Is China Winning the Information Race?
TNI editor Jacob Heilbrunn interviews Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive.
Jacob Heilbrunn: Is there an information race and should America be concerned about China’s attempt to construct its own global media?
Joshua Kurlantzick: There is an information race, to be sure—in terms of state media; Chinese control of Chinese-language media in many countries; control of information “pipes” like 5G networking, etc.; and the growing power of Chinese social media platforms, like WeChat and, most notably, TikTok. However, my book is called Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, and that subtitle is there for a reason. In many respects, and in particular with much of its big state media (China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily), Beijing has not reached much of an audience—the figures for viewership or listenership to these channels are minimal. Xinhua has been much more effective at reaching a global audience, by signing content-sharing deals with local media in a wide range of countries, and thus getting picked up (translated) in a wide range of news outlets all over the world. China has, however, had great success in gaining control of nearly all of the Chinese language media around the world, whether by having actual Chinese state firms buy into the media or by having local owners, in countries with Chinese language media, who happen to be pro-Beijing (for business reasons, or other reasons), buy up the outlets and basically end any independent reporting on Beijing and China’s actions. So, from Australia to Malaysia to the United States to Canada, there is little independent Chinese-language media left, even in places with large numbers of people who read or watch Chinese-language media as their primary source of news.
Heilbrunn: Are China’s efforts to influence its image abroad effective or are they a waste of money?
Kurlantzick: I think I answered some of this in the first question. They’ve wasted a ton of money on much of their state media, which mostly remains turgid, propagandistic, and little-watched. Xinhua, however, has gained a foothold in many global news outlets, so that hasn’t been a waste of money, and neither has taking control of Chinese language media outlets around the world. In terms of soft power not directed by the state—in the United States that would be Hollywood, the music industry, artists, writers, the Kardashians, baseball, basketball, whatever—China has virtually none of this soft power not directed by the state. It did have the potential to have it: China has in the past boasted great artists, writers, musicians, etc. And it has some soft power via TikTok, Tencent and its games, etc. But its non-state-directed soft power has been limited by the intense crackdown on artists and by Xi’s crackdown on even highly globally successful private sector companies.
Heilbrunn: Is China achieving success in attaining dominance over what you call the “pipes” that information travels through—web browsers, mobile phones, social media platforms, and so on?
Kurlantzick: It is mixed. China has been building out a lot of infrastructure “pipes” that carry information in developing countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and other regions, but it has failed to win such contracts (or been banned from getting such contracts) in much of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia, and some other regions. Interestingly, China has cost itself a fairly warm relationship with Central and Eastern Europe, where it has been building a lot of pipes, over the Ukraine-Russia War. However, TikTok is another story. It is becoming the dominant global app, and every country, including the United States, is going to have to figure out how to deal with it; Its parent company, despite all their claims to the contrary, is based in China, and has a seat on its board held by the Chinese government. Countries like the United States need to make sure that all users’ data on TikTok is held on servers inside the United States, or whatever country is dealing with TikTok. So, China has a powerful weapon in TikTok but at the same time, I don’t think most democracies are going to go along with a situation in which data from TikTok is held outside their borders or can be leaked outside their borders. WeChat is also a powerful Chinese social media platform, particularly in Southeast Asia, and has been valuable for China in that a wide range of pro-Beijing news circulates on WeChat, which is heavily monitored and censored.
Heilbrunn: How do China’s misinformation efforts compare to America’s?
Kurlantzick: Certainly, the United States does use misinformation in countries like Iran, Cuba, and Russia, places with whom the United States has poor relations. And during the Cold War there was no doubt that U.S. state media like Voice of America were to a significant extent propaganda outlets, not too far from the propagandistic nature of China’s state media today. But after the end of the Cold War, limits were placed on U.S. state media, giving them editorial independence—and other state actors like the BBC, etc., also enjoy editorial independence. China’s state media do not, and this is a huge difference. Look at the BBC or Voice of America and they run articles on the problems of America or Britain, etc. The BBC even ran an extensive interview (though I am not defending the methods by which the journalist got the interview) with Princess Diana, the Princess of Wales at the time, slamming the royal family. Nothing like this is imaginable in Chinese state media.
Heilbrunn: To what extent is China trying to meddle in American elections?
Kurlantzick: I think China began by extensively trying to meddle in elections in its near region—Taiwan, Southeast Asia, then Australia, and perhaps New Zealand. It is now expanding. There is considerable discussion in Canada now about the possibility that China intervened extensively in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections in Canada, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently ordered an investigation into the alleged meddling—although his opponents are asking him for a more public inquiry, which I think would make more sense. China has meddled somewhat in U.S. elections—somewhat in a congressional primary in New York in the 2022 midterms, perhaps somewhat in some local elections, and is increasingly trying to become more sophisticated in using disinformation to affect U.S. elections. But its disinformation is still pretty sloppy compared to that of other actors, and it hasn’t been as full bore in influencing U.S. elections as it has in other places. However, that is likely to change, and the FBI director has warned that China is going to be a major player in influencing U.S. elections going forward.
Heilbrunn: Are you worried that China will eventually become a behemoth in the information wars?
Kurlantzick: Well, in some ways—control of Chinese language media everywhere in the world, Xinhua becoming a tool to spread propaganda all over the world, China’s increasingly sophisticated disinformation, etc.—it is becoming more powerful. That said, a lot of Beijing’s actions have led to powerful backlashes in countries where what China has been doing has been exposed, and stepped-up legislative and investigatory efforts to probe Chinese influence efforts. In addition, China’s influence efforts, combined with its overbearing diplomacy in many places, growing authoritarianism at home, and other problems, have led it to have a fairly negative image in a lot of places—not just places one would imagine, like the United States, Japan, or Australia, but even places where China enjoyed relatively warm feelings in the past. So, right now, China hasn’t been super successful in all aspects of information warfare, but it is likely Beijing will adapt, become more skilled, and do better down the road. Beijing has proven adaptable in other realms, so why not in this realm?
Heilbrunn: What course of action, if any, should Washington adopt in response to Chinese efforts?
Kurlantzick: Improve digital literacy among citizens, starting with kids. This is good not just for dealing with Chinese propaganda but good on its own to help kids better understand truth from fiction online.
Apply high scrutiny to foreign investments in media and communications companies in the United States—the same level of scrutiny that might be applied to foreign investments in companies that produce things that could also have defense uses. Not just Chinese investors, but any foreign investors.
Invest in independent media abroad, especially in Asia. Continue investing in Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Figure out some way to not ban TikTok but to force it to keep all Americans’ data on servers in the United States without any backdoors. It does store data in the United States but that data has also been accessed from China many times.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.