Skip to content

“Winds from the East: How the People’s Republic of China Seeks to Influence the Media in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia” – A Critical Review

by on May 7, 2012

The world as we look at it today has gone through visible cycles of change regarding how nations conduct their foreign policy relations to achieve political advantage, and even more paramount, economic presence in a less than stable fiscal state of affairs.  One of these changes has been the global trend of public diplomacy dictating how states engage with publics, both foreign and local.  China, like many of the major nations is powering its ‘soft power’ initiatives gradually, yet, with effective stealth.  Where states in the west have reduced media support outside of its borders due to constraints brought about by the economic downturn of the past few years, China, however, is bucking the trend, as it reaches out to the foreign audiences of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

This report is an analysis of how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is “using various components of public diplomacy to influence the media in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia” (Farah & Mosher 2010, p.4).  It was co-authored by Douglas Farah and Andrew Mosher for ‘The Center for International Media Assistance’ (CIMA), a project of the National Endowment for Democracy which aims to “strengthen the support, raise the visibility, and improve the effectiveness of media assistance programs” to democracies around the world (http://cima.ned.org/).  Where perceptions of countries are determined by a mixture of ingredients that include political and economic development, and the influence of culture, social systems and technology, this report highlights what the authors identified as China’s ‘primary purpose’ as it continues to assume an increasingly important status in the world, as it embraces new opportunities and at it paints over the flags of western countries who were once the curators of public diplomacy.

How does China want the rest of the world to see it? Well, the evaluation of the authors is as that of “a reliable friend and partner” with a positive image in the developing world (Farah & Mosher 2010, p.4).  And how would China make strides towards this?  The authors’ opinion is that, the Chinese government “seeks to fundamentally reshape much of the world’s media in its own image”, an image that is controlled by a government which does not pander to a ‘watchdog stance’ but one that has choices to what it disseminates (ibid).  China, already has ties with parts of the developing world through their ‘development assistance’ investments, and public diplomacy is an extension of that interaction, but to what the authors see as a great deal of emphasis on forming alliances that are “anti-western” and ones that promote an “anti-western media model to combat what the Chinese regularly portray as part of an imperialist plan to distort the truth” by western media and governments (ibid).

The report states that media aid and the expansion of Chinese media has become an area of high priority for the PRC’s public diplomacy initiative.  The report, however, points out that this aid often results in assisting “authoritarian governments expand control of their local media”.   The report does a cross-section of Chinese public diplomacy in Zambia, Liberia, and Zimbabwe; it explores Chinese presence in Latin America and the growing role of the Confucius institutions, as well as, China’s ties in Southeast Asia.  There is also mention of how China is trying to flex its muscle and exert some influence on nations that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan; the PRC is resolute in demonstrating the benefits of a relationship with the PRC and isolating Taiwan remains a high priority.

So how is China rolling out its media aid and expansion to the mentioned regions of the world? According to the report, China is carrying out these efforts through “direct aid to state-run media in the form of radio transmitters and financing for national satellites, the provision of content and technology to allies and potential allies, the sharing of news, and training programs, and expense-paid trips for journalists to China”, a significant expansion of the PRC’s own media on the world stage, primarily through the Xinhua news agency, satellite and Internet TV channels controlled by Xinhua, and state-run television services is also a part of this strategy (2010, p.4).

In a market that is crowded with western English-language foreign news satellites, and a meagre sprinkling of alternative sources such as Al Jazeera and Russian TV, one would appreciate new sources of information such as those offered by the Chinese service, I am afraid though, that for me this report starkly highlights why I have reservations in Chinese media outreach as a channel for public diplomacy.  For example, in 2008, Li Changchun, the communist party leader responsible for propaganda is cited in the report as summing up China’s motivation as: “In the modern age, whichever nation’s communication methods are most advanced, whichever nation’s communication capacity is strongest . . . has the most power to influence the world” (p.6), this stance I am afraid reverberates of the propaganda initiatives of the Cold War period between the West and the East, and to put it mildly is nothing but the emperor in new clothes.

China says these media initiatives are to woo public opinion in Africa and Latin America, but given what the authors assess as “China’s multi-billion dollar investments in commodity extraction and large scale infrastructure projects in Africa” I am hugely speculative that this public diplomacy gesture is insubstantial compared to the benefits that China receives in the grander scheme of things.  The reports also states that PRC officials have repeatedly attacked the western media as “biased, unreliable, and full of propaganda” (2010, p.), I can’t help but laugh as words such as ‘kettle’, ‘pot’ and ‘black’ come to mind.  The authors make a revelation that “the Chinese are exporting a form of journalism that resembles their own, far less free and independent than media in democracies” (p.11), of course we know that in as much as the PRC will claim that it is the voice of 1.3 billion Chinese people speaking, we all know whose voice is the loudest!

The Growing Role of the Confucius Institutes is analysed in the report, and the authors note that these government-funded agencies that “promote Chinese language, culture, and understanding and serve as centers for outreach to local media” are becoming very influential as a vital cog in China’s public diplomacy wheel. In Latin America, for example, the first institute was established in Mexico City in February 2006 and have continued to sprout all over (p23). The Confucius institutes in addition to language training courses, also teaches Chinese culture and there is “constant outreach to the local media to portray China in a positive light” (ibid), a venture which the report compares to “the bi-national associations the United States government operated prior to the Cold War” (ibid).

So what conclusions would I draw from this report? I have to say that, though brief and not very exhaustive, I found it interesting in its analysis, especially given how technology plays a significant role in public diplomacy.  The report picked on insights that I thought had overtures to the insincerity of China’s public diplomacy front, Chinese authority may call their media efforts reaching out to foreign publics, but doesn’t charity begin at home? In my humble opinion their efforts are nothing more than ‘check book style diplomacy’!

References:

http://cima.ned.org/sites/default/files/CIMA-China-Report_1.pdf

http://cima.ned.org/

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: