machine with fake news and misinformation and to leverage the destabilization of countries that its wanton policies only exacerbated during the coronavirus crisis. At a time when the world needed leadership and compassion, Chinese leaders showed none. Instead the CCP laid bare its goal, according to many analysts, to become the dominant world power, even if it comes at the expense of citizens of other countries or even its own. Message received.