China’s aggressive influence operations are tarnishing the country’s image. In response to international demands for greater transparency about the source of the new coronavirus and for the protection of human rights among the Uighurs, the party’s state-branded media have denied the truth, shifted blame onto democracies, and disseminated disinformation.
True, China has been “localizing” its external media operations on the plausible theory that local voices are better attuned to and more trusted by their audiences; but China has been unable to reap the full advantage of this localization. The “local” outlets republish People’s Republic of China (PRC) media content. They self-censor in ways that are at odds with overwhelming evidence (concerning, for example, the Tiananmen massacre). They toe the line when reporting on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doublespeak that defies common sense, like the claim that Taiwan is under PRC control and is not in fact independent. They publish egregious CCP propaganda, like articles that whitewash crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
This behavior does not sit well with target audiences outside China; the heavy CCP influence undermines a news outlet’s credibility. Indeed, even PRC media are questioning the strategy. Earlier this year, on May 31, Xi Jinping issued a directive with an aim to improve the country’s international communication so as to create a “credible, lovable [yes], and respectable” image. Thus, Xi himself is aware that the CCP’s aggressive “discourse war” is backfiring.
A more effective means of exerting influence would require trading off some core interests for larger goals, and in fact the CCP is taking this advice. It is expanding its information network ecosystem to include outlets that operate more independently. In Taiwan, for example, these outlets soft-pedal their suppression of Taiwan’s desire to retain its sovereignty, despite the ideological importance of this issue to the CCP, so as not to put off local audiences.
The likelihood of success for such fine-tuning would be especially consequential for the country of Japan. If it succeeds, it could be hard, for instance, for a society like Japan even to tell that Chinese influence operations are taking place.
Some scholars see Japan as ripe for CCP influence operations because of its cultural affinity for China, the two countries’ shared history of struggle with Western powers, and Japanese guilt about aggression toward China in the first half of the 20th century. But others argue that Japan is relatively immune to CCP information operations.
It is only in the past two years that researchers have begun to uncover CCP influence operations in Japan, including media outlets operated by the Chinese diaspora under the influence of the CCP. The most interesting of these is Searchina, an authoritative source of PRC-related financial news.
Searchina was founded in 1999 by Masakazu Motoki, who contributed content to and purchased content from the state-owned China News Service. After SBI Holdings bought Searchina in 2010, the collaboration continued: SBI’s 2010 annual report highlighted Searchina’s cooperation with Xinhua News Agency. Motoki was allowed to start a business in the PRC, Shanghai Searchina, which he sold to Beijing Xinzheng Huayi International Consulting Co., Ltd., partly owned by Xinhua.
The predictions about China’s influence strategy in Japan—that it would use cultural affinity, historical tensions with the West, and pre-World War II guilt—have been accurate. A computational analysis of articles published by Searchina in December 2020 and January 2021 shows a notably high number of cultural puff pieces that stress the affinity between Japan and China under the banner of “Chinese culture.” There are also many articles that include both the terms “West” and “colonialism,” as well as mentions of the Nanjing massacre. Searchina’s content is congruent with CCP reporting directives in emphasizing China’s economic hard power and cultural soft power and in encouraging openness to Chinese financing and investment.
Researchers have apparently remained unaware of this pattern.
What has helped Searchina remain under the radar even while permeating Japanese society is that it largely sidesteps a list of obviously counterproductive behaviors. Unlike other significant CCP-linked Japanese language news websites, like Record China, Searchina avoids, with rare exceptions, republishing PRC state media. While Record China repeatedly whitewashes crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, Searchina refrains. Searchina also occasionally publishes articles that diverge from CCP core interests: A 2008 article points out issues with China’s political system, and another from 2019 reports the frustrations of victims of the Tiananmen massacre. It must be said that these articles do not carry the names of their editors.
Hints of True Colors
Searchina, despite being a media outlet with a strength in providing information on China’s economy and stocks and presenting economic information where credibility is crucial, avoids distributing information unfavorable to the CCP. This behavior is apparent when we compare Searchina with Nikkei Shimbun, an independent Japanese national paper specializing in economic news.
A case in point is the controversy involving Huawei. In 2020, after the Trump administration tightened the export ban on Huawei, other countries followed suit with their own regulatory measures. Yet during December 2020 and January 2021, despite the significant impact on Huawei’s revenue, Searchina did not report on the regulations and sanctions against Huawei or on the company’s slowdown. Four Searchina articles mentioned Huawei; in two places it was mentioned that the company was under attack from the United States. Overall, however, the four articles described Huawei as a global company of which China was proud. In contrast, the Nikkei Shimbun digital edition devoted twenty-one articles to these developments.
The case of the Uighurs is even more telling. After the Center for Global Policy released a report in December 2020 saying that at least 570,000 Uighurs had been sent to harvest cotton through forced labor in Xinjiang in 2018, Western criticism of the Chinese government intensified. Sanctions were imposed on Xinjiang Production, Construction Corps, and other Chinese companies. Measures banned the importation of Xinjiang cotton. These moves affected the performance and stock prices of the targeted companies and, ultimately, of the Chinese economy. During the same two-month period, the Nikkei Shimbun’s digital version published eight articles that dealt with the issue.
In contrast, during this period Searchina avoided the topic. It published only one article on the Uighurs, reporting Chinese popular anger against Japan for sharing information about the Uighur situation with British and American governments. This content echoed CCP media criticisms of the West: The Japanese edition of the People’s Daily published twenty-one articles mostly refuting Western criticism of human rights abuses and protesting that such claims were false. Together with CCP media, Searchina subtly warned that Japan should not stand with the West on the Uighur issue.
Countering the Offensive
The relatively discreet manipulations described here illustrate the difficulty of detecting subtle cases of CCP influence operations. Messaging that is better attuned to local audiences may be more effective in swaying opinion—and pose greater problems for democracies on the receiving end of CCP influence activities. Yet, these democracies cannot altogether ban the dissemination of news by the Chinese diaspora. The dilemma is how to deflect arbitrary influence operations without demonizing this diaspora. The task is not easy.
What is most needed is to expand the objective analysis of China’s influence operations. The analysis has to be seen as credible, not a vehicle for political agendas. The use of data science methods can aid in this effort.
To help audiences decide how they should receive information from actors with links to authoritarian state media, platforms should caution these audiences about such links. Aggregator sites and social media, in particular, should consider labeling CCP-linked actors as such, since these affiliations have been shown to influence the nature of their content in ways, sometimes obscure, that serve the interests of a foreign authoritarian state. Where platforms lack the will to uncover these links, researchers need to fill the gap.
It is important for open, democratic societies to give careful consideration to cases like that of Searchina so that we can devise appropriate responses to the covert practices employed by the CCP to influence foreign audiences. Most important, such information can help us make sensible judgments without constricting media freedom and the right to information.
Timothy Niven is research lead at Doublethink Lab in Taiwan, an NGO focused on strengthening democracies to face resurgent authoritarianism.
Maiko Ichihara is associate professor in the Graduate School of Law and the School of International and Public Policy at Hitotsubashi University, Japan.
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