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Beijing keeps tight rein on its media as its seeks global information dominance with sophisticated propaganda tools

No country comes close to China’s sophisticated influence-seeking tools and the way it leverages its soft power. The relentless pursuit by Chinese propagandists, out to stake their claim on the global information order, are challenges that the independent global information order needs to meet. 

Collins Chong Yew Keat Oct 03, 2022
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Representational Photo

China’s media sway and influence-seeking drive throughout the world have been gaining intensity and scope, as underlined by the recent report from Freedom House. Global perception and opinion on China have been on a nosedive since the pandemic started and have now reached the lowest level, which prompted a scramble for a more intensive and propagandistic drive from Beijing.

As outlined in the report, more than half of the total 30 countries included in the analysis were experiencing a very high or high degree of media influence efforts by China in which the intensity of these efforts increased over the past three years in 18 countries. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its proxies, alarmed by the overwhelmingly negative public and global sentiments against China, are using more sophisticated and increasingly coercive measures to shape media narratives and suppress critical reporting, as outlined in Freedom House’s report. Content and media narration that are in favour of Beijing’s direction are continuously pushed, while news or opinions that are disfavoured are met with intimidation and coercion ranging from fake accounts to disinformation campaigns.

 With greater resistance to Beijing’s propagandistic efforts, the counter-tactics have expectedly become more sophisticated in nature, which makes them harder to detect. Taiwan registers the highest level of resilience to these swaying efforts, followed by the US, UK, France and Australia. China countered by arguing that it has the right to convey its true perspectives of reality in opposing what it terms as the West’s sustained and combined drive to discredit China with various disinformation campaigns on Xinjiang and Taiwan.

Press freedom?

 The same counter-argument has been used in the recent UN report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the same findings from Human Rights Watch, where all reports cast a negative light on China’s standing in its human rights records or worrying bellicose actions on contested regions and Taiwan have been framed as a relentless containment drive by the Western-led global institutions and structures. They are framed as a collective unit working in cahoots, out to deny Beijing or Moscow’s rights to claim their rightful presence in the global order and to present their alternative challenge to Western architecture.

Staying persistent in this narrative will backfire, when China itself remains among the worst performers in press freedom, ranking near the bottom of the index published by Reporters Without Borders, placed at 175 out of 180 countries. Beijing chastised the perceived interference in its domestic affairs through the reporting on Xinjiang and other critical issues that paint the CCP in a negative light, but its own increased and systematic incursions and tactics in other nations’ internal institutional direction have been allowed. The breadth of influence-seeking and intrusions on different levels ranging from media organisations to think tanks and universities as well as in the political spheres from Taiwan to Australia have served to meet the broader global purpose and agenda of Beijing’s both soft and hard power goals by 2049. These activities have been met with stronger pushbacks by Western states, owing to their heightened awareness and audacity to confront these measures, unlike our own trapping.

Beijing continued to accuse the West of unfair targeting and news formation, but its own press record has been a lost cause, where mere mentions of forbidden words are swiftly deleted and people being hauled up within days if not hours, if they post anything critical of the party of national leaders, especially President Xi Jinping. Usually, they will be lost on the national radar for weeks and months before reappearing with their public apologies and remorse for their actions.

Shaping global perception

Unlike China and contrary to Beijing's charge of West’s bias, for all its flaws the West stood for the critical fundamentals of openness and basic rights. Freedom of the press, preservation of rights of the people to choose their own beliefs and governments, assurances of the rule of law and sanctity of rules-based engagement, and recognition of the people’s talent and voices in securing their basic fundamental rights, have for decades been the central hallmark and epitome of stability, peace and consistency in expectations and assurances both in international engagements and internal order.

In spending more on internal security to control information and suppress freedom, as can be seen during the pandemic and with the issues of Xinjiang and the Hong Kong turmoil, Beijing is trying to shape the direction and content of information and news and will continue to be beholden to this move for as long as its approach remains the same. Beijing will need to continue to spend more on internal assurance and preventing risks of unrest and challenges to the CCP leadership than the amount on its external security.

The long peace that has given incalculable returns to the global community and global order has been met with complacency and ignorance, where growing dissatisfaction with dysfunctional governance and global crises that have been poorly managed has pushed the opening for fast and easy solutions and salvations for current challenges. Democracy is on the decline throughout the world, and so are the established norms and democratic principles of due processes and adherence to rules and order.  The intense challenges both at the economic, climate and geopolitical fronts have pushed for an inward-looking yearning, scrambling for a quick and urgent fix to secure one’s own political survival and expediency and for the people to receive the needed salvation. Cultivating politics of emotions and crafting ignorance of the past and history, the meaning and contextual vitality of the real impact of past and current assurance and stability remain drifted away in the realm of apathy and ignorance.

Distortion in reality and truth and presenting an emotional appeal and narrative based on the victim card, with strategic targeting of the fallacies and vulnerabilities of the nations and communities on target, have yielded tremendous returns. In the case of Malaysia, the awareness level on critical issues is low especially on critical fronts including the South China Sea, where Beijing is happy for the status quo to remain, in which both our centrality and low public engagement on such issues provide greater long-term returns to China. The positive image is being ramped up, amplifying the positive returns and impact of the various Chinese ventures and support structure from the BRI to RCEP and the aid and investments provided but the chain implications and long-term end results that are negatively impacting the communities or our interests and survival are ignored.

Tight media control

Strategic targeting of different demographic groups based on their leanings and perceptions is constantly evolving. New generation groups are seen as ripe for targeting, which are done with focused segments on the new media. The older demographic groups are continued to be served through conventional media, especially in their own languages. 

As highlighted in the report, the media fraternity, especially the journalists and editors, are dealt with a stick and carrot approach, fed with incentives ranging from sponsored trips to blatant pressure in shaping the notion and narration of their news reporting. Opinion pieces or news that are deemed to be critical or hostile to China are suppressed, while anti-West pieces and narratives are tolerated and allowed. 

The content and depth of news reporting are under tight control of Beijing's information mandaris, where media organisations are often trapped in their own tied hands. Threats of funding withdrawal or pulling off adverts, among many others, mean that the orientation and independence of these institutions remain subjugated to government whims and interests. 

No country comes close to China’s sophisticated influence-seeking tools and the way it leverages its soft power. The relentless pursuit by Chinese propagandists, out to stake their claim on the global information order, are challenges that the independent global information order needs to meet. 

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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