by Joshua Kurlantzick (Oxford University Press, 560 pp., $24.07)
During the period of U.S.-China “engagement,” I was once asked by a Chinese university publisher to speak at the launch of an edition of historic American documents. At the time, I was serving as a public diplomacy officer at the American Embassy in Beijing. Although now that time is much maligned, it had its upsides: one could meet Chinese publishers and scholars, and have good one-on-one and small group exchanges.
Chinese convention at such events is to say words of praise and appreciation. I however, thought that the academic atmosphere provided an opportunity for some frank (if gentle) words about common distortions of history in China. I said that it was North Korea, not South Korea, that attacked in 1950, and the old Chinese charges of “germ warfare” by the U.S. were false. At that moment there were stirs among the Chinese scholars. When I added that longtime Chinese interpretive paradigms—American imperialism, monopoly capitalism, racism, a desire to keep China weak, containment—were (in my view) exhausted, the distressed murmurs rose to a chorus.
Afterward, a professor quietly said to me, “you know that we historians have a relatively objective view of those events, but the topics are so sensitive that we can’t discuss them.”
That was 2006, providing just one example of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls China’s historic and policy narratives, blocking discussion of ideas that it deemed “sensitive.” Since then the smartphone and social media have transformed the world’s communication environment. Russia’s “weaponization of information” and “firehose of falsehoods” deployed as prongs of its hybrid wars in 2008 and 2014 have further transformed that environment. Meanwhile in China, Xi Jinping has reasserted the leadership and control of the CCP as the arbiters of China’s history and image, for its own population as well as for other nations.
In this changed environment, China—along with Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are engaged in what can only be called information warfare with two main fronts. One is the daily attacks on websites and networks; it’s a war of electrons. The other, relying on propaganda and disinformation, is a war of ideas.
Terminology can obscure this. In everyday usage, “information” means “IT,” so the focus is on networks, penetrations, cyber attacks, bots, trolls, hacking, ransomware, data theft, and data leaks. Information warfare practitioners in the U.S. Armed Forces are, with justification, still mostly focused on defending against, and fending off, these every hour, every moment threats.
Yet there is another front: Malign actors using the Internet to disseminate their ideas, whether it be that Ukrainians are Nazis; that Uyghurs and Tibetans are backward and therefore must be re-educated into accepting Chinese rule; or that all religion is superstition. Here, refuting or countering “disinformation” only begins to describe the scale of what’s needed, which is to communicate positive visions of humanity, democratic governance, and American partnership with other nations and societies.
Uncle Sam’s international broadcasters—the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia among them—are engaged in this war of ideas, but their reach has limits. Limited, too, in this regard are the State Department’s public diplomacy, the Peace Corps, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other agencies and organizations. As the saying goes, “vision without resources is fantasy.” In 2022, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy reported that FY2021 funding for public diplomacy and international broadcasting totaled only $2.6 billion, a decrease from the previous year. The total FY2023 foreign affairs budget (almost all for State and USAID) was $82 billion.
While companies, universities, government agencies, and the armed forces have been quick to erect defenses against network threats, the American response to the war of ideas has been slow. There are few solid texts, books, or peer-reviewed journals. My own reference files are reports and piles of articles ripped from journals. In the face of this disarray, however, there’s a piece of good news: Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book aptly addresses a vast area in the war of ideas—Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. A senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurlantzick’s book is not the whole story of informational conflict with China, but it covers—and clarifies—much of what’s going on with reach and audacity, utilizing the lenses of “soft” and “sharp” power.
“Passive soft power,” in Kurlantzick’s taxonomy, is “popular culture, via books, news coverage, and other information, [that] can transmit positive messages about a country’s people, values, economy, society, values, and founding ideals.” The United States has long benefited from this kind of passive soft power, spread by our news, music, films, and education. It translated into a narrative of American freedom, prosperity, and progress.
“Active soft power” adds government initiatives and funding. Diplomatic “charm offensives,” foreign aid, and cultural diplomacy; scholarship opportunities for foreign students; sponsored publications, government international broadcasting, and programs to train foreign officials and journalists; and placing articles and inserts in newspapers and magazines are all active methods of soft power. So long as these are attributed, all are licit tools of international relations.
China has invested heavily in its government- and Party-owned media, including the Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, China Radio International (CRI), the China Global Television Network (CGTN), and Star Times (a satellite television and digital terrestrial television company). In the democracies, “news” reports from these media are regarded with justified skepticism. Nonetheless, as Kurlantzick valuably points out, many publications and media outlets in the developing world have signed content-sharing agreements with Xinhua. When such outlets use Xinhua’s stories because they are free, they communicate content framed in ways favorable to China. Kurlantzick flags these content-sharing agreements as a major Chinese success.
China deploys soft power, yes. Kurlantzick advances the discussion by showing how Beijing increasingly relies on “sharp power.” The term was first defined by the National Endowment for Democracy as attempts to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate” the informational, political, and social environments of rivals. In this regard, the Chinese media have learned some of the techniques pioneered by RT (formerly Russia Today), Sputnik, and Al-Jazeera.
The CCP has decades of experience in unifying the efforts of party, government, “NGOs,” and the “private” and “civic” organizations it controls. Xi Jinping has enlarged the funding and missions of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Central Committee of the CCP. Beyond assuring that Xinhua, the People’s Daily, the China Daily, the China Times, CRI, and CGTN follow the same lines, the UFWD assures that companies, universities, “friendship associations,” language teaching, the Confucian Institutes, and those who implement the Belt and Road Initiative all work to advance the Party’s priorities. For good reason, the United States has no similar arrangements, but, as I suggested elsewhere, the work of separate U.S. organizations must be better aligned.
Kurlantzick’s deep study of Southeast Asia yields case studies missed by others. China deployed soft power in the Malaysian election of 2018 in support of incumbent president Najib Razak. An important voting bloc, Chinese Malaysians are 23 percent of that country’s population. Beijing’s media and Razak’s party both emphasized warm relations with China; so did the Chinese-language press in Malaysia, increasingly now under China’s sway. Behind the scenes, China sought to contain reporting on Malaysian corruption. While China’s election interference was ultimately unsuccessful, it revealed China’s ambitions and its trial methods.
China also leverages active programs to win the allegiance of the Chinese diaspora. Many Chinese-language newspapers and radio stations in other countries have been quietly brought under Chinese control, often through hidden owners. These newspapers and magazines, for instance, don’t miss the opportunity to run stories of prejudice against Asians in the United States.
Furthermore, Chinese studying in the United States once enjoyed being part of America’s free zone for scholarship and debate. No longer. Now the Party uses campus chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), guided by the UFWD, to monitor Chinese students, chill their expression, voice support for Chinese positions during campus events, and self-censor what they write or say.
What are the CCP’s goals for a media offensive? Kurlantzick ticks them off: To sustain its rule. To shape other nations’ images of China through the use of “discourse power.” To deny legitimacy for Taiwan. To shape international organizations and rules to favor China’s interests. To challenge and then displace American power. To roll back democracy. And to export its party-state model of authoritarian governance, now enabled by surveillance technology.
Deng Xiaoping once counseled the Party and the Foreign Ministry, “hide your strength, bide your time.” Four decades of economic growth, however, now allow China to leave that advice behind. An outsize share of its economic growth has been invested in the Chinese armed forces, and Chinese diplomacy has become active and far-reaching. So has China’s media offensive. Although the amount of funding for “media,” soft power, and sharp power are opaque, the Jamestown Foundation calculates spending on the United Front Working Group is $2.6 billion, more than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For comparison, the Voice of America has a budget of $252 million, dwarfed by the $6.6 billion spent in 2009 to launch China’s overseas media.
While Kurlantzick details successes of China’s media offensive, he is frank about its overall “uneven” campaign. “Wolf Warrior” rhetoric by Chinese diplomats has backfired. The details of China’s loan agreements with other nations, when revealed, have shown their predatory nature. Chinese hubris offends other societies, and China’s bald assertions on COVID-19 have harmed its credibility. Crackdowns in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong have shown an ugly side of Party rule, damaging China’s reputation.
Kurlantzick offers an important qualification, however: “[W]hat skeptics of China’s influence and information strategies miss is that Beijing will surely improve—a great deal and rapidly… failure now does not mean failure forever.”
A substantial obstacle to American initiative in the war of ideas is division. Kurlantzick writes of “domestic political dysfunction.” The open partisanship in Congress discredits American democracy at home and abroad. Charges of disinformation, lies, witch hunts, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and disputes over the 2020 presidential election do the same. This brings us to George Kennan’s observation, made in his Long Telegram in 1946, that:
Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit—Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.
Replacing “Moscow” with “Beijing” shows his advice is evergreen.
Were Kurklantzick ever to prepare a second edition, I would recommend more direct quotations of Chinese sources, now available in machine translations. I notice the book scants U.S. public diplomacy and the old U.S. Information Agency, even as there is an ongoing debate whether the latter should be resurrected. It seems probable that these omissions give indirect testimony to how memories of USIA have faded, and how little is expected of public diplomacy in the State Department. That said, an American response to the CCP’s global media offensive should include rebuilding and sharpening the focus of U.S. public diplomacy. As Kurlantzick writes, “bolstering soft power comes at a bargain cost.”
Donald Bishop served in Hong Kong, Taipei, and twice in Beijing over the course of his thirty-one year career in the Foreign Service. At the American Embassy in Beijing, he led U.S. public diplomacy in China.
Image: A large screen at a Beijing shopping mall projects CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping giving a speech in 2021. (Norwegian Digital Learning Arena)
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