China is intensifying its campaign to influence and manipulate news and information worldwide, and using an array of tools to project a positive image of itself abroad, a U.S.-based watchdog group said in a report released Thursday.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia were vulnerable to Beijing’s influence campaigns from early 2019 through the end of last year, while the Philippines was more resilient, according to the new report by Freedom House, a non-profit headquartered in Washington.
“The Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world. While some aspects of this effort use the tools of traditional public diplomacy, many others are covert, coercive, and potentially corrupt,” the report said in giving an overview of Beijing’s media influence push across the globe.
“A growing number of countries have demonstrated considerable resistance in recent years, but Beijing’s tactics are simultaneously becoming more sophisticated, more aggressive, and harder to detect.”
The report examined efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to sway media and consumers beginning Jan. 1, 2019, through the end of December 2021 and found that China’s government scaled up its global media footprint in 29 countries and Taiwan during that period.
“[S]ince the early 2000s, acting on instructions from top leaders, CCP officials have invested billions of dollars in a far more ambitious campaign to shape media content and narratives around the world and in multiple languages,” the report said.
The CCP has accelerated its foreign media influence campaign alongside an apparent decline in the global reputation of China and its president, particularly among people who live in parliamentary democracies.
“This mission has gained urgency and significance since 2019, as global audiences have displayed sympathy toward pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and Uyghurs detained in Xinjiang, while blaming Chinese officials for suppressing information about the initial outbreak of COVID-19.”
As part of the campaign, Chinese diplomats and state media outlets have “openly promoted falsehoods or misleading content,” the report said.
“[T]here was a concerted effort to whitewash and deny the human rights atrocities and violations of international law being committed against members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” Freedom House said, calling this “the most disturbing result of the CCP’s global media influence campaign.”
Last month, the U.N.’s outgoing human rights chief issued a damning report, which concluded that China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
Chinese authorities have allegedly detained up to 1.8 million Muslims and other minorities in internment camps, the U.N. report said. Those detained have been subjected to torture, forced sterilizations, and forced labor, as well as the eradication of their linguistic, cultural and religious traditions.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines
According to Freedom House’s report, Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia were among at least 16 countries found to be susceptible to Beijing’s influence drives, while the Philippines was listed as “resilient.”
Indonesian and Malaysian journalists, influencers, Islamic leaders, politicians and students participated in Beijing-subsidized trips to Xinjiang that presented a state-controlled perspective of the region. Some of those who went repeated Beijing’s talking points including denials of human rights abuses in XUAR, the report said.
Those efforts did not placate the concerns of Muslim populations in the Southeast Asian countries, according to the report.
Freedom House said many Indonesians remain largely skeptical of China, while local media coverage of Xinjiang remains critical as reports of abuses in XUAR have gone viral on social media.
While the Chinese government’s influence efforts increased with new agreements between state media of the two countries, the report said the number of Indonesians who called China a “revisionist power” had increased in recent years.
In Malaysia, where a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese, people were skeptical of Beijing’s narratives even as the report noted that “90 percent of the country’s Chinese-language media is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian tycoon with strong business interests in China.”
“The editorial lines of these outlets are accordingly dominated by pro-Beijing narratives and Chinese-language media publish less on politically sensitive topics compared to their English and Malay counterparts,” the report said, adding that critical coverage has appeared in other major media outlets through international news wires.
Still, “there appears to be a culture of self-censorship among both Malay- and Chinese-language journalists who are wary that critical reporting may result in retribution or harm bilateral ties,” it said.
In the Philippines, the presence of a Beijing-linked disinformation campaign was notable but not necessarily effective, the report said.
“Available data show that Filipinos have shifted away from perceiving the Chinese government as a positive influence or model and that they still prefer the United States and other countries as partners,” the report said.
“Filipinos display widespread skepticism toward Chinese state media narratives, especially amid a worsening territorial dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea.”
At least 36 members of the Philippine media took a subsidized trip to China in 2019 with “some participants parroting Chinese state talking points upon their return,” Freedom House said.
Beijing’s strongest efforts in its global campaign are targeted toward Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States, which were found to be among the most resilient.
Those three along with Australia have faced “more aggressive, confrontational, or surreptitious tactics,” the report said, predicting that the trend likely would expand to other countries.
China’s influence tactics included intimidating journalists and media outlets, blocking websites, harassing foreign correspondents, deploying cyberattacks, and online troll abuse, social media manipulation by hired influencers and targeted disinformation campaigns, among other methods, according to Freedom House.
Researchers, journalists and policymakers in more countries should expect to see a rise in such tactics, the report warned.
The report observed that governments’ ability to counter CCP’s aggressive media influence efforts remains “alarmingly uneven.” It warned that inadequate responses could leave countries vulnerable.
Freedom House called for “a coordinated response,” including building up independent in-country expertise on China, supporting investigative journalism and shoring up underlying protections for press freedom.
It found that journalists reported on CCP’s influence and coercive behavior in their countries as well as on China-linked projects or investments to expose corruption, labor rights violations, environmental damage and other harms, but remained vigilant to Beijing’s disinformation campaigns.
“The success of Beijing’s efforts is often curtailed by independent media, civil society activity, and local laws protecting press freedom,” the report said.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.