How China is trying to reshape the world

ByJoshua Kurlantzick
Feb 11, 2023 07:46 PM IST

Beijing is using media and information tools to influence politics, media and the information environment in other countries. To offset such efforts, countries must bolster regulations, reassess the use of Chinese State media, and keep democracy strong to underline its effectiveness

In recent years, under autocratic top leader Xi Jinping, China has increasingly tried to meddle in Indian politics and society, using disinformation on social media platforms to potentially try and wield influence directly or indirectly. Over the past decade, Beijing has embarked upon a similar strategy to wield influence within politics, local discourse, societies, online discussions, universities, and media in several countries. To do this, China uses media and information tools. Beijing is expanding State media outlets, leveraging international social media platforms, using training programmes for foreign journalists, and signing content-sharing deals with media in other countries to extend its sphere of influence. It also uses more traditional methods — including using the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a major intelligence agency within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — to wield influence with the Chinese diaspora, foreign politicians, businesses, and in universities abroad.

Beijing is expanding State media outlets, leveraging international social media platforms, using training programmes for foreign journalists, and signing content-sharing deals with media in other countries to extend its sphere of influence (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Beijing is expanding State media outlets, leveraging international social media platforms, using training programmes for foreign journalists, and signing content-sharing deals with media in other countries to extend its sphere of influence (Getty Images)

Beijing’s approach also reflects shifts in the mindset of the Chinese leadership. It is much more willing to throw its weight around globally and attempt to displace other Asian powers. As scholar Rush Doshi, who now works for the Joe Biden administration, notes in The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, in the Xi era, Beijing has expanded from trying to gain regional hegemony to a new strategy of displacement, one that expands its blunting and building efforts worldwide to displace the United States (US) as the global leader. He argues that Beijing’s campaigns today reflect a departure from the more limited and defensive Chinese foreign policy of the late Cold War and early post-Cold War eras.

As China aims to gain regional hegemony and potentially supplant the US on the world stage and powers such as India in its region, its approach fits into a more assertive Chinese foreign policy — one that reflects a combination of three ideas. The first is the perception, among the authoritarian Chinese leadership, of being surrounded by hostile powers in Asia. The second is the notion that China has emerged on the world stage and should reclaim its status as a great power, one that is capable of blunting US power in Asia and preventing the rise of other major Asian powers such as India. The third is that China should take a more ideological approach to foreign policy than at any time since the era of Mao Zedong. Indeed, goes the thinking, it can and should promote a model of development, spread its model of technology-enabled authoritarianism, and stoke divisions among leading democracies.

China openly wants to reshape the world and use its influence and information efforts to promote this brand of technology-enabled authoritarianism. It tries to export China’s authoritarian approach to speech, politics, and societal control and uses the influence of globalisation — which has linked China to the world and made companies and other countries dependent on its markets and policies — to facilitate these exports. Ultimately, if China meets this goal, rather than globalisation and economic interchange making Beijing freer, Xi’s China would lead companies and political leaders in other States to adopt China’s repressive approaches. To achieve these goals, Beijing must also shape policymakers’ and public’s views, in other countries, of political systems and leaders — not just of China but of these other countries as well.

How is it going about this? Beijing has developed successful tools for influencing politics and societies in other countries, including Xinhua, which has signed content-sharing deals with news outlets elsewhere. Moreover, Beijing has rapidly expanded China’s global State media outlets, including China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI), Xinhua, and China Daily, while also using its cash to convince some radio stations and cable providers in Asia and other regions to drop other content and carry CRI and other Chinese State broadcasters. Since 2009, when the Chinese government announced a $6.6 billion expansion of its international State media, CGTN and Xinhua have expanded bureaus in Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, and Southeast Asia.

Beijing also has come to dominate the Chinese language media in most countries; in most places, there are few independent Chinese language outlets left, as either actual Chinese State firms or pro-China owners have bought up these outlets and now deliver primarily pro-Beijing news and opinion. Chinese State media outlets are also increasingly buying advertising inserts, which are hard to distinguish from news stories, in newspapers and news sites worldwide.

In addition, Beijing is bolstering its soft power tools. It is expanding scholarship programmes for international students, journalists, and government officials to study in China. It uses tougher, sharper power to bolster its influence inside other countries, including India. It is becoming increasingly sophisticated in delivering disinformation on major social media platforms. Beijing has also leveraged the power of prominent private Chinese media companies with close ties to the State, as these private firms have expanded into places like Africa and Southeast Asia. These private companies, including satellite operators, social media firms, and chat platforms, often carry Chinese State media or serve as vehicles for disseminating pro-China information. Indeed, by building telecommunications infrastructure worldwide, Beijing is attempting to control the “pipes” of media and information. These pipes include satellite and digital cable companies, undersea cables, social media platforms like TikTok (banned in India), messaging apps, companies making telecommunications, surveillance, and Internet of Things infrastructure, and even the basic norms, technical standards, and rules guiding the global internet and networks within various countries. This infrastructure could potentially put Beijing in control of some of the world’s key information networks. It also uses the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to influence ethnic Chinese student populations on campuses around the world, often leading to self-censorship among these groups on Chinese policies and chilling all campus discourse about China’s problems. Xi has given UFWD a bigger role globally in its covert and coercive efforts to influence opinion leaders and Chinese students in foreign countries.

Is it working? Not as well as China would have hoped.

Despite all focus directed by Xi, many of these attempts are failing. China’s horrendous Covid-19 management has dented its public image, and its use of economic and military coercion has further undermined its standing; polling by organisations such as Pew shows highly negative views of China in many countries. Although Xinhua has gained a much broader audience, other State media outlets such as CGTN have not. Moreover, in many places, China’s efforts to control the “pipes” of information have been stopped by tough government responses — whether India’s bans of many Chinese apps or many democracies’ refusals to use Chinese giant Huawei to build 5G networks.

Still, countries could do more to stop China from wielding influence within their borders. Like India, many countries should reassess whether they should allow TikTok to operate unless users’ data is stored on local servers. In addition, States should implement tougher laws on foreign money flowing into politics and universities and media and civil society — this type of legislation would impact potential Chinese meddling in foreign societies. Media outlets also should reconsider using Xinhua, and national broadcasting agencies should consider whether they should give airtime to Chinese State media. Ultimately, States must keep democracy strong to show that it is a more effective type of government than the authoritarian China model.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, from which this article is adapted. The book is available at on Kindle and hardcover immediately, and a local Indian edition, produced at a lower local price, will soon be available at Indian booksellers online and in stores.

The views expressed are personal

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