Meeting

CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: Beijing's Global Media Offensive by Joshua Kurlantzick

Thursday, December 8, 2022
Speaker
Presider

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @JamesMLindsay

Since China’s ascendancy toward great power status began in the 1990s, many observers have focused on its economic growth and expanding military power. In contrast, most viewed China’s ability to project soft and sharp power through its media industries and its global influence campaigns as quite limited, and its ability to wield influence within the domestic politics of other countries as nearly nonexistent.

In Beijing's Global Media Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzick offers an incisive analysis of China’s attempt in the past decade to become both a media and information superpower around the world, and to wield traditional forms of influence to shape the domestic politics of other countries.

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Teagan, and good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations’ virtual book launch for Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia here at CFR.

I am Jim Lindsay, senior vice president, director of studies, a Maurice R. Greenberg chair, here at the Council. I have the pleasure of presiding over our discussion.

I want to begin by noting that books form the foundation of what we do in the David Rockefeller Studies Program so book launches are celebratory events for us. On that score, I am delighted to introduce tonight’s speaker, Josh Kurlantzick.

Josh and I have been colleagues here at the Council for more than a dozen years. During that time, Josh has written widely and well on Southeast Asia, including, by my count, five very well received books.

I’m not going to mention those books by name because tonight I want to spotlight Josh’s newest book, Beijing’s Global Offensive. It is a deeply researched and extremely timely book as we now find ourselves in an era of great power competition in which China is consciously seeking to displace the United States as the global leader.

Here, I just want to say thank you for joining me, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive.

KURLANTZICK: Thanks for having me, Jim, and thanks to everyone for joining. I see even people joining from Indonesia, Australia. So thanks to everyone. A special thanks to people who are getting up very early in the morning to join and, again, thanks for having me.

LINDSAY: We are going to follow our standard practice for this discussion. I will engage Josh in a conversation for about thirty minutes. At that point, I will invite our members and guests to join our conversation with their questions.

Josh, I guess where I’d like to begin is with what it is that Beijing’s Global Media Offensive chronicles, namely, China’s attempts for the first time in decades to wield extensive power inside other countries’ politics and societies. When did this effort start and what precisely is China doing?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I mean, I think there was always some places where China was attempting to wield influence inside societies like Taiwan and some other smaller countries in Southeast Asia.

But the really major attempt to wield much greater influence in domestic politics in other countries started around the time of the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping where China has pivoted around that time and has really attempted to play a much more significant role in shaping other countries’ politics and societies, and there’s a whole wide range of ways that they’ve attempted to do that, some of which I get into into the book, some of which, vote for someone else.

One of the ways they’ve tried to do it is over the last ten years they tried to build a state media apparatus that was actually kind of credible. So they wanted to—they spent huge sums of money and for a time hired a lot of credible foreign reporters and Chinese reporters for China Global Television Network, which is their global version of CNN or the BBC, or China Radio International, which is kind of their version of BBC Radio, and for Xinhua, which is the China-based global news wire.

I think the goal was originally to make those something like Al Jazeera, a news outlet, you know, based in an authoritarian state which was not going to cover fairly the domestic politics of that state but was going to develop credibility in other regions of the world and through that, perhaps, shape perceptions of China.

It’s very important, particularly to Xi Jinping but it has—Chinese leaders have always been obsessed with this idea of discourse power, that China, despite being the second most powerful country in the world now, doesn’t—is incapable or is cut out of a lot of the global conversation about foreign policy, about China itself, about the Party, and narratives about China are developed primarily by liberal democracies in their prominent media outlets—the New York Times, the AP, Kyodo, the Nikkei, whatever.

So they wanted to not only wield power within societies but have their say on the global stage and shape global narratives about all sorts of things.

So, first, was they wanted to make their state media credible so that it would be a real competitor to these other outlets. We can talk later about whether that worked. I don’t, generally, think it has worked.

Secondly, they—and this has worked more effectively—I think they wanted to deprive Chinese readers—Chinese-language-first readers, listeners, and viewers within many other countries who sought out domestic Chinese-language news outlets as their source of news—they wanted to deprive them of most independent outlets that covered Beijing and covered China fairly, and in that they have been quite successful. We can talk about that later.

There is very little independent coverage in the Chinese-language media around the world, including in the U.S., compared to what it would have been, like, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago.

I also talk in the book about how they wanted to build a kind of disinformation apparatus that was much more sophisticated than they had even five or six years ago, something along the lines of what Russia, at least before the Ukraine war, had been successful at in many ways, degrading democracy, stirring up chaos, influencing elections. I do believe China has learned a fair amount from Russia both directly and indirectly.

And then, fourth, I talk in the book a little bit about sort of traditional ways to meddle in other countries’ politics and societies, which China, certainly, has stepped up dramatically.

Again, I don’t think has worked very well. But those include things that are not that new—paying politicians, trying to pay off political parties. Some of it is somewhat new—influencing campuses, influencing the Chinese diaspora, et cetera.

But all of these were—have really been ramped up under Xi Jinping as Xi Jinping has really been the first Chinese leader since Mao to endorse this and to step out and say that—to openly sort of embrace China as a global power and also to openly embrace the idea that China should have this discourse power and also to—finally, to openly embrace that China has a model of development that other countries should emulate. And we can talk later about that.

I think that idea, which was gaining—was part of the appeal of sort of China’s influence in other countries has also been very significantly damaged in the last three years.

LINDSAY: OK.

Josh, let’s talk a little bit about what the Chinese government is seeking to accomplish with these influence campaigns, whether we’re talking about campaigns that are, in some sense, aboveboard—creating media outlets, training journalists, and others that are subterranean or illegal efforts to bribe people.

What is Xi Jinping and the Chinese state apparatus trying to accomplish? Is this about improving the favorability of China overseas? Is it about trying to get acceptance for certain Chinese policies? Is it about undercutting the United States? Something else?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think the two things can happen at the same time and China’s trying to do two things at the same time, not all of which has succeeded.

On the one hand, with their more traditional soft power efforts like the open state media, and there are other things like just regular diplomacy—ambassadors writing op-eds, things like that—that also has not been that successful.

They’re seeking to—they were seeking to build China’s favorability, particularly in regions where they already had a fairly favorable views due to history or due to the enormous amounts of trade or aid like in Africa, Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia, parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The Central and Eastern Europe they have completely lost that due to their support for the Ukraine—for the Russia and the Ukraine war.

Improve your favorability—I mean, this is sort of traditional soft power theory—improve your favorability, you’re viewed more favorable. You can’t prove this, but it makes—necessarily, but it should make it easier for elites in those countries to support things like economic cooperation, investment, aid, defense cooperation, meanwhile. So this is the aboveboard stuff.

With the more sharp power which we mean more sort of hidden, often sort of corrosive, sometimes corrupt, means of influencing society, so that would mean sort of quietly taking over the Chinese-language media, definitely paying politicians, and trying to meddle in elections, which has been a problem in Taiwan, in Malaysia, in Australia, in New Zealand. The FBI has warned about it as a major coming threaten in the United States and Canada. As well as trying to influence student groups, et cetera—the diaspora.

I think the efforts—those efforts are to, one, silence dissent about China and about the CCP and about Xi Jinping, to protect the party. That’s—and to constrain the scope of discussion on campuses and research institutes.

Not at CFR. CFR doesn’t accept money from foreign governments.

LINDSAY: Or the U.S. government.

KURLANTZICK: Or the U.S. government. Sorry. I should have said that, too.

Any government. But there are plenty that do around the world. To constrain the—what is discussed about regarding China. A perfect example—and that is true with civil society, too, with these sharper efforts.

A perfect example of that I talk about in the book is Indonesia, which is a fairly open country, although the—in the last couple of days they just passed some laws which are pretty worrisome about their democracy, but it’s the most democratic major country in Southeast Asia.

China, before the—before zero-COVID and before COVID used visit diplomacy and a lot of trips to China and training programs, many of which were not really publicized for a lot of Indonesian civil society leaders, particularly religious leaders, who, by nature, probably—Muslim religious leaders would have been and were—had been quite critical of China’s atrocious policies in Xinjiang.

They came back to Indonesia and a lot of those leaders—the conversation became more constrained. They didn’t necessarily just mimic China’s line that what was going on in Xinjiang was just, you know, some education program but they also—a lot of them were no longer as—the conversation had narrowed. They were no longer as critical. Some of them did mimic that.

And so it’s not only about constraining politicians but also civil society as well in a lot of places—universities, research institutes, students associations . So protecting the Party, constraining the criticism of China.

I think, in some places, clearly, China wanted specifically to support certain politicians who they believed—and maybe this is coming in the U.S.—who they believed would simply pursue foreign policies that would be more favorable to China.

That was, certainly, true in—has, certainly, been true in Taiwan, where they clearly in the 2020 presidential election took a whole range of measures designed to support the KMT candidate who—you know, it’s a counterfactual. He didn’t win.

In fact, they alienated a lot of Taiwanese but probably if he had won he would have taken a more sympathetic approach towards Beijing than the actual—the president was reelected. Tsai Ing-wen was—I don’t know hard line is the word but is, certainly, not sympathetic to Beijing.

I think efforts in Australia before Australia passed a very powerful foreign interference law were probably to influence members of the Labour Party and the independents, to pursue a more sympathetic approach to Beijing, and I think that has been true in New Zealand, possibly in Canada. It was true—it has been true in Malaysia and to some extent in Thailand as well.

So sometimes it’s simply wanting to back groups, research institutions, politicians, simply going to be more favorable to Chinese foreign policy.

LINDSAY: So, Josh, let’s talk about this question of the effectiveness of the Chinese influence campaigns.

You’ve already telegraphed that you’re skeptical about how successful they have been and communicated in the subtitle of your book about China’s uneven campaign.

Tell me a little bit about where you see it working and where it’s not working. Is it that certain tools the Chinese are using are very effective and other tools don’t work very well? Is it that China is more effective in some countries, some regions in the world, than in others? Something else?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah. Sure.

I mean, it’s ironic because I think when we—first of all, I should have said this before, but thank you for all your support and for Dr. Haass’ support in writing and editing this book.

I think when we started this out, I’d have to go back and look at the concept paper, which is what we write Jim and he approves or eventually, hopefully, approves here at CFR, I’m pretty sure my original concept paper suggested that China was being very successful with many of these efforts and that was five years ago, at least—and five years ago, and what I found is I think that it’s a mix with some of the efforts succeeding and others really not.

So I think some of the efforts have succeeded because China has been quite skillful in them. Some of them have failed because China has blown it.

Some of them have succeeded in places that are more favorable to China. Some of them have failed—and I will talk a little bit more about all this in a second—in places where major barriers have been thrown up.

So the big—of the three big state media outlets that China has invested a huge amount in, their global television network, CGTN, their radio station, CRI, and Xinhua, their news wire. CGTN and CRI really have gained almost no audience share in most of the world. I’m going to have a lot of research to back that up—polling from Gallup. I did a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The U.S. government, not surprisingly, tracks audience share of both our own state media outlets and China’s and others, too, like France’s and ones that we’re probably not as worried about, and CGTN and CRI’s audience share in most places is just minimal. The levels of trust of them is very minimal in most countries, even in places where China has a pretty warm public image like parts of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

And that has failed because they just couldn’t be Al Jazeera. I think that was always an impossible goal because Al Jazeera is based in a small petro state that at most times—maybe not this time right now while the World Cup is going on, but in most times doesn’t get a lot of attention on the world stage. And you can be an Al Jazeera reporter—obviously, Al Jazeera is not going to do stories about the Qatari monarchy. They’re not going to do stories probably about—fair stories about Qatar’s relations with certain other Middle Eastern countries.

But for Al Jazeera’s coverage of Southeast Asia or Latin America or the U.S. and Northeast Asia, reporters are given, basically, freedom to do credible quality reporting and they have a lot of credible quality reporters because most people don’t care about Qatar most of the time.

So I’m not intending to insult Qatar. But it’s very difficult for almost—almost any story could be related to China. Not every story but so many more stories, and the Chinese government just never was willing to allow the types of freedom that Al Jazeera has allowed even in parts of the world far from China.

Then you have in the last couple years a lot of liberal democracies putting up very significant barriers to these state media outlets, like in the U.S. they have to register under FARA. And the combination of that—

LINDSAY: We should tell people FARA is the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

KURLANTZICK: Oh, I’m sorry. The Foreign Agents Registration Act. Sorry. I’m sorry.

LINDSAY: It’s a law that dates back to the late 1930s in an effort to counter Nazi propaganda.

KURLANTZICK: But it means that you have to register as a foreign—as a foreign agent as a journalist. And so they’ve lost most of their credible foreign journalists in the U.S. because journalists don’t want to register as foreign agents, and the retreat in the last three years into really intense one-man, very, very—even more authoritarian rule has just terrified a lot of reporters at CGTN and CRI and it’s just because they just don’t know what could get them in trouble and it’s just led to a return to just really turgid propagandistic stories that wouldn’t have been out of place twenty-five years ago and aren’t going to appeal to people.

By contrast, Xinhua has been given some more leeway and one—

LINDSAY: It’s the news agency.

KURLANTZICK: Xinhua, the news wire, has been given a little more leeway. They continue to expand, and one huge difference between CGTN, the radio station and the TV network and the news wire is you have to actively seek out to watch CGTN, basically, right. Like, you have to find it on your television channel wherever you are. But Xinhua just seeps into sort of the media ecosphere because it’s a news wire.

You know, I worked for news wire, like, twenty years ago—more than twenty years ago now, and the news wires get picked up by news outlets all over the world. They often write the first draft of stories. They don’t really care about the quality of the—necessarily the writing but they want to get there first and by doing so they often define the initial draft of the story, whether that’s Xinhua or AFP or the AP or whatever, and, increasingly, especially in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa but even AFP and Germany’s news wire and Italian news wires have signed content agreement—sharing agreements with Xinhua where they use Xinhua copy and, I think, in their local news—translated into local news outlets.

You know, and I think that, particularly in developing countries and places with not great press freedom like Thailand, Malaysia, et cetera, a lot of the Xinhua content, sometimes it’s not even labeled. It might just say agencies or might not be labeled, or it’s labeled at the end of a story, and even if it’s labeled at the top most people who are not journalists or not really savvy media consumers, who are not policy elites, don’t really pay much attention to who wrote what story. Maybe for—they pay attention to columnists, but they don’t look at the byline. They read the story.

And so I think Xinhua has been very successful at seeping into the news conversation around the world and I expect that to continue. Xinhua is cheap—is offered cheap to news outlets, sometimes free, and the journalism industry around the world isn’t exactly like a major growth industry. It’s dying.

And so a free, decent, expanding news outlet is going to have a major impact. China has been very successful at taking—as I said, at taking over the—or having proxy pro-Beijing owners take over the local Chinese-language media all over the world and really limiting that diet. That has been a major success for them.

The disinformation, I think, is still very mixed. It’s still a very—they have definitely dramatically upped their disinformation output all over the world, including in the U.S., including for these midterms, all the major social media platforms, and FBI Director Wray warned about Chinese disinformation and Chinese influence before the midterms.

But their disinformation tends to be extremely clumsy and lack what Russia had done significantly well in—at least in 2016 and in Europe where Russia tended to spin conspiracy theories that were based in organic divisions in those countries, organic problems in those countries, organic social divisions, and for whatever reason Russia was good at picking those up and then playing on them. China’s disinformation is still very nascent and often easy to pick out.

And then, finally, with the efforts to specifically wield old-fashioned influence like paying politicians, while that might have had an initial success, that has led to a massive backlash in a lot of liberal democracies, and so you have countries like Australia, the United States, Canada is coming, Europe—a lot of European nations—Singapore, probably going to be in other liberal democracies. Singapore is not a liberal democracy but probably going to be much, much, much more intense scrutiny of foreign investment in media and information, foreign influence in politics, et cetera. So I think that’s a huge own goal by China.

LINDSAY: Well, let’s talk about that, Josh, what countries should do.

Obviously, you’ve painted a picture in which China has succeeded with some of its strategies. Others haven’t paid off. But there is the risk that China could learn from its mistakes and it could learn quickly.

So as you look at this, what are your recommendations to governments, whether in the West or elsewhere, about what they should do to undercut or blunt Chinese influence operations?

You’ve already alluded to some of those things, the steps the Australians have taken given what they discovered the problems in their political system being sort of exploited by the Chinese. Sort of what are the two or three things you think are most important for countries to do?

KURLANTZICK: Sure. Thanks, Jim.

Well, I think, in general, liberal democracies have woken up and it was the combination of both Russia and China that has woken them up. But, in the long term, I think China is a much greater challenge.

You know, China’s model of development doesn’t look great right now. But, I mean—and Xi Jinping is actively degrading some of the stronger elements in the model, like, that they built truly competitive, very effective global companies. He’s degrading them and undermining them.

No one really seeks to emulate Russia. Like, what’s a Russian company that’s, you know, globally competitive other than Gazprom?

But I think that—a couple things. One, like Australia, like the U.S. increasingly, many countries either have already or they are putting into place commissions to scrutinize foreign investment. The United States, we already have a commission, the CFIUS, or the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. But in the past, CFIUS was mostly used to scrutinize investment—foreign investments—that could have—be a security risk, be a—have dual use for military technology, et cetera.

Liberal democracies should have commissions like that but they should realize that foreign investment—any type of foreign investment—you can’t just focus on, say, China because that’s just not—I mean, you can be worried about China but you can’t just draw rules just related to China.

You could say that we’re not concerned if this Norwegian company buys up the Boston Globe but we need to scrutinize it. The media and information should be treated as a sensitive sector by these commissions and one that is applied special scrutiny the same way a dual-use technology that might be a military—of military use.

Second, I think there needs to be a much more concerted effort to try to improve the digital literacy of citizens in liberal democracies and that starts at a very young age. You know, I mean, I think it should come standard part of school curricula. It is at my kid’s school and I think it should be at everyone’s school.

There are some good models from that from Finland, from Taiwan, from Italy. I think that we need to—liberal democracies need to invest in their—in independent media around the world, which have been—you know, the United States’ aid budget is limited but independent media is a very good source for aid.

They tend to be—independent media in Taiwan were among the leaders in exposing Chinese influence, independent media in Australia, in Hong Kong, although Hong Kong is probably a lost cause at this point.

And then, finally, I mean, this is a recommendation that I don’t have, you know. I’m not going to give you one answer to this. You could—Jim could probably give you—send you a list of a hundred books to read about this topic.

But, I mean, part of—before the zero-COVID debacle part of what was Xi Jinping’s argument and his willingness to embrace the idea and you had some—many Westerners embracing this idea that China had this model of effective managerial authoritarian capitalism that, supposedly, because there’s no voters to deal with but they were able to promote cadres of managers who are effective. They could get things done, and that model allowed them to bypass the—you know, bypass the messiness of democracy and get a whole range of things done.

And there’s probably some truth to that, but at the time that this was really being ramped up and discussed by Xi Jinping between 2015 and 2020, he definitely had—didn’t have democracy around the world looking at its finest. Democracy seemed to be setting itself on fire. You had a lot of authoritarian populists come to power degrading democracy in all sorts of places.

So the stronger the democracy seems both as an actual political system where votes are made, votes are counted, people respect those votes. But also, democracies aren’t completely deadlocked in their policymaking and they’re not stuck, as we often have been in the U.S. in the last ten years but other places too. The more—in addition to Xi Jinping’s own goals over the last three years, which I’m happy to answer questions about how China’s foreign policy over the last three years has really undermined many of its goals and its influence effort.

The stronger a democracy seems not only as a system that provides freedoms—social freedoms that people like because it gives them social and political freedom but actually can also get policies implemented, the weaker the appeal of a managerial authoritarian capitalist model is going to seem.

But in terms of specific ideas for how to do that, you know, you could—there’s a hundred books out there you can read about that.

LINDSAY: At this point, I would like to invite our members and guests to join our conversation with their questions.

Let me, first, remind everybody that this meeting is on the record.

Teagan, if you could, could you please provide instructions on how people can join the question queue?

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Cedric Suzman.

Q: Well, thank you very much for an interesting outline of China’s activities.

I wondered if you could comment on their activities in southern Africa, South Africa in particular, and then, perhaps, add Kenya as well. I think they had some interesting incursions in that part of the world.

KURLANTZICK: Yeah. I mean, I think Africa has been one of the main targets of China’s state media expansion, one of the biggest targets.

Xinhua has—based out of Kenya has more correspondents in Africa than any other news wire. As they were building up China Global Television Network and CRI—China Radio International—there was a very intense effort to recruit quality local African journalists, including some I talk about in the book who had been in their previous jobs investigative reporters investigating problematic things about China’s influence on the continent.

I think China has still been more effective in Africa than in any other region in the world in getting their media to be accepted as credible. But they—particularly Xinhua, but they still suffer from the same problem.

One thing that Xinhua does well in Africa and I should have mentioned this, in other places, they just have a lot more reporters in a lot of places than the other wires so they’re able to cover these—local events in a lot of countries at a level that the Associated Press or Bloomberg or Reuters can’t—a kind of hyper local strategy.

And then so if they cover, like, more stories in Kenya than the Associated Press, these stories can then be recycled back into the Kenyan press through the Xinhua lens and they have really in Africa done a lot of that as well as in Southeast Asia.

You will see in polling that their approval ratings of China in Africa are higher than tend to be in most places—other places in the world. Part of that is Africa has been a major recipient of BRI lending. There have been some Belt and Road Initiative funding, which is China’s huge lending—global lending project.

There have been some problems with that. But there was also definitely a massive need for lending for infrastructure in Africa. But studies by prominent Africa scholars like Vivian Marsh (sp) and others do still show that there’s a high level of distrust of most of the China media outlets.

Maybe less distrust than in other regions but they are still not as trusted as the BBC or independent news outlets in places with fairly free media like Kenya or South Africa or Ghana or places like that.

But definitely compared to other regions China’s had the—probably the most success with Xinhua and even with getting the respectability of the other major state media outlets in Africa, and, in addition, there are some more repressive African governments where definitely China’s model of managerial authoritarian capitalism as well as control of the internet has been quite attractive and China has helped some of those countries—Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, at times Tanzania, in Egypt—that’s North Africa—in building the type of internet that China has, which is kind of a walled garden internet where there’s the Chinese internet and it’s mostly cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a sovereign internet. It’s sort of a term that China and Russia talk about it as.

So China has been—has helped some authoritarian African governments as well as authoritarian governments in other places like in Southeast Asia adopt that type of internet.

LINDSAY: Thank you, Cedric. Thank you, Josh.

Teagan, if we have another question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Snehal Patel.

Q: Gentlemen, thank you so much. This has been a very fascinating conversation.

So I’m Snehal Patel from Saena Partners based here in Singapore.

So, really interesting. What resonated, Josh, your comments around the Chinese-language media. So we’ve seen that play out in real time here in Singapore where, during the vaccine debate, the government was very in favor of Western mRNA vaccines.

So Zaobao is the largest Chinese-language media outlet here in Singapore, and the debate split across, actually, readership where Zaobao was actually kind of pushing the Chinese line around Sinovac. Eventually, the government approved Sinovac as a vaccine here in Singapore.

My question, really, is kind of—seeing this in real time it’s really fascinating to hear how the—how Chinese government is influencing local media.

What are your thoughts and what have you seen, broadly, around Southeast Asia and what can sort of other communities do to help sort of counter the influence that Beijing has had in, specifically, Mandarin language media?

KURLANTZICK: Thanks. Those are all great questions and thank you for joining from Singapore where it’s, what, 7:40 or 5:40 a.m.?

Q: It’s actually 7:40. It’s OK. (Laughter.)

KURLANTZICK: All right. Well, thank you. I really appreciate it.

There’s only so much you can do. I mean, that’s the unfortunate answer. I mean, this is definitely true almost all through Southeast Asia.

So, in Malaysia, for example, there’s a very prominent tycoon who owns most—and, you know, Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with a quite substantial Chinese minority and some of them get their news from Chinese media. Not in Chinese. Media from China, but Malaysian Chinese media.

A prominent tycoon owns most—has taken over over the last decade or so most of the Chinese-language media in Malaysia. He is very much a supporter of Beijing and the—from reporters that I’ve spoken with has very much sort of silenced a lot of what in the past was more judicious, fair, and even-handed treatment of China and issues related to China.

That still didn’t stop China from alienating Malaysia through some of its foreign policy actions in the last few years. But same thing is true in Thailand. You’ve had pro-Beijing owners take over local media. There’s been an effort by a prominent pro-Beijing wealthy businessman to buy up one of the two last remaining—really, remaining independent presses in Thailand.

Indonesia is a much smaller Chinese-reading community but in the Philippines a small Chinese-reading community but similar. You’ve had very much local tycoons who bought up the Chinese media. The local Chinese media have shifted the coverage.

In Taiwan, you have some of the outlets, particularly the Want Want Group, which is owned by a tycoon who’s very much pro-Beijing and is alleged by the Financial Times, essentially—that media group is alleged—and I’m just going to say that because I believe they sued the Financial Times for defamation—but alleged to, basically, take orders directly from Beijing’s Taiwan liaison and clearly produced pro-Beijing content. It’s not—there’s no, you know, beating around the bush about it.

And the same thing in Australia and New Zealand, which are not Southeast Asia, but local tycoons who are more pro-Beijing have taken over outlets and shifted them.

I’m, honestly, not sure what the answer is. I mean, you can’t stop someone who is a Malaysian Chinese from buying—or a Thai as a citizen of Australia or—from buying a news outlet if they have the money to and it’s not a publicly-traded company, and with editorial control doing whatever they want any more than you could stop, you know—I don’t believe the U.S. government should tell Fox media or MSNBC what political line to take.

So it’s a very hard question. I mean, Singapore is a little different because Singapore(’s) government is both not as open as some of those places and now has a very intense foreign interference law and is—Singapore Press Holdings also is—has a lot more control and the Singapore government has a lot more control of the press in Singapore than, say, would be the case in Australia or Thailand or Indonesia or New Zealand, et cetera.

So, in Singapore there could be much stricter scrutiny of what is being put out in the Chinese-language press. I’m not necessarily advocating that and efforts to shift the tone and direction. I don’t know how that’s even possible in other countries without impinging on simply the freedoms that owners and editors have.

One possible answer is people who are Chinese—not all Chinese citizens in these countries—people of Chinese descent who are citizens in these countries are so enamored with Beijing. Certainly, not in Taiwan. Certainly, not in Singapore. Certainly, not in Australia and New Zealand.

You could have independent media come up that are bankrolled by people who are—want to produce independent coverage of China and other things in the world and that could be supported by common and businesspeople. You could have research institutes that produce independent coverage.

That’s a little different. You could just—research institutions, I don’t think, should be taking foreign money. But in terms of the press it becomes a difficult issue. So I don’t—I’m afraid I don’t have one specific answer.

Like, same thing in the United States. A lot of the Chinese-language media in the United States has shifted but it’s because American citizens who are more sympathetic to Beijing bought up some of that media. This isn’t all of it. Some of it is not necessarily this. But American citizens more sympathetic to Beijing may have bought up some of the media and shifted the coverage.

What are you going to do as the U.S. government? Are you going to tell them they can’t buy it or they can’t print what they want? I mean, you are going to run into huge First Amendment problems.

So it’s, definitely, a difficult issue. Actually, I think it’s easier in Singapore than in a lot of other places.

Sorry. A long-winded answer.

LINDSAY: Snehal, thank you very much for your question.

Teagan, we can take the next question in the queue.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Wim Tangkilisan.

Please accept the unmute.

I’m sorry.

Q: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Go ahead.

Q: Yes. My name is Wim. I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia. Early morning here but it’s very nice morning here in Jakarta.

Hi, Josh. Nice to meet you now again online.

KURLANTZICK: Hi.

Q: You mentioned in your book that Thailand, culturally they have been very cozy with the relationship with China, and now even more warmer since Princess Sirindhorn is involved directly into the institute—Confucius Institute. Now, would you be able to identify in Indonesia, since we know that Indonesia has some bad history with China and the media is not controlled by the Chinese tycoon but equally divided by non-Chinese tycoon, who would be in Indonesia that may be interested or already been interested in taking the role as the Princess Sirindhorn in Thailand is doing? Would you be able to explore that so we know exactly what’s going on in Indonesia? Thank you.

KURLANTZICK: Sure.

Well, it’s a pretty interesting question, Wim. I’m glad to be on here. I often write for Wim’s excellent Indonesia-based news outlet and opinion outlet.

Let me just back up a little bit and just say that the tycoons who he’s referring to are Indonesian Chinese, that they’re Indonesian citizens. So they are Indonesian Chinese, which makes them full citizens of Indonesia.

I don’t think that Thailand’s affinity for China and its increasing closeness—I do talk about Princess Sirindhorn. We’re going to get a little in the weeds here, perhaps, just for a second.

Canada is, in theory, a constitutional monarchy. Like Britain, it’s not really a constitutional monarchy. The royal family wields influence in a whole wide range of ways that would not be acceptable in a constitutional monarchy. Just leave it at that.

Princess Sirindhorn is a very popular member of the royal family and she has long been a bridge between Thailand and Beijing. But, I mean, I don’t think that Thailand’s closeness with Beijing is due primarily to her. I think that Thailand’s increasing closeness to Beijing is economic and cultural closeness, not strategic closeness.

In fact, one of the things that’s happened in Southeast Asia in recent years is that while countries who have become economically—maybe culturally closer to China, they have been horrified by some of China’s actions in the region as well as what they’ve seen gone on in China for the last three years and they have pulled back from some of their strategic comfort with China and are now in the sort of the situation where they have moved back closer strategically to the United States. But they’re stuck in the same situation of the whole region being highly economically dependent on China.

Even Australia, which is touted as, like—I’ve seen many articles as they’re economically dependent on China but they have survived China’s carrots, et cetera. They’re still in the position where they’re economically highly dependent on China and Southeast Asia more so.

I think Thailand’s closeness with China has come because the economic ties are so close. The cultural ties are closer than in other countries in the region. There’s less—there’s probably less concern among a lot of Thai elites about some of—than there would be in the Philippines or Vietnam or some other places about some of China’s assertive regional behaviors because China is not a party to South China Sea disputes. So there is concern.

Like I said, China’s state media has made some significant inroads, particularly Xinhua, into the media in Thailand. Very significant inroads. There’s quite a lot of visit diplomacy, or there was before zero-COVID. So I don’t think Princess Sirindhorn is the main reason but she’s, certainly, like, a nice bridge for them.

I don’t think there’s any one figure like that in Indonesia simply because Indonesia is a much more pluralistic democratic state than Thailand, although laws being passed by the Indonesian parliament in the last weeks don’t augur well for the future of that.

But those laws don’t come into effect for three years and maybe they’ll be shot down by the Indonesian judiciary. So I don’t think that any one figure can be like that and I think Indonesia is always going to have a more fractious, difficult relationship than China—with China than Thailand because of a lot of reasons.

One, Indonesia has a terrible history with China going back to the ’60s. Without getting too into the weeds, you know, China’s—Indonesia had the second largest Communist Party in the world. There was a coup. Many, many, many, many, many members of the Communist Party as well as many other people were murdered in a massive killing that still resonates today.

There’s a much higher level of suspicion of China, in general, I think, in Indonesia than there is in Thailand. You have openly anti-China sentiment espoused by prominent politicians like Prabowo and the defense minister and others. You have also just kind of a generalized fear, in some ways, in Indonesia of China that I don’t think exists in Thailand.

Indonesia’s politics are a lot more nationalistic. Jokowi is not—Joko Widodo, the president—but many others are, and you have also an increasing shift in Indonesia where politicians are openly targeting minority groups again, unfortunately, including Indonesian Chinese, and the more that they target Indonesian Chinese as well as other minority groups like certain secular groups and heterodox Muslims and LGBT people but mostly related to China—the more they target Indonesian Chinese that’s not going to be good for the relationship with China.

So I don’t think Indonesia is ever going to have the same type of relationship as Thailand and I don’t think there’s any one figure.

If it was going to be a figure it was going to be Jokowi probably—Joko Widodo, the president—who seemed to not really care that much about foreign policy. He still doesn’t really seem to care that much about foreign policy and, really, solicited from China—really wanted to build a relationship with China and solicit a huge amount of investment.

But I don’t think Indonesia is ever going to have the type of relationship with China that Thailand has.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much for your question, Wim.

Teagan, I believe we have time for one final question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from James Heimowitz.

Q: Hi, there. James Heimowitz from China Institute.

Fascinating discussion. You know, I listen to people in China.

Just for background, I used to run a—well, the CEO for Hill+Knowlton based out of China for about a decade, and I think what people in China will tell you is, you know, the things that you’re talking about, Josh, they’ve learned from places like Voice of America, from places like the BBC, which have their own political agenda with the Chinese approach.

And I don’t think in this case they’ll say they’re not being very covert about it. So everybody who’s looking at it knows that it’s Xinhua, knows that it’s, you know, CGTN, and I’m curious if you think it’s really a cause for concern. Is all this activity—you know, you mentioned not very receptive audience. They’re not catching on. People see it as propaganda coming from the government.

Is there a reason for the West or for other places to really stand up and should we be worried about Chinese media influence?

KURLANTZICK: Well, first of all, I would take the characterization of it as similar to the BBC or VOA.

First of all, you have actual outlets that are not state media, which dominate much of the global discourse, like the New York Times or the Nikkei or the Yomiuri, which are, I believe, the two biggest circulation newspapers in the world. Those are not state media. Neither is Le Monde or the Telegraph or the Washington Post or CNN or Fox News or et cetera. So those flat out aren’t state media.

Secondly, VOA, RFA, the BBC, et cetera operate under charters where they—there is a wall between them and the government. It is true that the Trump administration tried to sort of put some leaks in that wall, but they operate—that wasn’t the case during the Cold War always, but they have charters where they are—there’s a wall between them and the government, and there are boards of governors that uphold that wall.

And so I don’t think you can compare that in any way at all to CGTN or CRI. I mean, if you look at the BBC’s coverage of issues in Britain, they cover—there’s no comparison. They do stories—vicious, brutal stories about politicians.

My wife and I have been watching season five of The Crown, and although I don’t agree with the way Martin Bashir got his interview with Princess Diana where she famously blew up her last remaining ties to the royal family, they did do a whole story on the royal family—multiple stories on the royal family in investigative journalism that were extremely scathing.

So I don’t—wherein RFA and VOA have their own independent charter they also don’t cover events in the United States. So I don’t think you can compare them in any way at all. Maybe in the Cold War you could have, although not the BBC.

I don’t think people should be that concerned at this point of CGTN and CRI because they are undermining themselves and creating own goals. But were they to be more effective, I think that there should be concern because they are not independent like the BBC and they are still propaganda outlets of an authoritarian—an increasingly authoritarian government.

Xinhua itself is not only—which has been more successful, is not only, really, a newswire but also, in some ways, a propaganda outlet and still historically has been, in some ways, a sort of intelligence outlet that provides internal reference reports for senior Chinese leaders.

I don’t think that outlets that shift the conversation about China in ways that aren’t really accurate or that portray things that aren’t accurate like minimizing the atrocities in Xinjiang or covering up the initial beginnings of COVID or creating false narratives about the current COVID policy or false narratives about other countries or false narratives about the protests in China today, which is if you look at CGTN or CRI if there’s any coverage they’re just turgid propaganda about how this is all created by foreign influences, et cetera, which is just totally not true.

I think that is concerning because they’re not free media and, again, I think to compare that to the BBC or Kyodo or the Nikkei or the Yomiuri or Le Monde or whoever from any liberal democracy just—it just isn’t accurate. It’s not an accurate comparison.

You know, I don’t think—I just don’t—I think the BBC has—British politicians are terrified of many of the BBC’s reports and stories in a way that Xi Jinping would never have to worry about in any Chinese media outlet.

So I guess I kind of dispute that characterization. But I do think there are things to be concerned about, especially if China is able to—especially with Xinhua if China is able to make Xinhua a truly globally accepted newswire.

LINDSAY: James, I want to thank you for your question, and I’m going to bring tonight’s event to a close.

Thank you, Josh, for writing a terrific book and thank you to everyone who joined us for this virtual meeting. Please note that a video of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website, CFR.org.

Thank you. Be well.

KURLANTZICK: Thanks, Jim, and thanks to everybody for coming.

(END)

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