Backed by the CCP, the media in China is flushed with resources.
The same resources are also diverted to influence media personnel and organisations abroad.
In 2017, post the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Tencent released a gaming app called ‘Excellent Speech: Clap for Xi Jinping’.
As evident by the name, the rules of the game were fairly simple, to clap as enthusiastically as possible for President Xi Jinping, but in 19 seconds. Even in its perceived ridiculousness to the world, the app registered more than a billion claps for Xi in less than 24 hours.
The applauding party did not stop there. China Central Television (CCTV), the equivalent of Doordarshan in China, began its evening broadcast with uninterrupted four-minutes applause for Jinping.
The next leap came when China’s national constitution inculcated the ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, an honour previously only awarded to Mao Zedong. Thus, every applause for Jinping was now therefore an applause for the constitution, for China. There was no question of disagreement or debate.
In 2019, the propaganda department of the CCP went a step further and released an app ‘Study Xi, Study Nation’ to celebrate the same thoughts of Jinping that had made their way to the Chinese constitution. Instantly, the app became the most downloaded app, surpassing the numbers registered by WeChat and TikTok.
The app gave users access to all the speeches made by Jinping, enabled users to study the releases by the CCP, watch documentaries and movies celebrating Marxism. However, what made the app an instant success was the points system.
For every essay read, the users could gain a certain number of points. The same was the case for videos, films, and quizzes. There were time-specific windows that targeted peak travel hours where every point gained would be doubled, thus further encouraging the users to spend more time on the app while travelling instead of idling it away on the likes of TikTok.
Alibaba, the company behind the app, had other use-cases in mind.
Collaborating with the CCP, the app allowed to test the ideological leanings of the journalists, and therefore, depending on the points scored in the app, they could be denied their press cards. Some reports highlighted how the application was collecting other data on Androids which included every keystroke by the user, apps downloaded, websites accessed, searches made, and so forth. In short, the app could profile every user.
Apps like these cater to the first step of censoring and infiltrating media at home and globally-that of normalising censorship and celebrating every thought stemming from the corridors of the CCP.
The entire ecosystem of media infiltration, censorship, and narrative building stem from three principles, that of controlling the news sources; thus, China controls all inflow of information in an internet age while there is no restriction on the outflow for the consumption of global audience. Two, celebrating the Chinese thought through apps like ‘Study Xi, Study Nation’ and a manipulated media setup, thus normalising every incorrect or incomplete perspective that’s served to the Chinese citizens. Lastly, the culmination of the first two principles-instilling fear in the minds of the people, preventing them from questioning anything.
An example of these principles in play is when the comparison of protesters in Hong Kong to cockroaches is justified or when the integration of Taiwan with the mainland is sold as an imminent political objective and not an invasion.
Unlike India’s ruling party, the CCP is proactive in shaping the global public opinion in its favour, and therefore, for long, the party has stressed the need of having its own version of CNN or Russia Today. In 2016, Jinping put forward the idea of Chinese media having great global influence, and today, more than $10 billion are spent annually to infiltrate media organisations across the globe.
The odds favour the CCP too, for the pandemic recently, and the overall business model of media in the West leaves them exposed to financial vulnerabilities.
However, backed by the CCP, the media in China is flushed with resources, and the same resources are also diverted to influence media personnel and organisations through partnerships and collaborations, personalised tours to the countryside, financial incentives, access to the mainland, and if all else fails, threats.
China’s infiltration of the global media began at home, given the number of correspondents present in the mainland and how most Western publications, due to the language constraints, use these outlets as a source for understanding China.
In 2016, Jinping visited some of the biggest domestic media organisations, stating that they were required to toe the party line to ensure people’s trust in the party. Leaving no room for any inconspicuousness, Jinping warning to the media outlets was blunt and left no margins for any exception. The domestic media had become a mouthpiece for the party.
The domestic media also responded to the call with unflinching loyalty. Today, the outlets obey the party’s propaganda department when it comes to the coverage of certain issues and topics, what must be skipped or not, and the perspectives that warrant ignorance. Editors ensure no anti-party sentiment makes its way to the publications or broadcasts, for the fines and punishments that follow are stern.
For instance, in 2015, four journalists were fired for a typo that resulted in one of Jinping’s speeches being mistaken for his resignation. Following the stock market crash in the same year, Wang Xiaolu, a financial reporter, was arrested for the party attributed the crash to his factual reporting on the market sentiment. He was later seen begging for mercy on national television. In China, either one toes the party line, or else the party tows them away.
The CCP is now looking to extend the application of the same model to global media. The pursuit for this began as early as 2008, in the wake of the Great Recession. A from January 2009 in the South China Morning Post highlighted the planned investment of around $6.5 billion in global media by the CCP, and this was before Jinping.
In 2018, the China Central Television (CCTV), Doordarshan equivalent of the Chinese government, was consolidated to include the national radio network, international radio service, and the China Global Television Network (CGTN), the international body within the CCTV.
The global scale of CCP-backed media outlets deserves recognition and, grudgingly, some respect. Today, the CGTN has broadcasts in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and even Arabic with production studios in Kenya, United States, and the United Kingdom. China Radio International under the CCTV has stations broadcasting in more than 60 languages.
Xinhua, also known as the New China News Agency, today boasts of more than 180 bureaus across the world with regional headquarters in New York, Brussels, Moscow, Cairo, Nairobi, and even Mexico. Distribution of content is through paid partnerships and memorandums with local media outlets and radio stations.
China Daily, registered under the company name of the China Daily Group, is one of the oldest publications out of China, launched in 1981, and is unapologetic in receiving editorial guidance from the CCP. Today, it has 40 bureaus outside China, in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Belgium, and Australia. Interestingly, it was the Australian paper, The Age, and financial assistance from the Australian government that aided the launch of China Daily forty years ago.
A mention of Global Times cannot be missed. Touted as the outspoken voice of the CCP globally, the outlet runs every perspective that is too radical for the party to state officially, say the occupation of Hong Kong or the invasion of Taiwan.
Post the recent G7 summit, the outlet hosted an illustration that compared the summit to Da Vinci’s Last Supper, indicating how the end of the US as a global superpower was imminent, and the dollar was equated to a toilet paper. The same illustration had India surviving on cow urine and water from the Ganges while begging for a seat on the G7 along with oxygen cylinders.
However, the buck does not stop at state-backed media alone and this is where the infamous ‘borrowed boat’ networking strategy comes into play. The idea is to use the Western publications, partially or completely, to sail the Chinese narrative through the information ocean across the globe.
For instance, celebratory op-eds during the recent centenary celebrations of the CCP in the West were mostly sponsored. Analysis and essays praising Huawei in the wake of the trade war, or ones that seek to dismiss the human rights violations in Xinjiang, or attribute political instability in Hong Kong to the protesters, or justify the integration of Taiwan into the mainland are a few examples of what CCP uses western media outlets for.
Under CCTV, China Radio International offers another example. Today, the radio station has a gigantic international network that involves local companies across the world. A 2015 from Reuters noted more than thirty stations infiltrated by the CCP.
WCRW radio station, broadcasting in the Washington DC area, is now airing pro-Beijing perspective, given its affiliation to China Radio International. WCRW is only one of the many local stations CCP is leasing in the United States. In Europe, the same radio station leases local networks through GBTimes in Finland. Similar operations are carried out in Australia as well.
State-backed China Daily publishes a supplement known as the China Watch. The supplement is often combined with Western newspapers during circulation. Outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, amongst others not only carry the supplement but also run content from China Watch on their websites.
There are a number of agreements in place between the state-backed media outlets and Qestern publications. For instance, Xinhua signed an agreement with Associated Press (AP) in 2018. Reuters and Agence France-Presse signed an agreement with Xinhua too, helping the latter extend its clout across the US, UK, and Europe. Similar arrangements have been made with other media outlets across the globe, all under the direction of the CCP.
Overseas, the Chinese media have organised their own echo chambers in the form of regional organisations such as the World Association of Chinese Mass Media founded in Canada in 1998 with over 160 members, the Association of Overseas Chinese Media in Europe with over 60 Chinese media outlets. Simply put, the idea is to consolidate the support for the CCP overseas by virtue of nationalism.
If borrowing the boat is not an option, there is always the option to buy it, and the Chinese have excelled here. In 2018, Bloomberg reported expenditure to the tune of $3 billion by Chinese nationals in media shares and ads since the Great Recession. In 2009, a Chinese group bought the London-based Propeller TV. In 2014, Forbes was bought by a Hong Kong business conglomerate. In 2015, Hong Kong’s SCMP was acquired by the Alibaba Group.
If all else fails, threatening is the last resort of influence. Many journalists in the past have been expelled from China for their coverage against the interests of the CCP. As per the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China on Twitter, 59 per cent of the correspondents surveyed reported harassment from the state compared to 44 per cent in 2019 and 43 per cent in 2018. 94 per cent of the journalists travelling to Xinjiang witnessed state interference in the reporting.
As per the report from the club, all twelve journalists reporting from Xinjiang in 2020 were denied access to public spaces, ordered to delete photographs and other data from their devices. Reporters working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, after being expelled from mainland China, were not allowed to cover protests in Hong Kong as well. 87 per cent of the respondents to the survey confessed that they believed that their WeChat messages were under surveillance by the government.
Even the Big Tech has chosen to toe the CCP line. Apple removed an app from its store that aided the Hong Kong protesters on the orders of the CCP. Twitter hosted paid ads from the CCP to further their agenda in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. YouTube is now a hub for celebrating the Chinese system of governance. Interestingly, all prominent social media platforms are blocked in China but that has not stopped CCP from using them to influence the global media ecosystem.
To counter the anti-CCP sentiments in editorials published by western publications, there is also the troll army. Known as the ‘۵۰ cent army’, the army is responsible for more than 500 million comments on social media each year as per Clive Hamilton, author of Hidden Hand- Exposing How The Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping The World. The comments section in prominent publications like The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and many others have shades of this troll army as each anti-CCP analysis is flooded with pro-China comments.
The recent reports of the CCP buying influence in media outlets of the west by paying around $700,000 to Time Magazine, around $370,000 to the Financial Times, around $300,000 to the Foreign Policy magazine, around $270,000 to the Los Angeles Times, and around $4.6 million and $6 million to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal since 2016 is not even the tip of the giant iceberg, for the influence of the CCP is far greater, influential, and thus powerful.
The threat factor is powerful enough as well. Under the National Security Law, implemented after the swift political takeover of Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020, correspondents working for any global media outlet could be accused of serving foreign powers and be subjected to surveillance, harassment, violence, and worst, punishment. The ambiguity of the text gives a free hand to control media voices when it comes to China.
As with various institutions of the United Nations and the governments of countries in the Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP now has a significant presence in the global media circuit as well.
Where influence fails, the threat takes over, and where the threat fails, censorship takes over. What prevails at the end of the day is the voice of the Chinese Communist Party.