China flexes propaganda muscles to reshape global opinion

In these times of geopolitical tensions and the active posturing and confrontation between democracy and dictatorship, the battle for public opinion to win over the hearts and minds of the global communities has become more urgent and important.

Every country should have the ability to tell its story to the world, but this narrative should be based on facts and its own merits alone. Nonetheless, one of the most persistent and concerning forms of deception can be traced back to the Chinese government.

In a bid to expand its influence globally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employs a variety of deceptive and coercive methods to distort and manipulate the international information environment, amplifies its preferred narratives and suppresses those it views as threatening.

The CCP’s information manipulation spans the use of propaganda, disinformation, and censorship. Left unchecked, the PRC’s efforts will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps, and compromises our ability to make informed decisions, that could lead individuals, companies and even nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to China’s.

According to a new September 28 report by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, the CCP’s strategy features five primary elements: leveraging propaganda and censorship, promoting digital authoritarianism, exploiting international organizations and bilateral partnerships, pairing cooptation and pressure, and exercising control of Chinese-language media. 

Together, these five mutually reinforcing elements enable China to exert control over the narratives in the global information space through advancing false or biased pro-China content and suppressing critical voices.

As China has grown more confident on the global stage and believes that its power can rival, and even surpass, that of the U.S., the CCP is actively cranking up the propaganda machinery to more aggressively pursue national interests via information manipulation. To influence foreign audiences globally, the CCP spends billions of dollars annually on foreign information manipulation efforts, an investment that is still growing.

In recent years, the CCP has stepped up the use of threats, intimidation, fake media personae, economic leverage, to coerce individuals, businesses, media organizations, and even governments to comply with its desired narrative.

Additionally, the CCP also uses propaganda as a tool to distort historical narratives, fuel territorial disputes, and provoke conflict with neighboring countries, thereby destabilizing the affected regions and to the detriment of diplomatic efforts and peaceful resolution mechanisms. 

One particularly concerning aspect is China’s rewriting of history. By distorting historical events, such as the status of Taiwan and South China Sea, Tiananmen Square massacre and its occupation of Tibet, among others, China seeks to rewrite the narrative and control how it is perceived globally. It is also equally alarming that the CCP is regurgitating and amplifying Putin’s disinformation campaign regarding his unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine.

CCP’s revisionism not only erodes the truth but also perpetuates disinformation and stifles global understanding of key historical events. China’s propaganda campaigns have extensive reach and utilize various means to suppress dissent. 

By complementing propaganda campaigns with economic leverage and coercion, China attempts to silence critics, forcing individuals, companies, media organizations, and governments to toe the CCP line. This silencing effect creates a climate of self-censorship, where fear of economic repercussions often prevails over the pursuit of truth and independent reporting.

Moreover, China’s propaganda campaigns seek to erode international alliances such as the UN. By eroding trust and sowing discord among countries, China aims to weaken the collective response to issues deemed not to its interests. This calculated strategy not only challenges the credibility of international institutions but also hampers the ability of nations to coordinate an effective response to global challenges.

Propaganda machinery

China commands a massive propaganda machine, which includes state media, diplomatic communications, messaging guidance to state-owned enterprises, and proxies such as new media influencers, many of whom are state media employees who obscure their affiliation, all working to promote positive views of the CCP’s policies. 

The CCP’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and United Front Work Department (UFWD) oversee all propaganda campaigns. UFWD is responsible for propaganda targeting Chinese diaspora communities, and coordinates and oversees strategic acquisition of and investment in overseas media. The China Media Group, which consists of state media enterprises China Central Television (CCTV), China National Radio (CNR), China Radio International (CRI), and China Global Television Network (CGTN), is under the supervision of the CPD. 

At the core are state media outlets such as Xinhua News Agency, CGTN and Global Times, which propagate narratives in line with the CCP’s agenda. State-controlled social media platforms like WeChat and TikTok further amplify China’s disinformation, reaching millions of people globally and enabling the manipulation of public opinion.

China’s propaganda tactics also exploit technology through the use of bots, trolls, and targeted digital campaigns and flood overseas social media platforms with disinformation and false narratives. 

Ironically, through the great firewall of China, the CCP banned the free flow of information domestically and tightly controlled what Chinese citizens can watch and read. But on the other hand, the CCP is exploiting the freedom of speech in democratic countries, through the free press and social media like Twitter, Facebook, which are all banned in China, to propagate disinformation and manipulate overseas public opinion.

Within its borders, the CCP has created an iron-clad information environment that prevents local and foreign voices from providing accurate information that could generate genuine discussions. This asymmetric capability to prevent accurate information from reaching domestic Chinese citizens while flooding the international space with disinformation provided the CCP with a strategic advantage in the battle for public opinion. 

The CCP’s propaganda is a threat to the integrity of the global information space, and can result in a future where there is a sharp drop in freedom of expression and where the CCP will play a significant but hidden role in determining the print and digital content that global audiences consume. More and more subservient individuals, companies and countries will amplify the CCP’s preferred narratives on issues such as Taiwan and South China Sea. 

In this future, the information available to everyone as they engage with China will be distorted by propaganda, disinformation and censorship, therefore preventing them from making informed decisions.

Much as the CCP would like the world to look at it with rose-tinted glasses, it is imperative to address this danger head-on, protect ourselves against the perils of China’s deception, and expose the CCP’s tactics to enable the general public, the press, academia, private sector, international civil society organizations, and governments to develop collective resilience to disinformation and propaganda.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tanaonte

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