Transcript: Beijing's Global Media Offensive

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Duncan McCargo [00:00:10]

Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. I'm Duncan McCargo, director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. It's great to be joined today by Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow on Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. And today we're going to be discussing his new book, Beijing's Global Media Offensive China's Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, which is just out from Oxford University Press. Josh, welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast.

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:00:42]

Thanks so much for having me.

Duncan McCargo [00:00:43]

Josh's book covers a lot of ground about China's engagement in media related activities all over the world. But since its more than 550 pages long and contains a dozen chapters covering everything from Covid to Confucius Institutes, there's no way we can go into all the topics discussed in the book during this short podcast. So let's flag up a few of the key terms and ideas to be found in Beijing's global media offensive and give them an airing so that our listeners can get the flavor of what this hefty tome is about and ideally will be inspired to go ahead and read it for themselves. Many people are going to look at the title of the book and especially that word offensive and assume this is another Washington Beltway China threat thesis giving Beijing a hard time for pursuing similar agendas to those that the US, Russia and other major powers of pursued for decades. How would you respond to that kind of charge?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:01:33]

Well, there's two responses. One is show in the book that China has not been very successful of influence offensive in most parts of the world. So whatever you think of the United States is influenced offensive. It's not a hawkish book in that it raises some questions, but it also clearly states that China is actually failing in a lot of its influence objectives. And corollary from that is perhaps there is possibly even too much concern about some of China's influence efforts because China has done such a bad job of some of them. So that's my first comment. The second would be, I think that in terms of comparing influence, the way that China is using a lot of state media and control of local media in places, there are a lot of corollaries to the United States actions during the Cold War. Certainly when the United States state media was very much a propaganda outfit and Voice of America was a propaganda outfit. But I don't think it fits so well to compare the media efforts by China to say what the United States or another country like France that have state media is doing in that those countries, state media do have independence, whereas China's state media, which is a big tool in their efforts to gain influence, have no editorial independence.

Duncan McCargo [00:02:57]

Right. Yeah, that makes total sense. We're all familiar with the classic Joseph Nye term soft power, and I guess many listeners are going to be assuming that that's basically what you're talking about in this book. But you also contrast soft power with another term, not hard power, but sharp power. So what are the Chinese understand by soft power? What do you understand by it? And what exactly is sharp power?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:03:20]

The traditional definition of soft power was that attract other people to your countries Ideas, theme, art. ET cetera. And that's the warmer feelings that people had towards all of that create warmer feelings among the public and possibly have an impact on policy. Classic examples of that would probably be Britain certainly had hard power, but they enjoyed soft power due to a whole range of things, including the monarchy and the Premier League and the BBC and things that were very attractive to people. It probably helped give Britain a larger role in the world because of the appeal of this soft power than probably Britain deserve. And that soft power is done openly through things like films, TV, media. ET cetera. Cultural diplomacy. The book is not only about that. The book is also about sharp power, which is a different thing. It's not hard power. It's not direct economic or military coercion, which is what we would define hard power as. But it's something somewhat in between where a country uses corrupt and corrosive means to influence other countries discourse about the country that's perpetuating the sharp power to influence their foreign policy making. Examples of that would be the Chinese government using intelligence operatives to directly intervene, but with not any public transparency in student groups in places like North America and Australia and other places where a lot of Chinese student groups on campuses have been infiltrated and have created an environment of self-censorship about some of the worst abuses by Beijing. A second obvious example are simply paying politicians clandestinely to support China's foreign or domestic policy positions. And in fact, Australian politicians have been caught taking money. There's concerns that China paid money to politicians in the Canadian federal election in 2019. The FBI director and the heads of Britain's intelligence agency said that this is one of their biggest concerns going forward in the US and the UK. So that's another obvious example. Clandestine, corrosive, usually, but not always corrupt and designed to influence policy and behaviour with minimal transparency.

Duncan McCargo [00:05:49]

Right. And there's another phrase that comes up in the book which seems to be derived from Chinese lexicon, and that's discourse power. So how does that differ from these terms? And when you talk about these different modes of power, to what extent you suggesting that people are sitting in Beijing saying, Oh, no, we're going to exert discourse power here, we're going to exert sharp power there, or is this just a way of externally analysing what's going on? But it's not necessarily a deliberate strategy of deploying these kinds of power?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:06:17]

I think there is a deliberate strategy, and that's certainly exemplified by the massive amount of funds that China has poured into its state media outlets. For example, what they believe to be burgeoning tools of soft power, which are you have failed completely except for Xinhua. If you want, we can talk about why the other state media have failed. Xi Jinping has dramatically increased the power of what's called the United Front Work Department, which originally was an organization that dealt partly with diaspora Chinese, but has been expanded into a bigger intelligence organization. And that has played a very significant role in trying to harangue or change students on campuses and Chinese national or just Chinese citizens of other countries on campuses that they've played a major role in some of this election. Corruption, ET cetera. The fact that Xi Jinping has dramatically expanded that and given a lot of rhetorical weight to its he has sent strong signals to expand both soft and sharp power. And this comes back to the idea of discourse power, which is a term the Chinese like to talk about a lot and which comes from the Chinese. But a lot of this effort over the last ten years to gain greater soft power, gain greater sharp power boosts their media influence, comes from this feeling in China that was ramping up before Ishiba has really ramped up that discourse. Power like how global narratives about major events is largely shaped by the politicians and the media outlet of a handful of liberal democracies. The Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, Al Johns, France Press. China leaders feel like those organizations don't give them a fair shake. My argument against that would be those organizations that are just producing independent journalism, that independent journalism makes China look bad because China is doing a lot of fairly bad things as well as some good things, although right now they're in chaos. So China wanted to bolster its own ability to influence global narratives. And one of the ways to do that that they hoped for was to build a major global media outlet. I think they hope to make them along the line of Al Jazeera. But Al-Jazeera is a highly credible news source about many parts of the world. And China wanted to create probably something like that so that they could wield discourse, power and that global narratives would not be dominated exclusively by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Nikkei. We can go through a whole list.

Duncan McCargo [00:08:53]

Right. I mean, it's interesting. They started mentioning the Nikkei and Yomiuri and so on. But one of the things that struck me as somebody who started studying Southeast Asia, really after having lived for two years in Japan, that's actually quite a bit of parallel between what Japan was doing guess during the Cold War period in terms of building up its reputation and its economic interest through the deployment of a lot of soft power in Southeast Asia. And what China has been doing latterly, you don't make much out of that comparison. But do you think there's anything in this idea?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:09:22]

Well, I just mentioned the Yomiuri and the Nikkei because those are the not only from a liberal democracy, but they're also still have the highest circulation of any newspapers in the world. And same circulations that British and UK news outlets were dying for it. But there's other things I would have liked to explore to. I would have liked to explore more. The comparison between China's state media and some of the things the US did in the Cold War. I do have one chapter where I talk about some of the things the US did in the Cold War in Thailand and remember that I wrote this book. It was done in December 2021, and then my publisher very generously Let me put in another 5000 words about the Ukraine war and China's backing of Putin, which really, really has hurt China's global soft power and its image. And then I even got into the zero-covid the Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. So I was working on this like literally up to the last second before they made me close it. So there were a lot of things that would like to. But to answer your question, yes, I think there are a lot of similarities in Japan was an obvious model for some of China's efforts in Southeast Asia over the last 20 years, which were more successful in the 2000. I wrote an earlier book about this called Charm Offensive and in the early 2010 and have become less successful. But they clearly copied some of the dramatic assistance for cultural diplomacy, trying to set up local versions of Chinese news outlets in Southeast Asia and having content sharing agreements with Chinese news outlets like Xinhua, which I do think is quite dangerous. Very large embassies in the region with some of the best diplomats in the region. There's no doubt the Chinese diplomats in Southeast Asia are often knowledgeable and skilled, building a whole web of networks with the local business community was studied from what Japan did in the Cold War. You can see direct parallels. I just didn't have time to go into that.

Duncan McCargo [00:11:22]

That might be for the next book. But yes, to me that's a fascinating parallel. And of course, Japan was pretty successful at winning friends and influencing people for a very long time. Some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with China Global Television Network or CGTN. Guess this is the sort of Al Jazeera equivalent which the government recently banned from the airwaves. Can you tell us what CGTN is all about?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:11:45]

Sure. Just to clarify, UK government banned CTGN, not Al Jazeera. Just wanted to go back for one second. I just wanted to mention that in polls of Southeast Asia, Japan is still by far in the ICC's Yusof Ishak study and others. Japan is still by far the most trusted external actor and there are many reasons for that. But I do think the legacy of all that Cold War soft power efforts still place some role in why Japan is so trusted. China has had an English language global network for a while, but it wasn't really very much of anything starting in the late Hu Jintao and then really picked up by Xi Jinping. They started investing billions of dollars in China global television network, and that included setting up major bureau in Nairobi, in London, in the United States, in Southeast Asia, as well as pouring money into hiring quality journalists. They hired quite a few quality American journalists, people who had come from CNN and other outlets. They hired good British journalists. When I say British, I mean both British of Chinese descent and British of whatever Anglo-Saxon descent. They hired a lot of really good African journalists, including even African journalists from African publications that had been harshly critical of China. They hired some quite good Southeast Asian journalists. And at the beginning of Xi's era, there was still a little bit of freedom given to Cgtn. They did some talk shows in the US and some other places where you couldn't go on and say China is committing genocide. But it was fairly robust debate about US-China policy and trade policy and other issues. It wasn't completely open, but it was robust and interesting. What I think they wanted was a network that would not produce negative reporting about China, just like Al Jazeera doesn't produce negative reporting about Qatar, but would be respected in a lot of parts of the globe for the reporting on other things, which would then rebound and make it seem like China could present a quality news outlet. But this didn't work. One no one really cares unless you're in the natural gas industry. No one really cares about Qatar's domestic politics. So Qatar was able to have Al Jazeera, and if Al Jazeera didn't cover Qatar fairly, it's not that big a deal. But there's so many stories related to China that it's just very hard to have an independent news network that doesn't fairly cover anything about China. It undermines the entire premise. Second, Xi Jinping became more and more one man rule getting rid of the collective authoritarianism that had basically prevailed since Deng or even Mao. The journalists at this outlet got more and more scared because it was always now increasingly unclear what would wind you up in trouble with censors in Beijing. And things have become so much more unclear under one man rule. And then a lot of foreign journalists quit both because of that and because countries like the US and the UK cracked down on these outlets and the foreign journalists didn't want to be associated with them. And then finally you have the Zero-covid and then the zero-covid wind down, although those more like a just collapse. And in that period, because Xi Jinping was sticking to Zero-covid and was this highly intensively linked to him, these networks reverted to just turgid prop agenda that could have been right out of Mao era and China Radio International. They put a lot of money into for radio the credibility they tried to amass. It just failed for all those reasons.

Duncan McCargo [00:15:32]

As you've explained, the broadcast media ventures, CGTN and so on haven't really worked. But what comes out of the book in a much more positive light is the Xinhua news Agency. And why is that been the jewel in the crown, as it were, of these efforts?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:15:47]

Right. So there's 2 or 3 main reasons Shinhwa is still expanding. And unlike these other ones, they produce newswire copy, which tends to be fairly bland and so isn't as heavily scrutinized by censors. So they're actually able to produce a lot of decent copy about things unrelated to China. That's one. Two. They're signing content sharing agreements with all sorts of news outlets all over the world in Southeast Asia and also in wealthy countries in Germany and Italy. And that is because Xinhua is offered very cheaply or free. The news industry is collapsing all over the world and a free or cheap news outlet compared to very expensive. Bloomberg is appealing to some news editors, particularly in poorer countries where they don't have a lot of money. Thailand in particular, a lot of major news outlets, including ones that are considered highly prestigious, like those of the Matheson Group, which is generally considered the best Thai news outlet group in the country, have been increasingly using Xinhua copy. Even Marty Chung faces major pressures and Xinhua is very inexpensive. The third reason why Xinhua isn't going to collapse like Cgtn is because you have to actively turn on your TV and seek Cgtn or turn on your radio and cry. But like other newswires, Xinhua has just picked up by newspapers and news outlets online, there may be a line at the end that says Xinhua copy, or it may just say agencies and most people who are not media watchers or journalists themselves don't pay any attention, in my opinion, to the buy lines of where news stories come from, unless it comes from some famous reporter. But other than that, I think they just read the article. So the fact that it comes from Xinhua is lost. And then the fourth thing that I would say about that is that as Xinhua continues to expand, the newswire is particularly valuable because it is usually and I work for Newswire in Bangkok 20 years ago, gets the first draft of articles. Usually the newswire goal is just to get to the place first, get to the story first. They don't care whether it's well written, etcetera. They just want to get the story first. But when the story is out first, that often defines the next day or two of Covered. And so if Xinhua is getting to stories first and putting out the information about the stories first, it will define the coverage initially and maybe two days later, The New York Times or The Guardian walks back, whatever the initial coverage was, and says there were mistakes. But that first mover advantage is very, very important and usually shapes the news agenda about many stories.

Duncan McCargo [00:18:37]

Right. And I know from my own research on Thai newspapers and I'm sure this happens elsewhere in the region, that those little bylines from international sources, like press agencies, can very easily just somehow get lost in the wash. And it appears in the local newspaper as though it's a story that their own journalists had somehow got from somewhere. And in the case like that, of course, nobody knows.

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:18:57]

I saw that many, many, many times where there isn't even a credit. I mean, it just makes it look like the Post wrote the story.

Duncan McCargo [00:19:05]

We've all seen it. One thing that keeps being mentioned in the book that might surprise listeners is boat. The boats that you talk about are primarily metaphorical boats. There are borrowed boats and there are bought boats. Can you explain how these ideas about boats convey something about how Chinese media influences operate?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:19:23]

Sure. Borrowed boats means that. China is using the prestige of news outlets in other countries by signing agreements with them. And then the Chinese copy or radio or CGTN. Primarily, it's been radio and Chinese Xinhua copy is, as we said, included in those news outlets. Sometimes not credited. Sometimes people don't pay any attention. And so they're trading on the prestige of these borrowed boats. China doesn't own marketing group. They don't own some of these other news outlets that they've made. That Xinhua copy increasingly appears in the Philippine Daily Inquirer or other news outlets that are considered fairly good. That's a borrowed boat. They are borrowing the procedure of the best media company in Thailand, having Shinhwa copy appear in it. So they're borrowing their prestige and also getting their message across. So that's borrowed boats. Bought boats means that either a Chinese state media company or a owner in a country who is very much pro-Beijing for whatever reasons could be he or she feels the Chinese government is right for a lot of reasons. pro-Beijing because coercion has been implied. There could be all sorts of reasons, has purchased the Chinese language media outlet or outlets in that country and has shifted them from independent coverage to pro-Beijing coverage. And literally almost every country in the world now, other than Taiwan and a few other places where there are major Chinese language media outlets serving large communities, virtually all of the coverage now has been taken over by owners who are pro-Beijing. So like in Malaysia, the Chinese language media is heavily, heavily pro-Beijing. A significant shift from 15 years ago in Australia. There's virtually no independent coverage of China anymore. And the Chinese language media, even in bigger countries with much larger Chinese language reading communities like the United States and Canada, where they're talking about millions of people who read and speak Chinese first and are citizens, there is virtually none left because either Chinese state companies have stakes in it or because certain tycoons who are pro-Beijing have bought up local media outlets, or because one of the outlets that is available is something called Phoenix TV, which used to be a semi credible outlet based in Hong Kong, but become essentially pro-Beijing, even an even more so now that Hong Kong's press freedoms have been essentially destroyed. So that's a bought boat. China basically owns all those Chinese language media outlets, and that's really, really bad. That means that it's very hard for someone who wants to obtain credible news in Chinese to find it.

Duncan McCargo [00:22:22]

Right. The interesting aspect of this book, though, is you already mentioned at the beginning is that despite all the concerns you raise about Beijing's global media strategies, you're also pretty upfront about the fact that those strategies have had really mixed results. Can you tell us something about the limitations of both the soft and the sharp discourse power that China is trying to deploy?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:22:43]

Well, I think with the soft power, China has utterly undermined itself. And I'm not sure while Xi Jinping is president, unless he things dramatically change, that they can recover. I think that they had built up quite successful soft power in the 2000. Part of what their appeal is, is selling the idea that they have a model of development that is equivalent or superior to that of liberal democracy, a model of authoritarian capitalism, but also effective managerial governance. Quite a few columnists, including one very famous columnist for The New York Times, has written quite a few embarrassing columns about how China's managerial governance is so great. Sort of contrasting that with, well, democracy isn't good at governance. So remember that even into the mid 20 tens, China was promoting this model while liberal democracy seemed to be imploding. Maybe not in Scandinavia, but it hasn't been the best decade for liberal democracy. It was only this week that people attacked the presidential palace in Brazil. And of the four most populous liberal democracies in the world, the United States, India, Brazil and Indonesia, all of them have regressed significantly. I don't even think India can be considered a democracy anymore. So China was selling this model. So several things have happened. One, that model has been completely undermined by the fact that they totally screwed up Covid, not the beginning part, but they spent all this time not getting vaccines or vaccinating their population. That's the complete failure of managerial to governance and reflects terribly on them. And so that's a huge dent in their model. Two Xi's support for Putin massively undermined their soft power. China actually was quite popular in Central and Eastern Europe. Until then. We don't need to go into all the reasons. But there was aid and a lot of historical ties and whatever. But now that that has been destroyed, the failure of these media outlets other than Xinhua, that's been a huge blow. The rise in authoritarianism has also been a huge blow because it has essentially cut out all of the ways that they could have had private sector soft power like Hollywood or the Premier League or all or artists or South Korea is a soft power giant because they have great movie makers and TV makers and K-Pop fans. But that's not possible in China because China is become so authoritarian that the best artists and musicians and et cetera have fled the country in jail or underground. And then finally, on the soft power, they've just dramatically hurt themselves by alienating their university graduates who have high unemployment and are just soured and leaving the country, both leaving both China and Hong Kong. And those are the type of people that you need to start the next Alibaba or invent some great device or come up with a biggest music hit in the world. And if you cannibalize your young, it's just disastrous for your soft power. I frankly, at this point, not even sure what Xi Jinping is doing because he's also destroying large portions of the private sector, which are the most important to China's economy. So if you look at polling by virtually any organization, Pew IX, there's many others. China's global public image now is is worse than it's been, both in major liberal democracies and in many developing countries in decades. And I don't know that they come back from that in the soft power and the sharp power. They're going to probably expand that because that's the route they're going to have to take. I think they will become more sophisticated in that in using disinformation, paying politicians, wielding power in that way because their soft power has just completely collapsed.

Duncan McCargo [00:26:47]

Okay. And you end the book with a chapter on what is to be done. And to my delight as the director of an Asian Studies Research Institute, you call for much more funding of academic and policy research on Chinese media and China's international influence. Could you very briefly say something about that?

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:27:02]

Sure. I think that in Washington at least, things switched from one thing to another. It's like either China is weak, which is what people are saying now. I mean, China is a little weaker or China is £6,000 gorilla. And in general, more money needs to be spent on nuanced research and probably spread around more broadly. I also call for at the same time, this is a more harsher measure that European countries, any liberal democracies, but the US and Australia have already done this. But liberal democracies should apply more scrutiny to foreign investment in media and information sectors. Apply the same level of scrutiny in those sectors that they would have in the past in sectors that had defence implications, because media and information is almost at the level of importance of defence sectors. So the US and Australia have already gone in that direction. I expect Europe and Canada, which have already considering it to go in that direction. Third, I think there has to be, and this definitely applies to Europe and not only to China, but there needs to be stricter laws on foreign influence within domestic politics. And I also call for just more money not only to research but to the outlets like Voice of America. ET cetera. And then finally, the stronger democracy is and is perceived around the world, both as democracy itself, not in collapse and insurrections and democracy delivering on policy goals. The weaker China's model seems by comparison.

Duncan McCargo [00:28:39]

Absolutely. Yes. Well, thanks very much for that, especially appreciate the call. For more nuance, more research and more targeted regulation. Thank you, Josh, for taking the time to discuss your book on Beijing's global media strategies with us here on the Nordic Asia podcast.

Joshua Kurlantzick [00:28:55]

Thanks so much, Duncan.

Duncan McCargo [00:28:57]

I'm Duncan McCargo, director of the Department of Political Science in the University of Copenhagen. I've been in conversation with Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations about his new book, Beijing's Global Media Offensive China's Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, which is out from Oxford University Press in 2023. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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