China is investing billions to manipulate its image around the globe

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Jessica Ludwig
Director, Freedom and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute

Beijing invests billions of dollars annually to manipulate how China is portrayed around the world. The cumulative effect of these investments is an attempt to reshape the global information environment, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC). 

Why This Matters 

This is an exercise of “sharp power,” or the ability of an authoritarian regime to pierce, penetrate, and perforate the political and information environment in targeted countries with top-down messaging. These activities differ from public diplomacy, where governments communicate with foreign publics. What distinguished sharp power from public diplomacy is an intent to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions.  

The efforts of China’s leadership extend beyond providing an alternative perspective in a broader information environment. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aims to influence media coverage about China by leveraging a mix of propaganda and censorship, as well as cooptation and pressure. These activities are conducted not only in the traditional media sphere, but also take advantage of technology to reach into the digital realm. International organizations and bilateral relationships provide additional arenas where Beijing exercises information shaping tactics. Above all, China’s authorities have been particularly concerned about exerting different forms of control over the Chinese-language information space globally to limit free expression for Mandarin speakers everywhere. 

Over the past several years, a growing number of think tanks, academic researchers, journalists, and other experts from around the world have been identifying and documenting Beijing’s far-reaching endeavors that collectively reveal a design to make the world safer for the Chinese Communist Party. The GEC report validates and builds on these reports, while also drawing attention to some of the hidden tactics Beijing has implemented that are more difficult for open-source researchers to bring into the light. For example, entities posing as non-governmental organizations may be directed by the CCP’s United Front Work Department to issue public statements that Chinese state-linked media then amplify. In other cases, these puppet organizations may be directed by China’s Ministry of State Security to conduct coercive campaigns of transnational repression against Chinese dissidents living overseas. 

Bottom Line 

Protecting our open society from manipulation and repression by the Chinese Communist Party (as well as other assertive authoritarian actors) requires new thinking and approaches that draw on and reinforce, rather than undermine or contravene, the strengths and values of our democracy. To this end, there are several emerging efforts by parts of the U.S. government to understand the methods and impact of Beijing’s authoritarian overreach more comprehensively. Beyond establishing the GEC (which deals with all forms of foreign disinformation), in late 2022 the U.S. Department of State launched a “China House” of China experts that will coordinate and engage with staff across different regional and thematic bureaus to better manage strategic competition with China in the international system.  

The U.S. House of Representatives also voted at the beginning of 2023 to establish a bipartisan Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party that aims to explore strategic competition with China in the hard power, values, and economic spheres. This adds to efforts of two other congressional initiatives that have existed since 2000 – the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China – which respectively monitor, investigate, and report on security implications of bilateral trade and economic ties with China, and human rights and the rule of law in China.  

The United States government, as well as independent institutions in a variety of fields, should continue to identify avenues for disseminating information about CCP activities that aim to undermine our democracy. The more that China’s authorities seek to dominate the information space to advance their own interests, the more crucial it will be for the United States and other democracies to invest in maintaining a diverse and pluralistic knowledge base, where other perspectives can be presented.