Shanthi Kalathil Testifies Before USCC on “China’s Information Controls, Global Media Influence, and Cyber Warfare Strategy”

Testimony to U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Shanthi Kalathil, Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies

May 4, 2017

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Chairman Bartholomew, Commissioner Wortzel, distinguished members of the Commission: thank you for inviting me to testify before the Commission on the topic of “China’s Global Media Influence.” I appreciate the opportunity to discuss China’s efforts and impact in this area. I would also like to thank you for drawing attention to this issue of strategic importance to the U.S. and other democracies.

China has long included the cultivation of global influence as part of its overall strategy to position itself as a rising, though nonthreatening, global power. Championed by a succession of Chinese leaders, this “soft power” focus has traditionally included media components such as pro-government reporting by Chinese state-run broadcasters and the cultivation of friendly overseas news outlets.

In more recent years, though, the Chinese government’s strategy has evolved beyond these standard elements to reflect a much broader understanding of how command of media and communication constitutes power in the modern age. China, like other authoritarian states, grasps that the information space is an arena of contestation in which democracies are increasingly vulnerable. Moreover, China in particular understands that it is in shaping the related norms, standards, and corporate platforms in
which the long-term opportunities for influence lie.

Hence, China is also seeking to build out the infrastructure of the evolving global information ecosystem itself, targeting not simply media-related products but the mechanisms that determine what kinds of products are produced in the first place. This sets it apart from other authoritarian governments, in no small part due to China’s unique market leverage.

Here, I’d like to present a broad, synthesized overview of China’s efforts to harness this evolving global information ecosystem. This overview will touch primarily on three media and communication-related mechanisms through which China seeks to exert influence: shaping international news; guiding the evolution of the Internet and its norms; and influencing global culture through Hollywood. Seen individually, any distinct piece might be glossed over as a discrete, isolated activity. Yet, taken together, they are indicative of an authoritarian government that has mobilized global information resources on a massive scale to project power, maximize its desired outcomes and protect its own rule.

International News: Content, Values, and Funding

China has attempted to influence international news in three ways: influencing foreign reporting on China, extending its presence abroad through its international broadcasting and publication arms; and influencing the structure and values of news organizations, primarily in developing countries, through funding, training and cooperation.

While the Chinese government has always monitored foreign reporters operating within China, this practice has expanded and grown more aggressive under current president Xi Jinping, who has instituted a wide and long-lasting crackdown on domestic civil society and media. Recent reports assert that foreign journalists in China now face greater restrictions than at any other time in recent history. The CCP seeks to influence international reporting through a combination of direct action, economic pressure to induce self-censorship by international media owners, indirect pressure applied via proxies  such as advertisers, and cyberattacks and physical assaults. Increasingly, these levers are applied beyond China’s own borders.

This combination has had a cumulative chilling effect on the diversity of perspectives on China available in the international media. This is particularly true of Chinese language media. In some countries, such as Australia, local analysts report that the formerly lively, independent Chinese language media space now hews largely to the pro-China line, in part because pro-China media groups now control much of the Chinese language media sector. In supposedly autonomous Hong Kong, the local media has
developed increasingly close ties to the Chinese government and friendly entrepreneurs; for instance, in 2015 the South China Morning Post was bought by Jack Ma, founder of AliBaba Group, China’s largest ecommerce conglomerate, and press watchdogs have raised concerns about that paper’s continuing editorial independence.

With respect to international broadcasting and publication, the Chinese government is focused on amplifying China’s voice in the global media landscape, a landscape currently undergoing a seismic shift brought on by changes in access, technology, and business models. This period of flux has presented certain opportunities for China’s state-run and state-affiliated media, which do not suffer from the same budget pressures as their private sector international competitors. The international arm of China Central Television was rebranded China Global Television Network (CGTN) at the end of 2016, with all new foreign language channels, digital and video content falling under the new group. CGTN has hired away respected journalists from other outlets, and in general enjoys more editorial leeway than its domestic counterpart does (while never reporting on genuinely sensitive topics). Even before this recent rebranding, CGTN had significantly expanded its broadcasting footprint, opening major global offices in Washington, D.C. and Nairobi, and pouring financial resources into international news bureaus during a time when other major media outlets worldwide were forced to scale back their international coverage due to declining budgets. It is important to note that while CGTN may lack presence and authority in the U.S., it is increasingly viewed in many countries as simply another credible outlet that adds to the plurality of voices.

New ventures may look more like overseas-targeted, English-language publication Sixth Tone, which is backed by state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, the same company that publishes the relatively lively domestic paper Pengpai. Sixth Tone features compelling human interest and trend stories with a local focus, skirting close to charged social and political issues without crossing the line into highly politically sensitive territory. Indeed, the tone, structure and social media adeptness of Sixth Tone may indicate the future of at least some Chinese state-affiliated media. (Foreign Policy magazine has described Sixth Tone as if “Vox were acquired by the Chinese Communist Party.”) As scholars of Chinese soft power note, Chinese media executives are well aware that market-driven, audience-savvy products can be far more effective in swaying perception than state-owned organs issuing stiff proclamations, and are more in line with what young, global digital natives desire.

Finally, China has been involved in supporting the media and communication sectors of many countries in Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Africa. It has done so through providing financial resources, infrastructure and equipment, study tours in China, and training. Unlike most international independent media donors, though, China does not support the typical normative goals of this kind of assistance: freedom of expression, editorial independence, technologically neutral protocols, and developing the professional and investigatory capacity of local journalists.

Rather, the Chinese government’s primary purpose in providing this type of assistance is to counter what Chinese officials see as the unfavorable narrative about China in Western media, by developing a China-friendly media sector that will both portray China as a reliable partner and support China’s foreign policy positions and objectives. Moreover, the model of journalism presented in training and study tours emphasizes a cooperative approach that de-emphasizes the accountability aspect of journalism. Ugandan participants in Chinese media training and study tours, for instance, have said that classroom lectures did not focus on practical skills, emphasizing instead China’s history and politics, as well as the importance of the China-Africa relationship…

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