From very early on, Xi Jinping accorded public opinion work the highest priority, with specific focus on online media. In February 2016, he visited the offices of the People’s Daily, the Party’s flagship newspaper; Xinhua, China’s official news agency; China Central Television, the national broadcaster; and three other central news agencies. In his subsequent speech to the heads of the agencies, Xi emphasised the need to maintain the political line, inject positivity to build the Party’s and China’s image and innovate methods and means of content development and dissemination by leveraging new media. Two years later, in March 2018, a major reform of state institutions expanded the Party’s control over the propaganda machinery. In addition, a decision was made to consolidate the three major state-run television and radio broadcasters to establish a new internationally oriented platform called Voice of China.
In January 2019, Xi re-emphasised key focus areas in a meeting of the Politburo. The speech, published in March 2019, quotes him calling for accelerating media integration, emphasising new media and leveraging big data and artificial intelligence to achieve more efficiency in propaganda in order to expand the Party’s influence over public opinion. It is this instruction that Yin Yungong, a researcher studying the Chinese system and dean of the school of journalism at Hunan Normal University, was drawing from in his People’s Daily article quoted at the beginning of the chapter.
Party-state media development, however, has been just one part of what is a multi-pronged strategy to influence the global information environment and discourse around governance. For instance, there has been a systematic effort by Beijing to expand investments in media outlets around the world, cultivate strategic partnerships, place inserts and advertorials in foreign publications, empower embassies and diplomats to push China’s message in local media and on social media and invite foreign journalists for training and government-funded junkets in return for publicising Chinese perspectives.
In addition, the global expansion of Chinese private technology companies has led to the export of Beijing’s narrative, approaches to content moderation and censorship of political speech. In essence, there’s been a mix of borrowing and buying the boat, depending on what’s been most feasible. In a 2018 assessment, Reporters without Borders argued that ‘China has been going to great lengths for the last decade to establish a “new world media order” under its control, with the aim of deterring and preventing any criticism of itself ’. An example of the massive effort in this direction is the new Belt and Road News Network, which brings together 182 media organisations from 86 countries.
Beyond the media domain, Beijing has also sought to leverage the allure of its developmental success, financial might, market power, educational scholarships and training programmes to lobby government officials, politicians and young leaders from developing countries. In addition, in December 2017, the CCP launched a forum called Dialogue with World Political Parties. During the event, Xi announced that over a period of five years, the CCP would like to invite 15,000 members of foreign political parties to China. Party-to-party diplomacy has been further developed under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative, embedding the CCP deeper in the domestic political ecosystem in partner countries.
Finally, the Chinese leadership under Xi has taken more purposeful steps to reform global institutions to support its interests and values. This has entailed following a dual-track policy of supporting the existing international order while seeking revisions. These strands of Chinese policy are evident in its expanded support for the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization. In 2019, Beijing emerged as the second largest contributor to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets. It is also enhancing its leadership at key UN agencies. For instance, in March 2020, it was reported that Chinese delegates were already heading 4 of the 15 specialised UN agencies. At the IMF, China is among the leading countries pushing for the timely completion of the 15th General Review of Quotas. These changes would significantly expand Chinese clout at the Fund.
At the same time, China has stepped up efforts to establish and support alternate institutions and dialogue platforms. The establishment of BRI-centric forums, the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank along with the expanded role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Boao Forum for Asia, Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the 17+1 model for engagement with Central and Eastern European countries, the Forum on China– Africa Cooperation with African states and the new Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations are examples of this trend. The establishment of some of these institutions and forums predates Xi’s rule. But what’s important is that they have been infused with new vigour under him. Beijing views such multilateralism and the strengthening of its position in international agencies as critical to the agenda of reforming global governance and engineering a favourable external environment.
For the Chinese leadership, these are the material capabilities that can help mobilise the kind of discourses that can eventually produce desired outcomes. In many ways, the contest for narrative and geopolitical dominance that has played out during the pandemic has been an acid test for these capabilities.
This excerpt from ‘Smokeless War: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance’ by Manoj Kewalramani has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.