The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to alter the international information environment in its favor, a U.S. State Department special report indicated. In this process, Beijing allocates significant amounts of money to assemble a global information system that promotes its propaganda and facilitates censorship and the dissemination of disinformation.
“Soft power is a major part of human history. In the case of China, its presence in Latin America has been notable since the 1970s,” Iván Gatón, an expert in international relations and geopolitics and professor at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, told Diálogo on October 25. “Its strategy in the region evolved, and it is reflected in its media influence and disinformation tactics.”
According to the September 28 report, the PRC’s information manipulation efforts are based on five main elements: the use of propaganda and censorship, the promotion of digital authoritarianism, the exploitation of international organizations and bilateral agreements, the combination of co-optation and pressure, and the control of Chinese-language media.
The report also details that these five elements could enable Beijing to alter the international information environment in three key ways:
The first is the use of implicit and explicit strategies to influence global content. This includes the dissemination of biased information through foreign media and sponsorship of online influencers; signing agreements with local media, some being restrictive; co-opting influential voices; and investing in global platforms, such as digital TV services in Africa and satellite networks to expand their influence.
The second is the use of online and offline intimidation tactics to limit free speech, silence dissent, encourage self-censorship in established democracies, use local laws to quash criticism, and censor platforms such as WeChat. Harassing content creators and using data from Chinese companies abroad to fine-tune global censorship on individuals and organizations, is also used.
The third is digital authoritarianism, employing digital infrastructure to censor news and spread disinformation, export surveillance and censorship technologies under the guise of “safe cities,” spreading this model globally, especially to Africa, Asia, and Latin America; push digital authoritarian norms in other countries; and create information environments conducive to their propaganda and censorship.
The quality of information in Latin America has deteriorated due to the lack of independent journalists, French magazine Le Grand Continent reported on October 12. Chinese and Russian media offer free content, and public media in several countries collaborate with them, compromising regional news independence.
Chinese state media such as Xinhua and China News Services expanded their international reach, funding coverage to control messages aimed at the diaspora. They insert supplements, such as China Watch, into leading newspapers, creating confusion over truth and propaganda, as the audience has limited time and resources to discern between them, Le Grand Continent added.
In fact, China created a journalism school in Beijing to attract Latino students, promoting a positive image of China and its investments. More than 500 students have been recruited by the China Public Diplomacy Association, but the programs prohibit discussing sensitive topics such as Tibet or Hong Kong, raising concerns about freedom of expression and journalistic objectivity, the magazine added.
One example is a PRC-funded trip in late September, where 22 journalists from 17 countries visited local communities, praising the economy and cultural diversity in the region, and dismissing Western media criticism as “baseless lies,” AP reported.
“To provide training, Chinese citizens began learning Spanish in Cuba before 1970, evidencing a long-term strategy to expand Chinese influence in Latin America,” Gatón said. “China made such a headway that it now dominates the idiomatic nuances of the region. This is not a coincidence.”
The media act as manipulation tools, as people tend to believe what they see without critical analysis, especially when a meticulously designed state policy is presented, Gatón said.
The U.S. State Department special report also indicates that the PRC employs bots, trolls, and coordinated social media campaigns, to promote pro-China content and suppress criticism. They use flooding tactics to saturate sensitive topics with irrelevant content, making it difficult for users to find substantive, fact-based information, the report says.
In late August, Facebook deleted some 7,700 accounts, 950 pages, 15 groups, and 15 Instagram accounts that pushed pro-China comments and were critical of the United States, Western policies, and detractors of the Chinese government, including journalists and researchers, the New York Times reported.
China implements these communication strategies in regions rich in strategic raw materials, such as Africa and Latin America, seeking to secure vital resources such as lithium and establish strategic infrastructure contracts, Gatón said. “The Chinese media are succeeding in positioning China’s image.”
The future of international relations with the PRC will depend on how information manipulation is managed. Despite China’s significant resources, it faces resistance in democracies due to opposition from media and civil society. Understanding these tactics is key to ensuring a level playing field for ideas and values, the U.S. State Department report says.
It is also “essential that the transatlantic world, including Latin America, Europe, and the United States, unite to avoid being displaced by Asia. Our geography defines us and considering that our closest neighbor is the United States, we must act together to address current challenges,” Gatón concluded.