China intensifies global push for media influence with more covert, aggressive tactics

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is accelerating its multibillion-dollar global campaign to shape public opinion and secure both its hold on power in China and its policy priorities abroad, but local journalists, civil society activists, governments, and news consumers are pushing back at these efforts, according to a new report released September 8 by Freedom House.

The report, Beijing’s Global Media Influence: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience, finds that the Chinese government and its proxies are using more sophisticated, covert, and coercive tactics—including intensified censorship and intimidation, deployment of fake social media accounts, and increased mass distribution of Beijing-backed content via mainstream media—to spread pro-CCP narratives, promote falsehoods, and suppress unfavorable news coverage.

“Beijing is doubling down on its campaign to control how it is portrayed in the world and to bend foreign media to its will,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “These efforts seek to silence criticism of the regime and convert independent media into shills for the Chinese Communist Party. Journalists and some governments are pushing back, but more should be done to prevent Beijing’s influence from undermining fact-based reporting about the world’s most powerful authoritarian state and its activities abroad.”

Of the 30 countries analyzed, the intensity of CCP media influence efforts was found to be High or Very High in 16 countries, with 18 facing increased influence efforts over the course of the 2019–21 coverage period. Taiwan, the United States, and the United Kingdom experienced the most intense influence efforts, but strong campaigns were also documented in Nigeria, Spain, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, and Argentina, highlighting the global scope of Beijing’s ambitions.

While the Chinese government’s media influence campaign is ramping up, its impact is being blunted in democracies worldwide, according to the report. All of the countries studied demonstrated at least one form of active pushback that reduced the effects of Beijing’s activities. This democratic resilience has hindered the CCP’s attempts to sway public opinion, with sentiment toward China or the Chinese government declining in most of the countries examined since 2018.

Journalists, commentators, civil society groups, regulators, technology firms—and to a lesser extent, policymakers—are contributing to the pushback through actions including investigations into opaque payments from China-linked entities to local elites, cancellations of content-sharing agreements with Chinese state news agencies, regulatory enforcement of broadcasting rules, and public condemnation of attempts by Chinese diplomats to intimidate journalists. 

Evidence of such resilience can be found around the globe—in newsrooms in Kenya, Peru, and the Philippines, in parliaments in Australia, Italy, and Kuwait, and in journalistic training programs in Tunisia, South Africa, and Nigeria.

“Many democracies are proving far from helpless in the face of Beijing’s media influence efforts,” said Sarah Cook, one of the report’s authors and Freedom House’s research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. 

“Journalists and civil society groups are creatively marshalling resources in ways that hinder the problematic dimensions of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts. But in many countries, harmful actions by political leaders or media owners are weakening democracy’s natural defenses against authoritarian influence. 

“This is a critical moment. Governments and societies worldwide should increase transparency and protections for press freedom and free expression. More democracy, not less, is the answer to Beijing’s campaign to control news and information around the world.”

Additional report findings:

  • The list of those contributing to Beijing’s influence efforts is expanding. The Hong Kong authorities, companies with close CCP ties like Huawei, local officials, and media executives outside China have joined Chinese diplomats and government representatives in attempting to suppress critical reporting or shape media narratives in Beijing’s favor. Tactics like cyberbullying by pro-CCP trolls and amplification of Chinese state-linked social media posts using fake accounts have increased since 2019.
  • Beijing’s efforts have come up short in influencing public opinion, but present other threats to free expression. In 23 out of 30 countries, public opinion toward China or the Chinese government has declined since 2018, indicating comparatively modest returns on the CCP’s considerable investment in shaping foreign views. However, Beijing’s media influence projects have been more successful in limiting critical original reporting and commentary on China in many countries, establishing dominance over Chinese-language media, and building a structural foundation for further manipulation.
  • Democracies’ ability to counter CCP media influence is alarmingly uneven. Only half of the countries examined in this study achieved a rating of Resilient, while the remaining half were designated as Vulnerable. Taiwan faced the most intense CCP influence efforts, but it also mounted the strongest response, followed in both respects by the United States. Nigeria was deemed the most vulnerable to Beijing’s existing media influence campaigns, while Senegal had the weakest underlying capacity for resilience.
  • Inadequate government responses leave countries vulnerable or exacerbate the problem. Local laws that protect free expression help curtail Beijing’s efforts, but declines in press freedom and gaps in media regulations have undercut democratic resilience and created greater opportunities for future CCP media influence. In 23 countries, political leaders launched attacks on domestic media or exploited legitimate concerns about the Chinese government to impose arbitrary restrictions, target critical outlets, or fuel xenophobic sentiment.

Photo credit: iStock/Rawpixel

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