In March 2023, Chinese president Xi Jinping launched the “Global Civilization Initiative” (GCI), his third such effort to build an international “community of common destiny”—the Chinese president’s euphemism for a world order in which China predominates. By garnering international endorsements for the principle of “respect[ing] and support[ing] the development paths independently chosen by different peoples,” the GCI seeks to undercut the moral primacy of liberal democracies and legitimize autocratic governance models like Xi’s regime.
Left unanswered by China watchers in the West, however, is how the Chinese party-state will implement this newest strategic initiative beyond the intercultural exchanges that Xi claimed would be the GCI’s primary focus. The following analysis of Chinese Communist Party speeches and state media about the implementation of the GCI reveals much on this score.
These Chinese Communist Party (CCP) statements indicate that while serving as a platform for some legitimate cultural exchanges, the Global Civilization Initiative will likely act as a benign front for expanding the CCP’s information and influence operations already working to control global public discourse on the party. Information operations will likely entail efforts to expand the global operations of state media companies and increase the export of CCP propaganda that celebrates the party’s governance model. Augmenting this global propaganda campaign will be CCP influence operations that recruit political and intellectual elites, primarily in the Global South, to promote policies within their home countries that align with China’s interests.
Recent statements by CCP officials reveal that the GCI will act as a foreign propaganda tool. Specifically, the initiative will advance Xi’s ongoing campaign to increase China’s global “discourse power” by exporting CCP propaganda—a media offensive designed to legitimize the party’s values among targeted audiences and preemptively stem the flow of subversive ideologies back into China. Consider the recent statements of Wang Huning, who serves as the Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This organization coordinates the party-state bureaucracy’s overseas influence and information operations. In May, he stated that officials should “accelerate the construction of Chinese discourse and narrative system, and deepen exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations” to “showcase the achievements of Chinese civilization.”
This statement echoes Xi’s directive delivered at the 20th National Party Congress to “tell China’s stories well” by creating a CCP-friendly global media ecosystem, one circumventing Western networks. It likewise dovetails with an existing policy of deploying Chinese culture to inspire favorable perceptions of the CCP. A state media analysis of Xi’s external propaganda policy encouraged officials to “make good use of excellent Chinese culture in external propaganda, explain Chinese civilization in foreign propaganda, to soften the attitude, change the viewpoints and transform the stance of the international audience.”
As such, this synchronized messaging in leadership directives indicates that the GCI will parallel, if not absorb, existing efforts to make global public opinion more supportive of Xi’s regime through external cultural propaganda campaigns. Accordingly, the GCI’s intercultural dialogues and other public diplomacy initiatives will likely amplify an image of China that celebrates the party’s autocratic governance system, crowding out more objective media narratives that would exhibit that system’s reliance on mass repression.
Still, in its infancy, the GCI has yet to deliver policy outcomes on the scale of the Belt and Road Initiative or even Xi’s prior Global Security and Global Development Initiatives. Nevertheless, this latest initiative has already strengthened China’s “discourse power” within the nations of the Global South. For instance, the CCP’s Propaganda Department organized the August 2023 BRICS High-Level Media Forum, where state media outlets from the organization’s five members pledged to cooperate on “enhanc[ing] the discourse power of BRICS countries” through media industry coordination. Such coordination between state media outlets would allow elites to spread their preferred narratives, especially those of the Russian and Chinese governments that already wage information warfare to further their geopolitical ambitions.
It is worth noting that the same BRICS summit also prohibited coverage by independent journalists, further underscoring the restrictions on press freedom resulting from governments following the CCP’s lead in enhancing their state “discourse systems.” Since the CCP primarily targets the developing world in its information operations, these efforts to expand China’s “discourse power” under the GCI will likely amplify the propaganda of ruling elites in the Global South while repressing independent journalists’ investigations into public affairs. As such, this summit illustrates the threat posed to free expression by Chinese information operations deployed under the guise of “mutual learning” between civilizations.
Without more concrete data on policy outcomes, examining official Chinese writings on the implementation of the GCI and information operations writ large may offer insights into the initiative’s future development as a propaganda tool. For example, the state-owned China Daily newspaper suggested that artificial intelligence and big data technologies should be used to expedite “cultural information” sharing across global media networks, indicating that the party will leverage emerging technologies to rapidly disseminate propaganda before Western media can spread more objective narratives. Such high-tech propagandizing would complement the party’s conventional tactics of establishing overseas state media outlets, acquiring majority equity stakes in independent foreign media organizations to control their content, and paying for inserts in mainstream Western newspapers to inject party narratives into democratic societies.
Though civilian wings of the Chinese party-state operate these culturally flavored information operations, they also dovetail with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “media warfare” initiative that broadcasts a peaceful and harmonious image of China to engender favorable perceptions of its military operations. As such, ample precedent exists in the history of Chinese information operations to contend that the GCI will amplify state propaganda across mainstream and emerging media platforms, particularly when China is engaged in provocative behavior that may undermine its preferred image of a peaceful rising power.
Believing that the GCI is a campaign for propagating Chinese culture would confuse the initiative’s means and ends. In reality, the GCI uses cultural propaganda to legitimize the CCP’s revisionist activities as it seeks to undermine Washington’s leadership in setting international norms of state behavior.
While its information operations will make broad efforts at shaping public opinion, the CCP will likely use the GCI as a platform for conducting targeted influence operations and espionage against foreign governments. President Xi’s claim that the GCI would commit the CCP “to deepen[ing] interactions with political parties and other organizations to expand the convergence of ideas and interests” clarifies that the initiative expands the party’s foreign political influence. Yet the above assessment regarding more subversive activities is substantiated by the fact that the initiative was unveiled at the CCP’s High-Level Meeting with World Political Parties. The party’s International Liaison Department (ILD) coordinated this diplomatic event, which forges connections with foreign governments to collect intelligence on their internal politics and recruit assets for spying and influence operations. According to researchers at the Hoover Institution, the ILD uses this party diplomacy to befriend and recruit “up-and-coming foreign politicians” so that they promote pro-China policies once they attain higher office.
CCP leaders’ statements likewise suggest that these influence efforts will expand beyond parties to reach the whole intellectual ecosystem that informs policy debates in democratic societies. ILD
Director Liu Jianchao, for instance, wrote in a China Daily editorial that GCI would promote “cultural dialogue” through “political parties, parliaments, research institutions, schools, enterprises, and NGOs,” indicating that his organization would work to co-opt individuals across the breadth of civil society so that they promote pro-China policies among their home countries’ elites. One could argue that the ILD’s cultural exchanges with foreign elites may not occasion efforts to recruit intelligence assets, given the apolitical substance of such meetings. The history of Chinese overseas espionage tactics, however, would suggest otherwise. Indeed, Chinese intelligence operatives often recruit assets under the guise of promoting Chinese culture to evade suspicion and induce cooperation from the target, according to the U.S.–China Economic and Security Commission. Furthermore, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s overseas intelligence collection agency, even operates a front organization called the “China International Cultural Exchange Center.” Cultural exchanges between corporations and universities, as ILD Chair Liu recommended, would also provide the MSS with opportunities to deploy non-official operatives, often private individuals acting by proxy, to recruit assets in the private sector and academia—a frequently employed tactic, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accordingly, cultural exchanges may share the beauty of Chinese culture with foreign audiences. Yet, they also enable the Chinese security apparatus to increase the party’s influence within and insight into the domestic affairs of foreign countries.
If history is any guide, Chinese intelligence will likely conduct espionage under the auspices of the GCI. Additionally, GCI illuminates the future direction of the party’s influence operations deployed in the name of “intercivilizational collaboration.” For example, in his GCI inaugural speech before political parties from Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, Xi promised “to share governance experience with political parties and organizations”—a reiteration of longstanding PRC policy to instruct foreign parties in establishing one-party dictatorships within their home countries. Described by scholars as “authoritarian learning,” this emboldening of autocratic elites in developing countries is likely to increase now that it has been enshrined as a core tenet of one of Xi’s global initiatives.