China introduced the “three warfares” concept – public-opinion, psychological and legal warfares – when it revised the “Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army” in 2003. The methodology of such outreach has been set out in a New York Times article titled “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul”. Earlier reports by the International Federation of Journalists have chronicled the methods used in South America and Africa, with the underlying message consistent with the aggressive use of money and manipulation by China. The other aspects highlighted are that these actions are more prevalent in OBOR (One Belt One Road initiative) or BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) countries in which China has substantial financial investments or in those in which it has significant geopolitical interests. As President Xi put it, China’s system offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.
It goes without saying that the common feature that these methods have is the promotion of a narrative whereby China is presented as of great assistance to the country’s needs, be it infrastructure, capacity building, education, medical etc. And it does so through traditional media – paper, radio, TV – but most crucially through social media and influencers with huge following. These propaganda messages are then gradually used to insert opinion shaping messages, which bring into question or cloud adverse policy making against it to its own advantage. Either directly or through their funded proxies, Bejing lavishly funds influence campaigns that protect China and promote its messages. The narrative has changed gradually, to the extent that, according to another study, some American news organizations whose journalists accepted official trips to China afterwards made a pivot from covering military competition to covering economic cooperation.
The NYT article then tracks the money to a South African political party, YouTube channels in the United States and nonprofits in Ghana and Zambia. In Brazil, records show, money flowed to a group that produces a publication, Brasil de Fato, that intersperses articles about land rights with praise for Xi Jinping. In New Delhi, corporate filings show, the same network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points.
According to the NYT report, however, it is clear that the government of China controls and manages the operations among many others. In a recent speech to party members, Xi stated that “China should be portrayed as a civilized country featuring a rich history, ethnic unity, and cultural diversity, and as an Eastern power with good government, a developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity, and beautiful scenery. China should also be known as a responsible country that advocates peace and development, safeguards international fairness and justice, [and] makes a positive contribution to humanity”.
This kind of directives then result in overlooking Chinese drawbacks authoritarian political system, environmental pollution, lack of rule of law, human rights violations, China’s foreign engagement using manipulative financial methods, corruption in acquiring deals etc. The China financial outlay for propaganda was estimated in 2009 to be $6 billion to the global expansion of state media, while a more recent estimate, by scholar David Shambaugh in 2017, put the amount to that China was spending to as much as $10 billion per year on enhancing its “soft power”, although state media would only account for a portion of that sum.
In a recent paper Sarah Cook, a well-known researcher and historian in the realm of new media, outlines the methods used by the Chinese Communist Party to promote its favoured content and narratives abroad. According to Cook, China has embarked upon expanding the global capacity and presence of official state media, insinuating official views into foreign mainstream media, cultivating foreign media that can produce their own favourable content, purchasing foreign media outlets, establishing new networks and ultimately conducting disinformation campaigns on global social media platforms.
All these collective approaches have been tweaked over the last several years, especially so in countries in which there is a minimal civil society infrastructure with engagements, namely in some countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The true face of the manipulative Dragon can be seen behind the smoke.