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China’s Emergence as a Disinformation Force

Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, and Libby Liu, former President of Radio Free Asia and former CEO of the Open Technology Fund, explain China's disinformation work.

Interview with Sarah Cook and Libby Liu October 13, 2020 //   22 minute read

Sarah Cook is Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, where she also leads the China Media Bulletin, which tracks media and internet freedom in China. Libby Liu has served as CEO of the Open Technology Fund, which promotes internet freedom globally, and as President of Radio Free Asia, one of the U.S. government’s independent media operations.

The pair spoke in September with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, and Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative. They drew upon their expertise to explain, among other topics, China’s disinformation work, the impact of China’s new National Security Law upon information flows in Hong Kong, and the role of U.S. broadcast operations like Radio Free Asia.

Both of you have studied and worked on issues related to the flow of information in Asia. Can you talk about how China's government is using the internet and social media to spread disinformation in Asia?

Cook: The Chinese party-state spreads problematic information to other countries in a few different ways. One is that there are a lot of overt efforts, particularly when we look at the large expansion of Chinese state media, including on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They are using those platforms even though, ironically, they're blocked in China.

These media operations have millions of followers. Interestingly, when they have gained followers using targeted ads in different countries and languages, it has been especially focused on the Global South. When I saw one ad on a Facebook page, they were doing it in French to promote the page in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. They weren't trying to reach France or Belgium.

This is important in terms of their social media outreach strategy. Part of it might be geared towards the West but a lot is geared towards a broader internet population and social media users around the world.

Now, if you know what the China Daily is, or what CGTN (China Global Television Network) is, then it's pretty overt. But they do go through some efforts to obfuscate the state-run nature of these news outlets on their Facebook tag line. That’s where recent developments like labeling by the tech companies can be good.

But with the covert activity, it is sometimes hard to attribute exactly who in the party-state, if at all, is engaged in this. The bots and trolls try to have certain content dominate hashtags, especially in the Chinese language, to influence conversations in an inauthentic way.

A lot of this is propaganda to whitewash some of the darker sides of the Chinese regime. But, increasingly, we are seeing content that's more blatantly false and aggressive in trying to discredit Hong Kong protestors, Chinese pro-democracy activists in the U.S., or people detained in China. There is a spectrum of efforts and tactics ranging from overt to covert and manipulative.

A lot of this is propaganda to whitewash some of the darker sides of the Chinese regime. But increasingly, we are seeing content that's more blatantly false and aggressive in trying to discredit Hong Kong protestors, Chinese pro-democracy activists in the U.S., or people detained in China.

China’s also a relatively new actor in the disinformation space and the more covert type of activity. It really didn't start until 2017, and we didn't really notice it significantly until 2019.

But over the last year, they have expanded their linguistic reach. Most of it is still in Chinese, but you’re seeing not only English, but also Serbian, Italian, and Spanish efforts, for example. Their audience is global.

Liu: I agree. The countries that are perceptually benefiting from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) largesse are more inclined and likely to adopt and accept CCP state narratives and information campaigns. Some countries just lift their own news from CCP's state-controlled media.

As Sarah referenced, they're not just interested in controlling the informational landscape inside China but they have two other significant targets. One is the Chinese-speaking diaspora, and the other is people who speak third languages, such as in countries who receive money through China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

As Sarah referenced, they're not just interested in controlling the informational landscape inside China but they have two other significant targets. One is the Chinese-speaking diaspora, and the other is people who speak third languages, such as in countries who receive money through China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

When the CCP goes into a state like Cambodia, they are basically given the ability to replicate their own totalitarian regime. The CCP gets TV licenses, radio licenses, and all kinds of media operations in their language. They can use those to propagate their narratives. The more penetration the CCP has into populations speaking in third languages, the more it lends credibility to their narratives.

They use troll armies of humans and machines. They use state-controlled media outlets, like China Daily and the Chinese Global Television Network, which is the international arm of the Chinese state broadcaster. And they use surrogate outlets that may not even know they're propagating CCP information. They coordinate distribution tactics that drive narratives and give them more traction in the targeted places.

Cook: These news-sharing networks, like the Asia News Network, are basically a partnership with English-language newspapers. That’s how you see China Daily content appearing in the Bangkok Post.

You also have Chinese companies building the Chinese digital television infrastructure in particular countries. We've seen this a lot in Africa but you're seeing it more in Asia, like in Pakistan and Cambodia. You end up with content implications piggybacked onto it. Chinese state media, for example, is offered in more affordable packages compared to competitors like the BBC. This is true even in nations that are at the freer end of the spectrum. They get some kind of state-approved or state-created content as well as the digital infrastructure.

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So, what's the goal for the Chinese authorities?

Cook: A lot of this is defensive. The first priority for the Chinese Communist Party is to stay in power inside China. And it sees critical coverage, and the free flow of information, directly threatening that.

The first priority for the Chinese Communist Party is to stay in power inside China. And it sees critical coverage, and the free flow of information, directly threatening that.

There’s also the economic interest that plays into the party's legitimacy. A main goal is to make China and the CCP's authoritarian regime look benign and even present China as a model, including a non-Western model of journalism. They want other countries to be open to Chinese investment.

There also is a censorship element. It's about suppressing critical voices. When the StarTimes (pay TV provider) in Africa puts on the cheapest package, which is the local channels and the CGTN, they're indirectly removing CNN or BBC as an option for many families.

But there is increasingly a more offensive dimension. We especially see that in Taiwan, where China-based disinformation campaigns have targeted elections and particular politicians and hurt the reputation of particular parties. That’s potentially a testing ground for more active interference in other democracies.

Liu: Your summary is spot on. They want dominance in three areas. One is the domestic narrative, and the information that people on the mainland have access to, regardless of which language it comes in. They interact with the Chinese diaspora on the outside, which is a huge audience for them. They encourage them to spin narratives that are advantageous to the CCP. The coronavirus is a good example. They have put enormous resources into trying to control the narrative and utilize these audiences from around the world.

Everything is about making sure the CCP's narrative about China is perfectly orchestrated. They use many different levers, including as Sarah mentioned, trying to squeeze out any contrary narratives by engaging in terrible social media slander campaigns against critics.

The CEO of Zhenhua has posted that he endorses waging "hybrid warfare" through the manipulation of public opinion and psychological warfare. This is the same guy that is conducting a massive surveillance operation on 2.4 million people around the world.

They interact with the Chinese diaspora on the outside, which is a huge audience for them. They encourage them to spin narratives that are advantageous to the CCP. The coronavirus is a good example. They have put enormous resources into trying to control the narrative and utilize these audiences from around the world.

Cook: It's hard for people outside of China to understand how close some of the top people and tech giants are to the Chinese Communist Party. Jack Ma, who created Alibaba, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. And the party has internal disciplinary regulations. If you violate discipline, you could be taken away and interrogated, and never see your family again. That's what it means to be a member of the Communist Party.

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There’s talk about the head of Huawei's role to the Chinese military but look at how these companies are forced to have Communist Party cells inside of them. And regardless of whether there's a smoking gun that they're collecting users' data, or what they're doing with it, their top people in Beijing would be risking their lives and their freedom to say no to any serious requests from top party officials.

The CCP in these kinds of cases operates like the mafia. Are you really going to say no to a mafia boss if he comes in and asks for something?

Liu: Outside of China, it's very hard to comprehend how deeply you have to be submissive to the party if you want to be successful. WeChat has 1.2 billion active users around the world, including 100 million installations outside of China. TikTok has 700 million global users as of July. Both of these platforms censor, demote, and suppress content that's inconsistent with the CCP line. ByteDance’s CEO said publicly that he will ensure his products serve to promote the CCP's propaganda agenda.

Outside of China, it's very hard to comprehend how deeply you have to be submissive to the party if you want to be successful. WeChat has 1.2 billion active users around the world... TikTok has 700 million global users as of July. Both of these platforms censor, demote, and suppress content that's inconsistent with the CCP line.

When we have dug into the public statements and postings of these leaders who are denying that they are in cahoots with the CCP, or in any way being guided by the CCP, it’s pretty facetious. It’s utterly insincere when you think about the larger context of what it takes to be these people in China.

Cook: They're also losing money in China because a lot of the content they're forced to censor is super popular. Some authors in China are making money not only for themselves but for the platforms that disseminate their writings. But they have had their accounts shut down, millions of users gone just like that. These companies have been forced to act against their own interests inside China because of the regulatory environment.

Whether they're true believers or not, there are very real risks for the companies to not be compliant.

I'd like to dig in more on the pandemic. How has the government manipulated or used traditional and social media at home and abroad to create a different or false narrative about the pandemic?

Liu: The original version of the European Union (EU) report on how governments have used disinformation during the pandemic found that the CCP has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic through overt and covert tactics. And they have engaged in a massive propaganda push around their donations and sharing of expertise to help various communities and countries.

But in the final EU report itself, which curtailed the mentions of the origins of the virus in China, they blamed the U.S. for the spread of the disease internationally. And they engaged in false narratives to accuse people, such as some French politicians, of using racial slurs to propagate the eternal victim mentality and to unite the population behind these propaganda narratives.

But it's on every front. We see it in corporations, the pressure on the NBA. There are so many aspects of their flexing of their economic and political power.

Now, they use mass data accumulation to pressure people to say, or not to say, things that are inconsistent with the narrative they're propagating.

Cook: Courageous investigative journalists and other citizen journalists in China did a lot of the digging that revealed important tidbits about what happened in the early days of the outbreak. Much of that circulated widely in China. Initially, within China, there was a negative public perception of the Chinese government’s response. And the authorities tried different things to say they had succeeded and overcome the virus even when it was still spreading and everybody was under lockdown.

Then, they got a lot of backlash because state media showed a nine-month pregnant woman as a hero who was helping take care of COVID patients. People were like, “Why is that woman who's nine-months pregnant taking care of COVID patients?” People got very upset. Then, you had some conspiracy theories start circulating and a pretty senior Chinese doctor said we don't really know the origin of the virus, it may have come from the United States. The Chinese authorities kept muddying the water, even though they undermined their efforts by peddling contradictory conspiracy theories. They kept saying we don’t know the origin. And in some ways, you could say we don’t know the origin.

But that's beside the point. The fact is the local officials in Wuhan suppressed the first knowledge we had, and knowingly let people congregate and then leave the city. That obviously spread it everywhere.

Liu: The important thing to understand is that everything they throw out there distracts from the truth. And if they want to suppress the truth, then it's common for them to throw out as many distractions as possible to see what will stick.

This is where we get to the problems with social media algorithms, which can be manipulated and exploited by a state actor like the CCP.

Libby, in your former role as the head of Radio Free Asia (RFA), can you talk about where the United States is in this conversation? Is the U.S. engaging in efforts to communicate proactively in China and the region? Are we competitive with these large- scale coordinated efforts coming out of Beijing?

Liu: We definitely are. Radio Free Asia's mission is to provide information that would otherwise be censored in these closed countries. The key to gaining the trust of the audiences is the adherence to a journalistic code of ethics that guides the newsrooms of all U.S. international broadcasters.

The impact of an organization like Radio Free Asia cannot be overstated but the work that goes into earning the trust of people who have grown up on propagandist narratives is challenging.

I often speak of the “epiphany moment,” which is when a person realizes that important information or news that's relevant to their making informed decisions is denied to them. We get this repeatedly at Radio Free Asia.

I remember a woman who had her epiphany moment because there was a taxicab strike in Chongqing. The strike was blacked out of the state-controlled media but she heard it on RFA. She called a friend who lived there and asked if they were having a taxi strike. Her friend said, “Yes, it is terrible but how did you know about it because there's no reporting on it?”

The woman said she heard it on RFA and then had her epiphany moment. People realize that wonderful things may come from towing the party line, but they don't know what they’re giving up until this happens to them.

That’s why our broadcasting companies have spent years proving through strict adherence to journalistic ethics that they are producing truthful information for local audiences. That gives people a lifeline.

The New York Times cannot afford to put a team 24/7 inside Xinjiang to bring to light the re-education camps (for Uighurs), or the experimental lab for a total surveillance state, the way Radio Free Asia can. Our entire job is to report local news.

These organizations are important, and nothing should be allowed that can compromise their brand integrity. Authoritarian governments are watching everything that we do because one mistake will give them massive leverage in discrediting us. It’s important that we not squander the enormous resource of these trusted networks.

Shifting to Hong Kong, what are we likely to see in terms of the new National Security Law? For example, are Chinese authorities likely to seize more phones and computers? Or, is it a bigger worry that they might interrupt the flow of information to Hong Kong from abroad?

Cook: The Hong Kong police already have collected thousands of phones from almost everybody who's been detained for taking part in a protest. And that was before the National Security Law.

Since the law came into effect, Hong Kong authorities have initiated a more serious media crackdown. We have seen this in the arrests and charges against people like Jimmy Lai and police raiding the Apple Daily offices.. And we have seen it in visa denials for people from publications like the New York Times but also from some of the independent local English-language media, like the Hong Kong Free Press.

The Hong Kong Free Press has been an important source of good journalism and credible information about what's happening in Hong Kong not only for people in Hong Kong but around the world. Seeing what happens to these news outlets is important.

Almost anything critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments can be prosecuted under the law. It is courageous for these news outlets to continue to publish some of their content.

The other issue is academic freedom. Academics are having to be more careful about what they say.

We know self-censorship is happening. Many Hong Kongers are closing their social media accounts. They don’t know how sweeping the prosecutions will be.

Liu: The authorities recently used laws from 1938 to charge a democracy activist with uttering seditious words. There’s no tool they won't use to try to suppress the freedom of expression in Hong Kong. They see that as a threat to the mainland.

There are a plethora of important ideas. Internet freedom efforts, such as those done by the Open Technology Fund, ensure that people in closed societies have secure, anonymous access to participate in a global online community. They then can exercise free speech and access uncensored information, and even exercise offline freedoms that are denied to them, like the freedom of association.

But digital security has to be done in a way that's easy for users. Tools have to be localized, and capacity has to be built inside diverse communities around the world. We need to invest in awareness, training, and maintenance of these digital security resources.

We also need independent, transparent audits of social media algorithms. We should have consistent standards for social media companies, how they behave, and how we react to them. Transparent user data protection policies should be mandatory. We also should require social media platforms to assess foreign interference and information operations by state and non-state actors.

Policy changes need to be applied in cooperative way with not just governments but also with civil society and the private sector. We can try to address the vulnerabilities that actors like the CCP are exploiting.

We have to get this right before they can succeed in some of their more ambitious goals, such as creating a splinter net.