The U.S. House of Representatives in January 2023 voted 365-65 to set up a Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This follows a growing desire by governments across the Western world to reassess China’s role in their economies and polities. In March 2021, the largest grouping in the European Parliament released a strategy paper on Europe’s relationship with China, and, as early as 2018, Canada’s national intelligence service produced a lengthy report on the implications of China’s influence activities.
Despite these high-level efforts, however, most policymakers around the world either underestimate or overestimate the P.R.C.’s actual influence on their countries. Seeking to remedy this, Joshua Kurlantzick’s Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World offers a lucid a detailed look at how Beijing uses media and information infrastructure to shape other nations’ foreign affairs and domestic politics in the CCP’s own image.
Kurlantzick advises readers that both alarmism and obliviousness are dangerous. Some aspects of China’s global influence activities, like public-facing state media outlets, are simply ineffective and do not warrant the political and economic capital of a response by Western governments. Moreover, he warns that “[o]verreacting to less dangerous aspects could actually risk undermining governments’ responses by distracting from the real and growing dangers of Chinese influence, and possibly lead to the stigmatization of people of Chinese descent around the world.” Real danger lies in the little discussed world of media publishing deals and physical communications infrastructure that carry Beijing’s message without foreign audiences’ awareness. The difference often lies in a key distinction Kurlantzick draws between soft and sharp power. Understanding this distinction and how it has manifested historically in P.R.C foreign policy is key to Western governments’ ability to formulate measured and effective responses.
“China consistently portrayed itself as a different type of power from the United States and other leading democracies.”
Like in any good China book, Kurlantzick frames his conversation with history. To understand the P.R.C.’s current goals, readers must first recall Beijing’s revolutionary foreign policy under Mao and accommodationist days from the 1980s to late-2000s.
Maoist China was no gentle giant on the global stage. In this period, China expanded its soft power through aid programs across Asia and Africa to push countries to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over China instead of the R.O.C. government in Taipei. Mao’s efforts, however, extended to sharp and hard power campaigns backing armed, communist revolutionary groups. Kurlantzick recounts this history because it stands in sharp contrast to how Chinese leaders post-Mao have attempted to portray the P.R.C. as a noninterventionist actor.
By the 1990s, China pivoted toward prioritizing its economic interests while presenting itself as a benign actor that could work with a broad range of states and political systems. In doing so, leaders in Beijing pushed a narrative that Beijing is different from the United States in its greater respect for other countries’ sovereignty and domestic politics. Despite China’s own adventurism during the Mao era, the U.S.’s contemporary escapade in Iraq and broader democracy promotion in the Middle East bolstered Beijing’s argument that China is a uniquely virtuous partner.
To the extent 90’s and 2000’s were an era of noninterventionist economic integration, 2012 ushered in China’s new era of sharp power-based foreign policy. Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, China started shaping other countries’ views, not just of China, but of their own political systems and leaders. Kurlantzick’s book focuses on this era, examining what the CCP has to say to foreign audiences and how it gets its message across. Knowing precisely what the message is, how effective it is, and how Beijing conveys it then sets up the final stage of Kurlantzick book – tailoring a response.
“The distinction between the two types of power is not exact.”
China has recently exercised soft and sharp power to varying levels of success. In the relatively open, soft power arena, it has poured over $6.6 billion since 2009 into its global state media outlets, including China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI), the English-language China Daily newspaper, and Xinhua. Through this funding, the outlets have expanded bureaus in Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, and Southeast Asia, focusing on positive news about China’s domestic politics and global role. Though these outlets selectively publish positive stories about China, omitting the critical, Kurlantzick stresses that, as long as such open-air publications remain truthful, they should be classified as soft power programs.
Kurlantzick seeks to steer readers’ attention to the less visible but arguably more significant world of China’s sharp power influence. Made possible by China’s 21st century surge in economic and diplomatic heft, Beijing’s sharp power aims to convince foreign populaces to support China-friendly policies, to criticize their governments’ anti-China policies, and to help China-friendly regimes achieve their domestic policy objectives. Kurlantzick makes an example of Cambodia, where Chinese telecommunications and social media infrastructure helps Hun Sun’s autocratic government clamp down on dissent similarly to how Beijing does on its own dissent back home. To avoid drawing unwarranted comparisons, Kurlantzick notes that Beijing’s efforts tend to be more focused on shaping long-term narratives than Russia’s, which prefer to stoke chaos, though even trend has begun shifting since 2019.
“Chinese leaders are authoritarian, but they are not completely isolated from feedback.”
In responding to Chinese influence campaigns, Kurlantzick urges policymakers to focus on Beijing’s effective strategies, while watching for improvement in as yet ineffective ones.
The P.R.C.’s most open soft power efforts have had limited success outside the Chinese speaking communities of Southeast Asia. CGTN, CRI, and China Daily’s English language editions have failed to take off in Western markets, and, when Chinese sources share false media reports via social media, these clunky, unnuanced stories are relatively easily traced back to Beijing. By failing to take off, however, Kurlantzick means that not many consumers in Western markets consciously tune into CGTN for their daily evening news or have a subscription to China Daily. One state media outlet, Xinhua, has pioneered a message infiltration strategy that other news outlets controlled by Beijing are attempting to imitate.
At 181 bureaus globally and growing, Xinhua is challenging rivals like the Associated Press and BBC. Kurlantzick notes, though, that this success has accrued by way of strategies that get its messages before foreign audiences often without readers’ full awareness. In developing countries, Xinhua offers its content to local news outlets for free or otherwise extremely low prices that undercut for-profit and even non-profit competitors that do not receive government support. In Southeast Asia and Africa, specifically, Xinhua has adopted a “hyperlocal” approach of covering regional conventions and events that miss large Western outlets’ radar, raising its exposure in those markets. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Xinhua has penned hundreds of content-sharing deals with leading news outlets in leading democracies where local outlets reprint Xinhua stories within their own papers. Where identifying the Xinhua origin of these stories is difficult, it is a particularly shrewd form of soft power; where the stories are not identified as being from Xinhua at all, Kurlantzick warns that content-sharing crosses into the realm of sharp power.
In the spirit of Chinese leaders learning from their mistakes, other Chinese global news outlets are picking up on Xinhua’s success story. In response to Kenyan TV stations’ budget crunches in a world of streaming, CGTN has offered cheap material ranging from news to entertainment to fill the country’s airwaves. The China Daily has been especially effective at a version of Xinhua’s content-sharing agreements whereby it pays top foreign outlets to publish its inserts as inconspicuous “ChinaWatch” sections. Though these outlets may have struggled to date as standalone brands, Western policymakers should be watchful as they insert Beijing’s talking points through the backdoors of trusted outlets.
“Chinese state companies are laying down many of the new physical or virtual pipes for global information flows.”
Kurlantzick further explains the reasons behind China’s successes in its influence campaign with a discussion unconventional for a book about media. He moves upstream in the supply chain to examine the pipes – the information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure – that carries Beijing’s message and silences its opposition around the world.
Kurlantzick identifies the hardware and software infrastructure through which data flows as the “pipes” of China’s both soft and sharp influence efforts. He examines how Chinese ICT infrastructure and social media platforms have gained market share both in China’s neighborhood and in the Western world. From the popularity of WeChat among Southeast Asia’s Chinese-speaking communities to Huawei and ZTE’s dominance building ICT infrastructure in Africa, Central Asia, and Pacific states, Beijing is increasingly the source of many developing economies’ pipes of information. Returning to the theme of how policymakers miscalculated China’s influence at different points in history, Kurlantzick reminds us that Beijing was even supplying surveillance equipment to departments of the U.K. government and U.S. military bases.
Kurlantzick describes China’s path to dominance in global ICT infrastructure as both political and economic.
Foreign governments sympathetic to Beijing often welcome Chinese investment to further their own domestic prerogatives, such as silencing domestic opposition in Cambodia. Because many of the markets in which China seeks to expand its pipes also participate in the One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI), local leaders are inclined to view these platforms’ limitations on criticizing China as helpful for defending their own foreign policy decisions. The close ties Chinese companies subsequently develop with local government and business leaders then forms a political moat protecting them from other foreign competitors.
Beyond political and diplomatic support from Beijing, however, Chinese ICT companies are economically competitive in their own right. Huawei, for example, is one of the biggest investors in research and development of any tech company in the world. That innovativeness combined with cheap financing backed by the Chinese government allows it to sell consumer devices and telecommunications infrastructure at prices non-Chinese competitors struggle to beat. As with Xinhua and CGTN, the upstream pipe companies are able to compete in price-sensitive markets on a different set of economic terms than their Western competitors.
“[G]overnments should treat the media and information sector as one of critical national security importance...”
Western governments have begun countering Beijing’s influence activities with measures targeting both its soft and sharp power efforts. In Europe, extensive privacy legislation seeks to limit foreign governments’ abilities to manipulate E.U. internet users in ways tailored to their personal data. The U.S. passed extensive legislation providing incentives to its domestic semiconductor industry in an effort to reduce current and future reliance on Chinese hardware and has also sharply restricted China’s access to U.S.-made or designed semiconductors. And across the Western world, governments from the U.K. to Australia have either made Chinese state media outlets register as foreign agents or taken them off the air entirely.
Kurlantzick’s overriding message to policymakers in the West is to continue “build[ing] a better knowledge base.” Government officials and civil society leaders from democracies must collaborate with their counterparts in other democracies to share knowledge about how China’s influence activities work and how they are evolving. They must especially focus on sharp power activities like anonymous content-sharing deals and the leveraging of information pipes because the threat of these tools is not immediately obvious.
Dissenting from a U.S. Supreme Court majority ruling upholding the prosecution of an anarchist, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote that “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. As Kurlantzick shows, however, Beijing’s global media campaign obscures that free market of ideas by hiding the provenance of ideas and censoring critique. This book does not necessarily prescribe broad brush bans on the Chinese perspective or absolute decoupling. Rather, it elucidates the nuance of Beijing’s influence efforts and urges Western policymakers to study it as an essential dimension of geopolitics.