Claudia Trevisan is executive director of the Brazil-China Business Council. She was formerly the Washington correspondent of the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the Ford Foundation for its generous support of this project.
The dramatic growth in trade and investment relations between China and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has not yet translated into a significant expansion of Beijing’s influence over the region’s media and civil society. Certainly, China has launched many initiatives to increase its clout over journalists, academics, politicians, and policymakers in LAC, a region where the United States historically has wielded the most influence over these opinion leaders. But the results of China’s media, information, and civil society offensive in LAC have been mixed, and Beijing’s prospects for improving its regional soft power are still unclear.
Chinese ambitions to influence local media and promote Beijing’s preferred narrative – about issues related to Chinese foreign and domestic policy – through official Chinese news outlets are hindered by the unfree, staid nature of Chinese outlets like Xinhua and China Global Television Network, or CGTN. But while China’s state news outlets may be failing to win audience share and sway minds in Latin America and the Caribbean, Beijing has been more successful in other media, information, and civil society efforts.
For one, there are emerging forms of cooperation between Chinese and Latin American media that insert Beijing’s narrative organically into local news outlet’s content, sometimes without consumers realizing where the content comes from. In addition, Beijing has been successful in using fully funded trips to China, scholarships to prestigious Chinese universities, and exchange programs, to directly expose government officials, politicians, academics, journalists, and students from the region to China’s remarkable economic growth, poverty reduction, and innovation, all of which can make a positive impression on visitors. China’s meteoric rise especially appeals to many in LAC, a developing region marked for decades by poverty, inequality and low growth.
Indeed, innovation and technology are emerging sources of China’s influence in LAC. China’s image as a manufacturer of low-quality products is rapidly being replaced by one of modernity – as a country of high-speed trains, electric cars, smart cities, and digital payments. And in a region plagued by high levels of crime, Chinese facial recognition technology is often lauded as a useful tool to improve security and not as a threat to privacy – though there have been concerns about how Chinese technology is utilized in countries like Ecuador. Chinese companies such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Alibaba, and BYD are rapidly expanding in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Chinese giant Tencent is becoming an emerging source of finance for local startups.
In key countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in fact, China is increasingly winning the public opinion battle with the United States, but not necessarily because of the influence of China’s media and information efforts. It has been winning the public opinion battle in part because of the deterioration of U.S. prestige caused by the behavior of President Donald Trump, including his anti-immigrant and anti-Mexico rhetoric. To be sure, China’s image regionally suffered at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Brazil, the most populous state in the region. But China’s effective control of COVID-19 at home, and its rapid economic recovery – at a time when most of the world is struggling economically – has bolstered its image in LAC. As China’s economy recovers, Beijing is further deepening its trade relations with the region. In addition, there is a significant probability that a Chinese vaccine will be among the first to be available to the public in LAC, a development that could boost further Beijing’s prestige.
For a more in-depth analysis of China’s attempts to influence media and civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Beijing’s overall attempts to shape its image in the region, read the full paper here.