Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 9 May 2021


When Covid Hit, China Was Ready to Tell Its Version of the Story

The government has been using its money and power to create an alternative to a global news media dominated by outlets like the BBC and CNN.

A giant screen shows President Xi Jinping of China in March. Under Mr. Xi, China has inserted money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world.
A giant screen shows President Xi Jinping of China in March. Under Mr. Xi, China has inserted money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world. Credit... Tingshu Wang/Reuters

In the fall of 2019, just before global borders closed, an international journalists’ association decided to canvass its members about a subject that kept coming up in informal conversations: What is China doing?

What it found was astonishing in its scope. Journalists from countries as tiny as Guinea-Bissau had been invited to sign agreements with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese government was distributing versions of its propaganda newspaper China Daily in English — and also Serbian. A Filipino journalist estimated that more than half of the stories on a Philippines newswire came from the Chinese state agency Xinhua. A Kenyan media group raised money from Chinese investors, then fired a columnist who wrote about China’s suppression of its Uyghur minority. Journalists in Peru faced intense social media criticism from combative Chinese government officials.

What seemed, in each country, like an odd local anomaly looked, all told, like a vast, if patchwork, strategy to create an alternative to a global news media dominated by outlets like the BBC and CNN, and to insert Chinese money, power and perspective into the media in almost every country in the world.

But the study raised an obvious question: What is China planning to do with this new power?

The answer comes in a second report, which is set to be released on Wednesday by the International Federation of Journalists, a Brussels-based union of journalism unions whose mission gives it a global bird's-eye view into news media almost everywhere. The group, which shared a copy with me, hired an author of the first report, Louisa Lim, to canvass journalists in 54 countries. The interviews “reveal an activation of the existing media infrastructure China has put in place globally,” Ms. Lim, a former NPR bureau chief in Beijing who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, wrote in the report. “As the pandemic started to spread, Beijing used its media infrastructure globally to seed positive narratives about China in national media, as well as mobilizing more novel tactics such as disinformation.”

The report, which was also written by Julia Bergin and Johan Lidberg, an associated professor at Monash University in Australia, may read to an American audience as a warning of what we have missed as our attention has increasingly shifted inward. But it is less the exposure of a secret plot than it is documentation of a continuing global power shift. China’s media strategy is no secret, and the Chinese government says its campaign is no different from what powerful global players have done for more than a century.

“The accusation on China is what the U.S. has been doing all along,” a deputy director general of the Information Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, told me in a WeChat message after I described the international journalists’ report to him.

The report found that a new media push accompanied the intense round of Chinese diplomacy in the pandemic, providing protective equipment initially and then vaccines to countries around the world, all the while scrambling to ensure that things as varied as the pandemic’s origin and China’s diplomacy was portrayed in the best possible light. Italian journalists said they’d been pressed to run President Xi Jinping’s Christmas speech and were provided with a version translated into Italian. In Tunisia, the Chinese embassy offered hand sanitizer and masks to the journalists’ union, and expensive television equipment and free, pro-China content to the state broadcaster.

A pro-government tabloid in Serbia sponsored a billboard with an image of the Chinese leader and the words, “Thank you, brother Xi.”

Both the media and vaccine campaigns are intertwined with China’s “Belt and Road” global investment campaign, in which Chinese support comes with strings attached, including debt and expectations of support in key votes at the United Nations.

China is fighting what is in some ways an uphill battle. Its growing authoritarianism, its treatment of the Uyghurs and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong damaged global views of China, according to other surveys, even before the pandemic began in Wuhan. And some governments have begun to make it harder for Chinese state media to function in their countries, with Britain’s media regulator revoking the license of the main Chinese state broadcaster. But much of China’s diplomacy is focused on places that, while they may not have the cultural or financial power of European countries, do have a vote at the U.N. And while they appear often to be improvisational and run out of local embassies, China’s efforts are having a global impact.

“Beijing is steadily reshaping the global media landscape nation by nation,” Ms. Lim found.

Along with two other New York Times reporters, the Lima-based Mitra Taj and Emma Bubola in Rome, I spoke to journalists on five continents who participated in the report. Their attitudes ranged from alarm at overt Chinese government pressure to confidence that they could handle what amounted to one more interest group in a messy and complex media landscape.

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In Peru, where the government is friendly to China and powerful political figures got early access to a Chinese-made vaccine, “what really stands out is such a frequent presence in state media,” said Zuliana Lainez, the secretary general of the National Association of Journalists of Peru. She said that the Peruvian state news agency and the state-controlled newspaper El Peruano are “like stenographers of the Chinese embassy.”

Meanwhile, she said, China’s embassy has paid to modernize some newsrooms’ technology.

“Those kinds of things need to be looked at with worry,” she said. “They’re not free”

A vending machine in Seattle for the China Daily newspaper. The Chinese government says its media push is no different from what powerful global players have done for more than a century.
A vending machine in Seattle for the China Daily newspaper. The Chinese government says its media push is no different from what powerful global players have done for more than a century. Credit... Jason Redmond/Reuters

Not all the journalists watching China’s growing interest in global media find it so sinister. The deputy director of the Italian news service ANSA, Stefano Polli, said he has seen China increasingly use media to “have greater influence in the new geopolitical balance.” But he defended his service’s contract to translate and distribute Xinhua — criticized in the international journalists report — as an ordinary commercial arrangement.

China has also cracked down on foreign correspondents inside its borders, making international outlets increasingly dependent on official accounts and denying visas to American reporters, including most of the New York Times bureau. Luca Rigoni, a prominent anchor at a TV channel owned by the Italian company Mediaset, said his news organization had no correspondent of its own in the country but a formal contract with Chinese state media for reporting from China. The cooperation dried up, though, after he reported on the theory that the virus had leaked from a Chinese lab.

But Mr. Rigoni, whose company is owned by Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said he didn’t think China’s mix of media and state power was unique. “It’s not the only country where the main TV and radio programs are controlled by the government or the parliament,” he said.

And the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, said in an email that his view of the report is that while “China is a growing force in the information war, it is also vital to resist such pressures exerted by the U.S., Russia and other governments around the world.”

But there’s little question of which government is more committed to this campaign right now. A report last year by Sarah Cook for the Freedom House, an American nonprofit group that advocates political freedom, found that Beijing was spending “hundreds of millions of dollars a year to spread their messages to audiences around the world.”

The United States may have pioneered the tools of covert and overt influence during the Cold War, but the government’s official channels have withered. The swaggering C.I.A. influence operations of the early Cold War, in which the agency secretly funded influential journals like Encounter, gave way to American outlets like Voice of America and Radio Liberty, which sought to extend American influence by broadcasting uncensored local news into authoritarian countries. After the Cold War, those turned into softer tools of American power.

But more recently, President Donald J. Trump sought to turn those outlets into blunter propaganda tools, and Democrats and their own journalists resisted. That lack of an American domestic consensus on how to use its own media outlets has left the American government unable to project much of anything. Instead, the cultural power represented by companies like Netflix and Disney — vastly more powerful and better funded than any government effort — has been doing the work.

And journalists around the world expressed skepticism of the effectiveness of often ham-handed Chinese government propaganda, a skepticism I certainly shared when I recycled a week’s worth of unread editions of China Daily sent to my home last week. The kind of propaganda that can work inside China, without any real journalistic answer, is largely failing to compete in the intense open market for people’s attention.

“China is trying to push its content in Kenyan media, but it’s not yet that influential,” said Eric Oduor, the secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists.

Others argue that what journalists dismiss as amateurish or obvious propaganda still has an impact. Erin Baggott Carter, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said her research has found that American news organizations whose journalists accepted official trips to China subsequently “made a pivot from covering military competition to covering economic cooperation.”

In talking to journalists around the world last week about Chinese influence, I was also struck by what they didn’t talk about: the United States. Here, when we write and talk about Chinese influence, it’s often in the context of an imagined titanic global struggle between two great nations and two systems of government. But from Indonesia to Peru to Kenya, journalists described something much more one-sided: a determined Chinese effort to build influence and tell China’s story.

“Americans are quite insular and always think everything is about the U.S.,” Ms. Lim said. “Americans and the Western world are often not looking at what is happening in other languages outside English, and tend to believe that these Western-centric values apply everywhere.”

Emma Bubola and Mitra Taj contributed reporting.

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