The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its proxies “are using more sophisticated and coercive tactics to shape media narratives and suppress critical reporting,” including intimidation of journalists, the September report Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022, by U.S.-based nonprofit organization Freedom House, which conducts research and advocacy on human rights and democracy, indicates.
“Political and economic pressure with signed free trade agreements is a mechanism that Beijing implements with emerging or developing countries,” Luis Ángel Hurtado, an expert in political communication and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Diálogo on October 10. “When it has a topic being discussed […] it seeks to influence the way in which China’s public image is treated in the media.”
The report examines China’s infiltration tactics in the press in 30 countries, 16 of which it designates as having high or very high infiltration. Argentina, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom are among the most affected countries.
Mass distribution of Beijing-backed content via mainstream media, harassment, cyberbullying, intimidation of outlets that publish news or opinions disfavored by the Chinese government, fake social media accounts, and targeted disinformation campaign are among the more widely used tactics, the report states.
According to the report, the Chinese government establishes routes for its media to reach vast audiences, encourages self-censorship on topics disapproved by the CCP, and co-opts government officials and media owners in some countries to assist in spreading propaganda narratives.
“In all of the countries studied, Chinese diplomats or [Chinese] state media openly promoted falsehoods or misleading content to news consumers,” Ellie Young, Freedom House’s research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, told Central American online magazine Expediente Público.
In half of the countries studied, China took actions to intimidate, harass, or pressure journalists, editors, or commentators for their coverage, at times demanding to retract or remove unfavorable content, often backed up by implicit or explicit threats of harm to bilateral relations, withdrawal of advertising, or defamation suits, the report indicates.
Beijing’s disinformation strategy seeks to position China as the new benevolent hegemony (as an alternative to the United States), and the dominant power in the current international system, according to the report Measuring the Impact of Misinformation, Disinformation and Propaganda in Latin America by U.S. think tank Global Americans.
In the Latin American countries studied by Freedom House, Chinese state media such as Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Hoy magazine, China Radio International, and China Daily, renewed cooperation agreements with publicly funded outlets in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Panama, and Peru. China also signed new agreements with several private media outlets.
In Argentina, the Freedom House report found evidence of Chinese troll activities, with suspicious accounts amplifying Chinese state media publications.
Beijing’s media lobbying efforts in Chile increased during 2019-2021. This was reflected in new diplomatic social media accounts and more active messaging from the Embassy, as well as continued pressure to deepen ties with local news producers through content-sharing agreements.
Since 2018, dozens of journalists from across the political and geographic spectrum of the Panamanian media have been traveling to China as tourists or for trainings, at the expense of the Chinese government or Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei — a company with close CCP ties. These trips are often used to discourage negative reporting from participants, the Freedom House report says.
In Peru, major public and private media outlets share Chinese state media content.
For non-democratic states, such as China, these media sources and their activities reflect a long-term strategy, to expand geostrategic and even territorial goals by developing allies, undermining U.S. and Western influence, and restructuring the international order, Global Americans indicates in its report.
“Five years ago, China began to expand its television, radio, magazines, and state news agencies in different parts of the world in other languages, such as Spanish,” Hurtado said. “It is betting on this to change its image and gain influence.”
In order to counteract these actions by China, Latin American countries must implement “media literacy as happens in liberal and democratic countries [in Europe and the United States], for the correct use of the media, including in times of crisis,” Hurtado said.
Governments, media, civil society, and technology companies all have a role to play in improving democratic resilience in the face of the CCP’s increasingly aggressive influence efforts, the Freedom House study concludes.