Over the past decade, China has invested billions of dollars in state media, hiring foreign journalists and partnering with local newsrooms to try to boost its image overseas.
That investment has yielded some success, but global views of China have become increasingly negative over the past five years. In 2022, according to the Pew Research Center, negative views of China remained at historic highs in the 19 countries it surveyed. Beijing’s human rights record and military power were cited as the biggest concerns, Pew found.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, investigated China’s global media investment in his new book, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.
Kurlantzick spoke with VOA Mandarin about his findings on China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI) and Xinhua, a wire service.
This interview was conducted in English and has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: What prompted your interest in this topic?
Kurlantzick: Since about five or six years ago, China was trying to build up a global media and information apparatus. They are spending huge sums on [state outlets] CGTN and CRI and Xinhua to try to create them as global competitors. I think [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and his administration — and even before that — felt like global narratives about the world and about China were dominated by outlets from liberal democracies, and they wanted to have their media outlets define narratives about China. They are trying to take a bigger role in the global media discourse, which they have always felt does not treat China fairly.
So given the amount that they had spent and given that some other authoritarian states had some success with their media being credible, we would imagine some successes by Beijing. But ultimately what I actually found was most of the big state media outlets have completely failed.
CGTN and CRI’s share in most places is very minimal compared to both other global media outlets like BBC or CNN, as well as compared to local media outlets. There are quite a lot of studies and polling by people who focus on CGTN or CRI’s viewership and listenership in different regions, where you would think they would have gained some appeal because these regions are somewhat more favorable to China, like Latin America and Africa, but still their listenership and viewership is really, really minimal.
VOA: CGTN hired a large number of veteran reporters several years ago. What kind of latitude do they have in covering regional and international issues?
Kurlantzick: For CGTN and CRI … most of the professional journalists they have hired have left because of the last three years of disastrous policymaking in China, combined with increasing one-man rule as opposed to consensus authoritarianism.
What I learn[ed] from interviewing a lot of CGTN producers and writers and journalists who had left, both foreigners and some Chinese, was that the constraints were getting tighter and tighter.
VOA: What about Xinhua as a newswire service? You mentioned in your book that it had success in getting into some local markets, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Kurlantzick: Xinhua is a little different. They have begun to gain a foothold in a lot of media outlets all over the world, signing content sharing agreements with news outlets, increasingly appearing in the local media in a lot of countries. It’s only going to expand because Xinhua is expanding. They have huge numbers of reporters, particularly in places like Southeast Asia and Africa, where they can cover a lot more stories than other newswires. They offer their service cheaper — or free — than a lot of other outlets.
[But] Xinhua isn’t AP or Reuters. Apart from being a newswire, Xinhua is still a state propaganda agency.
VOA: With all these efforts from China to push its own narrative, what should the U.S. and other democracies do?
Kurlantzick: For some of the places that were the first targets of a lot of China’s media offensive, such as Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea, they have developed pretty effective digital literacy programs, so [citizens] can more effectively tell what’s disinformation online. That’s a huge project to embark on in the U.S.
I think countries also are realizing that media information is a real important way of influencing politics, influencing domestic politics in other countries, and more scrutiny should be applied.
Countries should invest in independent media abroad, which are really good at exposing China’s efforts, as well as invest in their own state media like VOA or RFA, which often provide some of the only independent coverage of events in authoritarian states.
Source: Voice of America