Beijing’s scramble for soft power resurrection

By Collins Chong Yew Keat

China’s media sway and influence-seeking drive throughout the world have been gaining intensity and scope, as underlined by the recent report from Freedom House. Global perception and opinion on China have been on a nosedive since the pandemic started and have now reached the lowest level, which prompted a scramble for a more intensive persuasive and propagandistic drive from Beijing, in shoring up support and using the West as an easy scapegoat as both the cause and the pretext in justifying the move to spread news and narratives that are perceived to be realistically correct and free from the so called Western manipulation and unfair reporting. Target outcomes and strategies involved vary from regions to specific countries, each with different strategic mechanisms to dictate the intended message and public opinion.

As outlined in the report, more than half of the total 30 countries included in the analysis were experiencing a very high or high degree of media influence efforts by China in which the intensity of these efforts increased over the past three years in 18 countries. The Chinese Communist Party and its proxies, alarmed by the overwhelming negative public and global sentiments against China, are using more sophisticated and increasingly coercive measures to shape media narratives and to suppress critical reporting, as outlined in Freedom House’s report. Content and media narration which are in favour of Beijing’s direction are continuously pushed, while news or opinions that are disfavoured are met with intimidation and coercions ranging from fake accounts to disinformation campaigns.

With greater resistance to Beijing’s intense propagandistic efforts, the counter-tactics have expectedly become more sophisticated in nature, which make them harder to detect. Taiwan registers the highest level of resilience to these swaying efforts, followed by the US, UK, France and Australia. China countered by arguing that it has the right to convey its true perspectives of reality in opposing what it terms as the West’s sustained and combined drive to discredit China with various disinformation campaigns on Xinjiang and Taiwan.

 The same counter-argument has been used on the recent UN report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the same findings from Human Rights Watch, where all reports that cast a negative light on China’s standing in its human rights records or worrying bellicose actions on contested regions and Taiwan have been framed as a relentless containment drive by the Western led global institutions and structures. They are framed as a collective unit working in cahoots, out to deny Beijing or Moscow’s rights to claim their rightful presence in the global order and to present their alternative challenge to the Western architecture.

Staying persistent to this narrative will backfire, when China itself remains among the worst performers in press freedom, ranking near the bottom of the index published by Reporters Without Borders, placed at 175 out of 180 countries. Beijing chastised the perceived interference in its domestic affairs through the reporting on Xinjiang and other critical issues that paint the CCP in a negative light, but its own increased and systematic incursions and tactics in other nations’ internal institutional direction have been allowed. As reported, the intense scope of influence-seeking and intrusions in different levels ranging from media organisations to think tanks and universities as well as in the political spheres from Taiwan to Australia have served to meet the broader global purpose and agenda of Beijing’s both soft and hard power goals by 2049. These activities have been met with stronger pushbacks by Western states, owing to their heightened awareness and audacity to confront these measures, unlike our own trapping.

Beijing continued to accuse the West of unfair targeting and news formation, but its own press record has been a lost cause, where  mere mentions of forbidden words are swiftly deleted and people being hauled up within days if not hours, if they post anything critical of the party of national leaders, especially President Xi Jinping. Usually, they will be lost in the national radar for weeks and months before reappearing with their public apologies and remorse for their actions.

Unlike China and contrary to the persistent narrative on the West’s biasness, for all its flaws, the West stood for the critical fundamentals of openness and basic rights. Freedom of the press, preservation of rights of the people to choose their own beliefs and governments, assurances of the rule of law and sanctity of rules-based engagement, and recognition of the people’s talent and voices in securing their basic fundamental rights, have for decades been the central hallmark and epitome of stability, peace and consistency in expectations and assurances both in international engagements and internal order.

In spending more on internal security to control information and suppress freedom, as can be seen during the pandemic and with the issues of Xinjiang and the Hong Kong turmoil, Beijing is trying to shape the direction and content of information and news and will continue to be beholden to this move for as long as its approach remains the same. Beijing will need to continue to spend more on internal assurance and preventing risks of unrest and challenges to the CCP leadership than the amount on its external security.

The long peace that has given incalculable returns to the global community and global order has been met with complacency and ignorance, where growing dissatisfaction with dysfunctional governance and global crises that have been poorly managed has pushed the opening for fast and easy solutions and salvations for current challenges. Democracy is on the decline throughout the world, so are the established norms and democratic principles of due processes and adherence to rules and order.  The intense challenges both at the economic, climate and geopolitical fronts have pushed for an inward-looking yearning, scrambling for a quick and urgent fix to secure one’s own political survival and expediency and for the people to receive the needed salvations. Cultivating politics of emotions and in crafting ignorance of the past and history, the meaning and contextual vitality of the real impact of past and current assurance and stability remain drifted away in the realm of apathy and ignorance.

Distortion in reality and truth and presenting an emotional appeal and narrative based on the victim card, with strategic targeting of the fallacies and vulnerabilities of the nations and communities on target, have yielded tremendous returns. In the case of Malaysia, awareness level on critical issues is low especially on critical fronts including the South China Sea, where Beijing is happy for the status quo to remain, in which both our centrality and low public engagement on such issues provide greater long term returns to China. Positive image is being ramped up, amplifying the positive returns and impact of the various Chinese ventures and support structure from the BRI to RCEP and the aid and investments provided but the chain implications and long-term end results that are negatively impacting the communities or our interests and survival are ignored.

Strategic targeting of different demographic groups based on their leanings and perceptions is constantly evolving. New generation groups by Gen Z and Alpha are seen as ripe for targeting with their swaying stances and uncertain affiliations, which are done with focused segments on the new media. The older demographic groups that are more stable in their orientation are continued to be served through conventional media, especially in their own suited languages. As highlighted in the report, the media fraternity especially the journalists and editors are given a sustained stick and carrot approach, fed with incentives ranging from sponsored trips as part of the mind changing sway, to downright pressure in shaping the right notion and narration of their news reporting. Opinion pieces or news that are deemed to be critical or hostile to China are suppressed, while there is an implosion of greater anti West pieces and narratives that are tolerated and allowed. The content and depth  of news reporting are increasingly under the periphery of Beijing’s wants, where these media organisations are often trapped in their own tied hands. Threats of funding withdrawal or pulling off adverts, among many others, mean that the orientation and independence of these institutions remain beholden to foreign interests.  It takes audacity and boldness of principles for the other media practitioners in not kow-towing to these demands.

For now, no country comes close to China’s sophisticated sphere of influence seeking measures, with its integrated approach led by its main machine, the United Front Work Department of the Party. Despite the efforts, public wisdom and awareness remain the ultimate decider and importance. Media literacy and great foresight remain imperative, but risks crumbling at the onslaught of the relentless pursuit by Chinese propagandists out to stake their claim of the global order and its soft power dominance, often at the expense of public awareness and call for action.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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Foreign Policy News

Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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