Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States. He returned in 2002 and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and returned to the US after his release.
In a weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date, and other recent affairs.
Disinformation about coronavirus published by state-backed media outlets in autocracies such as from China, Russia and Iran Turkey is frequently reaching a larger European social media audience than those European countries’ own domestic news providers.
Surprised? This was the major finding of a study conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute and released on June 29, 2020, looking at the dissemination of Covid-19 related news among French, German and Spanish readers.
It found, for instance, that China Radio International (CRI) has generated four times the number of engagements per shared article than such leading publications as the Spanish El Pais, the French Le Monde and the German Der Spiegel. CRI’s subsidiary operating in America has been designated a foreign mission by the US government.
English-language news outlets backed by China, the Oxford report noted, also “have a substantial online audience and level of engagement compared to the UK’s BBC. We found that some of their English language content politicized the coronavirus by criticizing Western democracies, praising their home countries, and promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.”
The CRI, China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Xinhua’s coverage in French, Spanish and German, they found, had been heavily critical of the United States’ response to the pandemic and its “blaming” of China for the outbreak.
These outlets praised China’s handling of the pandemic, highlighting its foreign aid projects – and repeatedly attempting to cast doubt on the virus’s origin, repeatedly reporting either that the first cases had surfaced in a different country or that coronavirus was a “bioweapon” manufactured ins a US lab.
Despite China’s global governance ambition and aggressive propaganda campaign, the country’s failure to contain coronavirus – and its potential hampering of an effective global response it caused by misleading the world about its severity – has, in light of the hundreds of thousands of lives now lost to Covid-19, soured China’s international relations.
Chinese State Media: Just One Strand of a Much Bigger Campaign in Europe
Beijing’s global leadership ambition is no secret. It employs a whole-government approach, deploying political, economic, military and information technology-based strategies to advance its influence. The stated aim is to shape the world order into “one world, two systems,” by creating a dual international system to directly compete against liberal democracy.
The challenges to the West posed by the Chinese Communist Party lie in the party’s repeated lies and deception, its financial power, its propaganda apparatus and its appropriation of the rules of the game in order to win the match. China posits itself as a peace-loving, benevolent authoritarian ruler in order to get a foothold in the EU and expand its influence. Central Europe is a particular target because the CCP believes this area is a weak link in the chain where democracy is not firmly rooted: a region where China can achieve a breakthrough.
State-backed outlets are not the only way China seeks to influence the global media landscape. It has also poured billions into funding think-tanks and domestic news providers, notably in Europe.
Between 2008 and 2018, the country has spent 2.8 billion euros in the acquisition of shares in European media firms – at the same time as spending about 1.3bn euros every year on wider efforts to improve its international image. Tactics such as mergers and acquisitions of foreign media organisations, commercial cooperation and advertising with foreign outlets, hiring PR companies to project Chinese views in mainstream media, cooperation by Chinese agencies with local news agencies, the increased sponsorship of journalistic visits to China and establishment of think-tank networks favouring Chinese views are among the projects this has funded. Notably, Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain have heavily impacted neutral and critical reporting on China in these countries.
Promotion of the so-called “Belt and Road initiative” has recently seen China enter into partnerships with various European Union media houses. Such initiatives are on the increase, and China has now established a worldwide network of about 40 think-tanks with a specific focus on the BRI.
The Chinese Economic Information Service, a subsidiary of Xinhua News Agency, signed an agreement back in December 2017 with about 20 think-tanks and media firms in Europe to facilitate the promotion of specialised financial information on the BRI to potential investors. Participants in the initiative include Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Germany, Class Editori in Italy, Polish Press Agency, LeSoir in Belgium, Metro in Britain, Financial World in Spain, Open Communication in Spain, Tajung News Agency in Serbia, Athens News Agency in Greece, the European Institute for Asian Studies in Belgium, the Institute of International Relations in Greece, the Thomas More Institute in France, the Silk Road Connectivity Research Center in Serbia, the Center for Poland-Asia Studies in Poland and the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Greece.
Prominent think-tanks and debating centers China has reached out to in hopes of mobilising high-calibre intellectual support for the BRI include the Elcano Royal Institute, the German Development Institute and Chatham House. The “Silk Road Think Tank Network” coordinates, funds research and organises BRI conferences to seek support for the initiative, and the secretariat of this network is funded by China’s Department of International Cooperation.
Chinese investment in European media networks is clearly an attempt to set and shape agendas in its favor – and these efforts to exert influence in European media and research are becoming more sophisticated in time. Criticism of China has now been successfully muted in Europe on many documented occasions, while the CCP’s narratives on issues such as the Hong Kong protests have been embedded in the coverage of major central and eastern European news outlets – in some cases presented as the “real” or “true” account.
Chinese state-backed news outlets, meanwhile, as a matter of policy blend responsible, facts-based reporting with misleading or false information: half-irrelevant truths and half-untruths, if you will, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of a given matter.
Despite the weight of compelling evidence for this, policymakers in Europe still do not consider media outlets as strategic assets. China’s narratives on Covid-19, Hong Kong and other issues being implanted into European domestic media – and the pervasiveness of its own coverage among European language-speakers – should serve as a wake-up call in this regard.
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