China is no stranger to the propaganda game and over the past decade has made significant strides in enhancing it’s own image globally. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that it is spending nearly $10 billion on propaganda annually. A recent study by scholars from Harvard, Yale, and the University of Groningen across 19 countries in 6 continents aims to question the effectiveness of the propaganda machine pushing the `China model’ and came to some surprising conclusions. It showed that China has been remarkably successful in developing economies where they were the only source of news in improving the perception of China from 16% to nearly 54%. One of the key reasons for its success was the lack of awareness about China where people simply assumed that China was a democracy with its leaders being elected. Another reason was the lack of any western model wherein America simply does not choose to expand it’s influence by portraying itself as a model of democracy due to its own struggles with implementing the ideal and multiple example of toppling governments in the region. Even in cases where people knew China was an authoritarian government, a part of the messaging still resonated strongly wherein alleviation of poverty, promises of building infrastructure and a strong track record in ensuring safety in a typically destabilized region held strong appeal among countries where Chinese propaganda worked.
China’s global media influence is by no means limited to spending money in poor countries where they are the only voice. Vast sums of money have been spent in order to buy media outlets, create content platforms, use existing social media, disseminate misinformation, buy disguised advertorials incredible media institutions, expand state media with a host of sub networks and channels under the guise of a free press, intimidation of journalists, incentives to self-censor when it comes to issues that could create political incidents, cyber attacks, physical violence, verbal abuse, AI deep fakes, paid advertising to influence elections and so much more. A careful analysis of how China uses this influence will lead you to a surprising conclusion, that the entire effort started by Xi Jinping to improve global perceptions of China are ultimately serving as an ego massage to Xi Jinping when it comes to execution of said policy.
Having spent millions to trick followers into subscribing to their channels, we see the global propaganda disseminating three key messages, Xi’s key speeches and information about his visit to a particular country, Xi’s dislikes which most recently have been about the so called US-led containment of China or the US-China trade war, and Xi’s legacy which could be about things like the Belt and Road Initiative. Even hiring for positions within the Party propaganda machine requires a certain familiarity with how Xi Jinping thinks and an unwavering loyalty and agreement with the same. While China can’t censor the media outside China, it can however rapidly deploy misinformation and fake news to confuse the issue, such as documentaries about muslim terrorists in the Uyghur region, US troops
spreading covid in Wuhan, Hong Kong protestors armed with US grenade launchers and so on.
While there is more than enough information on how China is infiltrating the global media landscape to crush dissent, little is known about how effective these spends are. The typical party mentality has always been to take action, declare victory and move on regardless of what actually happened. Historical revisionism is a frequently used tactic mixed with outright lies and deception when it comes to shaping the narrative of the `China model’. It will be interesting to see how well this propaganda machine continues to run amidst corrupt African and Latin American states where the China model has come and gone, leaving shoddy infrastructure, crippling debt traps and a further lack of security as authoritarian governments consolidate their grip on power through more violence and repression.
China blocks social media platforms such as Twitter and Youtube out of fear that they might be used to spread political messaging. Yet, they have used their massive propaganda machine to do just the same in other countries. The most prominent example could be the genocide of Uyghur muslims that is being denied on the world stage. According to a New York Times report, more than 3000 civilians were instructed by a state party official `Mr. He’ to produce oddly similar scripted videos. The videos claimed that there were no human rights abuses happening in Xinjiang. Following this, the videos were released on an official party app, followed by Douyin, the Chinese social media version of Tik Tok. Subtitles were added and the videos released on Twitter and YouTube by over 300 accounts within 30 minutes using automated software and adding random characters to avoid anti-spam filters. There is a very interesting contradiction that arises from witnessing this phenomenon. On the one hand you have a hardline mandate from Xi Jinping to refute the rumours about the Xinjiang genocide. Following this is the incompetence of the grassroots officials to produce thousands of scripted videos which sound the same and would be perfectly fine for dissemination within China but fail to pass muster globally. Finally, the question arises as to whether the billion dollar international propaganda machine ever raised any opposition to such shoddy work before pushing it out. Toeing the party line is the reason that the propaganda arm of the Communist party has been so successful in gaining funding and is also the reason it fails miserably at executing it’s work.
It is important to note that authoritarian governments have only become worse over the course of time. While the international outcry over Chinese propaganda might be low at the moment due to its spectacular failure, that might not be the case in the future. It is in China’s own best interest that the billions of dollars being spent globally separate the two functions of massaging Xi Jinping’s ego and reporting the truth about verifiable actions that China takes as a world power.