By Joshua Kurlantzick
In Kurlantzick’s latest book, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World,” he argues that China under President Xi Jinping has increasingly wielded “sharp power”.
As if there is not enough to worry about in the face of China’s aggressive encroachments in the South China Sea, now its neighbors also have to lose sleep over its attempts to change their political and social landscapes.
According to Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a leading think tank in the United States, China has been “increasingly trying to influence other countries’ domestic politics and societies through the use of media, information, disinformation, and more old fashioned types of influence tactics like paying politicians and trying to directly meddle in elections, wielding control of local business and student associations, and other tactics.”
In Kurlantzick’s latest book, “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World,” he argues that China under President Xi Jinping has increasingly wielded “sharp power” not only to spread a favorable view of China’s policies and the situation within China, but also to draw other countries into China’s orbit in case of conflict with rival powers.
“Sharp power” refers to the use of underhanded media campaigns and the infiltration of the politics, governance, private sector and social organizations to carry out a foreign government’s objectives in a target country. It is thus a subtler alternative to the use of hard power – the resort to military aggression or threats and economic sanctions – to influence another country. It is also the insidious alternative to soft power, which is achieved through the legitimate use of public diplomacy; cultural, educational and social exchange programs; and public relations and advertising, among other tools.
An apparent model for China’s use of sharp power is the Russian method of influencing political situations in other countries. Much has been written about Russia’s alleged efforts to help Donald Trump’s successful presidential election campaign in November 2016. It was in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine last year, however, that Russia put its sharp power to massive use as it spread globally a great deal of disinformation about its “special military operations” in the embattled country.
An interesting case that the book cites is the rise and fall of Han Kuo-yu, at one time a little-known Taiwanese politician who served briefly as mayor of Kaohsiung, an important southern city, and rose from obscurity to become the Kuomintang presidential candidate and challenge incumbent Democratic Progressive Party President Tsai Ing-wen. Known for his pro-Beijing stance and widely bruited to be China’s preferred candidate, this Kuomintang standard-bearer suddenly had the use of a formidable campaign war chest and his candidacy enjoyed intensive support from pro-China media organizations in Taiwan and disinformation channels. But all that sharp power support for Han went to nothing as it failed to gain credibility among a media-savvy Taiwanese public and Tsai Ing-wen was reelected by a landslide. It also greatly helped Taiwanese voters saw the crackdown in Hong Kong, that Tsai Ing-wen was a popular national leader with a strong record of governance, and that Han was a politician given to controversial statements and did not have clear policy platforms.
Kurlantzick has noted that China’s exercise of sharp power also has generally failed in the United Kingdom and Australia. In these countries China has wielded disinformation on a range of social media platforms,. Including Chinese ones like WeChat. . Some ethnic Chinese students in local universities have been recruited to carry out propaganda for the Chinese government. Some student and youth organizations have been tapped to promote China’s image. In the case of Australia and New Zealand large donations were channeled to political parties to influence their policies in support of relations with China – until Australia passed a tough foreign interference law and New Zealand cracked down as well.
In the book, Kurlantzick stresses that Chinese sharp power has been less successful in countries that are strong democracies. But in countries where authoritarian tendencies are on the rise—such as Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar—China’s sharp maneuvers have proven to be more effective.
As to China’s role in spreading disinformation in Southeast Asia, Kurlantzick observes that “the main driver of disinformation in Southeast Asia has actually been the people of the Southeast Asian countries themselves, like Indonesia and Myanmar and the Philippines, where disinformation is such an enormous battle.”
Asked about the ramifications of the partisan nature of Indonesian media soon after the publication of the book, Kurlantzick warned that this formed a serious danger in the face of China’s efforts to influence Indonesian politics. Noting that there are some but not enough truly independent media outlets not linked to one party or a prominent politician, he said, “This partisan nature could make it easier for China to cultivate one partisan outlet, particularly if that outlet was close to a strong 2024 presidential candidate.”
Having laid out in great detail the tools and tactics that China uses in exerting its sharp power on other countries, the book also offers an array of suggested measures to neutralize China’s global soft power and sharp power offensives. It suggests, for instance, that democracies should find ways of boosting the digital literacy of their citizens so that citizens can more easily recognize disinformation. Two other suggestions stand out: first, since China’s media offensive is often aimed at denigrating democracy, it is logical that a primary countermeasure should be the strengthening of a country’s democracy so that it becomes more impervious to disinformation attacks and conspiracy theories.
And second, governments should stand up for a free press, since a people that is served by a press that is free, robust and responsible are less likely than otherwise to be victims of disinformation.
By and large this book is an eye opener to anyone interested in the complexities of international relations, but it is also particularly useful to policy makers who must prepare ensure that their countries are not sitting ducks in onslaught of global disinformation campaigns.
Q & A :
What are the main themes of your book, and what do they tell us about China’s presence today -and in the future – in Southeast Asia?
The main theme is, first of all, that China has, in the past decade, become increasingly focused on influencing the domestic politics and societies of various countries, something they had not been focused on that much since the Mao era. They are increasingly trying to influence other countries’ domestic politics and societies through the use of media, information, disinformation, and more old-fashioned types of influence tactics like paying politicians and trying to directly meddle in elections, wielding control of local business and student associations, and other tactics.
You have noted that China has launched an information and media superpower, or attempted to. How has this played out in Southeast Asia and have them been successful in Southeast Asia and particularly Indonesia?
I think that China has become more sophisticated in some of its media, information, and disinformation tactics in the last few years, but not entirely, and it still just as often winds up alienating countries it is targeting as it is wooing them. China’s public image globally is very poor right now, and while it is better among SE Asian publics, because of aid and trade, which is enormous, than among say publics in Europe and Northeast Asia, Southeast Asian elites and many Southeast Asian publics are still highly wary of China. Its actual state media, like CGTN and China Radio International, have not gained large audiences at all, with Xinhua being something of an exception. No one really trusts these big state media outlets. China has been more successful in getting pro-Beijing owners to buy up local Chinese-language media outlets in countries in Southeast Asia and around the world, including the U.S, so that Chinese language readers and viewers of local Chinese language media are getting mostly pro-Beijing content. China also has become more successful at inserting disinformation into social media platforms in countries – but not always successful. They did not have much effect, despite trying, on the U.S. midterms, and they actually hurt their own efforts in the 2020 Taiwanese presidential elections, for instance. China has tried to bolster its influence in Indonesia more openly, through cultivating Jokowi and Indonesians for infrastructure projects, and this has had some success, but the assertiveness in the South China Sea has led Jakarta to become closer strategically to the U.S. than it has in decades, I think.
What kinds of tools has China used in Southeast Asia in attempts to gain more control of local media, and get people to watch or listen or read their state media outlets, like Xinhua and CGTN? Have they been successful? What should we expect from them as their media and information campaign continues and adapts?
China has spent billions on upgrading its state media, but it still, other than Xinhua, seems too propagandistic and boring for many people, who stick to local news outlets and global ones like CNN, BBC, etc. China’s media is often just quite boring. Xinhua however is signing content-sharing deals with a lot of Southeast Asian media outlets, and also with major media outlets around the world – some of the biggest newswires. These content-sharing deals allow Xinhua to appear in many more local news sites or newspapers, etc, and so Xinhua has the potential to change views of China, since more and more outlets are using Xinhua, since it is cheaper than other news wires and sometimes Xinhua gives away its news articles for free to certain countries. China also is increasingly using visits to China and training programs for journalists and other opinion leaders to wield influence. This has become a sensitive issue in Indonesia, where visits by some religious leaders to China were followed, in some cases, by leaders downplaying the abuses in Xinjiang, though some of the Indonesian religious leaders then backtracked on their comments after some outrage about them.
What role, if any, has China played in the growing disinformation online in SE Asia on social media platforms? What can be done about it? Should countries in the region look at Singapore’s example of being more wary of foreign investment and involvement in the media and social media?
China’s played some role in spreading disinformation in SE Asia, particularly to promote China’s ideas and model and sometimes to denigrate democracies and spread conspiracy theories. But the main driver of disinformation in Southeast Asia has actually been people in SE Asian countries themselves, like Indonesia and Myanmar and the Philippines, where disinformation is such an enormous battle. It does however make sense to look to see if Chinese state firms or Chinese nationals (not Indonesian Chinese) are making major investments in local media and information, as long as these laws are not used to just stifle free speech, as they could be in the wrong hands,
Much of Indonesia’s media is quite partisan, essentially linked to one of the major parties. Of course, not all. How does this partisan nature interact with China’s efforts to spread its media into Indonesia? How about China’s efforts to directly influence politics by more traditional methods like paying politicians or other efforts like that – it certainly has been true in places like Australia?
The partisan nature of the Indonesian media weakens it, there are some but not enough truly independent outlets not linked to one party or prominent politician. This partisan nature could potentially make it easier for China to cultivate one partisan outlet, particularly if that outlet was close to a strong 2024 presidential candidate.
To find out more about the book and how to buy it, go to: https://www.cfr.org/book/beijings-global-media-offensive or find the book in local retailers or on Amazon Australia
This article is published here with the permission of the author. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.