China’s government is engaged in a massive global campaign to promote its communist system and counter dissenting voices, according to a new U.S. government report.
After decades of promoting mainly positive narratives about China to world audiences through broadcasting and print media, the ruling Chinese Communist Party altered its approach under President Xi Jinping, according to the new survey released Thursday by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
“Beijing has shifted to embracing the coordinated use of disinformation when it suits its purposes, often using inauthentic bot networks to amplify messaging,” the 58-page report concluded. The operations are described in the report as highly sophisticated media and government influence operations “underwritten by billions of dollars in investments.”
The report identifies multiple elements of Chinese government information manipulation and influence activities, including propaganda and censorship; the promotion of “digital authoritarianism” to control online content; and the infiltration and control of international organizations and bilateral relationships.
Jamie Rubin, director of the GEC, told reporters the report is a comprehensive examination of how the People’s Republic of China is attempting to distort the global information environment through its influence and disinformation activities.
“When you look at the pieces of the puzzle and you put it all together, you see a breathtaking ambition on the part of the PRC to seek information dominance in key regions of the world,” Mr. Rubin said.
China’s ultimate goal, he said, is to damage the security and stability of the United States and its allies.
Mr. Rubin, a former State Department spokesman, said the Information Age has produced a “dark side to globalization.” Foreign disinformation and manipulation efforts, unless halted, will produce a slow and steady destruction of democratic values and rights, he warned.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the report, the Chinese also are using “co-optation” of former government officials, business people and journalists through bribery to promote false or biased narratives promoted by Beijing.
“Collectively, these elements erode the integrity of the information environment,” the report said.
The use of disinformation, used in the past as a supporting role in Beijing’s overall foreign policy, has become a central feature of Chinese influence operations, including stories questioning the origin of the COVID-19 virus; criticizing the trilateral U.S.-U.K.-Australian accord on submarine construction; and backing for Russia’s justifications for its invasion of Ukraine.
Major disinformation and influence operations defend Chinese policy toward Taiwan and push back against what the State Department has called the policy of genocide against minority Uyghurs in western China.
The operations range from covert Chinese intelligence personnel planting false stories in foreign media to diplomats who pressure foreign media to promote the Chinese regime’s favored narratives. China also is buying foreign media outlets and using them for the operations.
The report warns that Beijing’s efforts are diminishing freedom of expression and manipulating international information outlets into becoming “tools” for Chinese propaganda.
Unless effectively countered, information in the future available to the general public, media, civil society, academia and governments will be distorted and based on false or misleading information from China, the report said.
“This future is not a foregone conclusion,” the report said, noting a growing global consensus for countering the Chinese influence campaign. “The stakes are high: If the PRC’s global narratives ultimately prevail, it will encounter less resistance to reshaping the international order to the detriment of individual liberties and national sovereignty around the world.”
New ‘Long March’
The report reveals that the government of President Xi Jinping has launched a “new Long March” to battle against what one Chinese Communist Party influencer, Yi Fan, claims are malicious lies in the West about China’s system and policies.
The Long March was the famous campaign led by Mao Zedong in the 1930s that ultimately led to the Communists seizing power in 1949.
The report is also the first official U.S. government publication to highlight the work of the ruling Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), a major overt and covert influence arm engaged in “transnational repression,” mainly against ethnic Chinese living outside China.
According to the report, United Front agents harass and coerce critics of Beijing under the direct control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, a senior leadership organ.
Mr. Xi has expanded United Front activities, calling them critical for maintaining and increasing Chinese power. “Since coming to power in 2012, he has significantly increased funding for the UFWD and elevated central coordination of its efforts to shape the international environment — including the information domain — to Beijing’s advantage.”
United Front agents also work with the Chinese secret police in the Ministry of State Security. The ministry uses the front as “operational cover” in conducting influence operations, according to the State Department researchers.
The other main organ for the global manipulation campaign is the CCP Central Propaganda Department, said to be exporting domestic information controls to countries around the world.
The UFWD “commands a vast media apparatus that floods overseas Chinese-language spaces with pro-Beijing rhetoric,” the report said.
The Global Engagement Center that produced the report is the U.S. government’s official counter-propaganda office. Most of the center’s previous reports and activities were focused on Russian disinformation efforts.
The State Department inspector general last year gave the GEC a failing grade for its role in countering disinformation and propaganda, saying the center, which has a staff of 167 people and a $74 million budget, had failed to take the lead in government-wide information activities to expose foreign lies and deception,
According to the IG report, “the center’s role in countering disinformation was limited to supporting the various U.S. government efforts rather than leading and coordinating a whole-of-government approach as mandated by law.”
The X factor
Chinese officials also are using the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, to promote disinformation and propaganda, with more than 333 official and diplomatic accounts on the platform. In Britain, for example, a single coordinated network of dozens accounts produced 44% of all the retweets of the Chinese ambassador to Britain.
The Chinese government also paid for a local news outlet in East Africa to publish favorable articles in exchange for cash and with an agreement not to disclose the arrangement, the report said.
China also uses social media influencers to promote its agenda, including nearly 100 people that post pro-regime content in two dozen languages, reaching an estimated 11 million people.
“Beijing employs bots, trolls and coordinated campaigns among inauthentic social media accounts to boost pro-PRC content and suppress critical content,” the report said, noting the bots use a technique called “flooding” to manipulate search engine results and hashtag searches.
The result is that Chinese propagandists can drown out online information on topics they oppose and spread unrelated content that limits fact-based information from reaching people.
“Recent PRC flooding campaigns include an attempt to hijack the ‘GenocideGames’ hashtag during the 2022 Winter Olympics to marginalize efforts by foreign activists to raise awareness of the PRC’s genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” the report said.
The Chinese also are using both online and real-world intimidation and harassment of critics to silence dissent and encourage self-censorship. Beijing authorities identify and control accounts of online critics both domestically and overseas.
U.S. officials have identified how Chinese authorities work with companies in China to identify and locate critics abroad who seek to work anonymously, the report said.
The report said the owner of the popular video-sharing app TikTok, ByteDance, has blocked critics of China from using its platform.
“According to U.S. government information, as of late 2020, ByteDance maintained a regularly updated internal list identifying people who were likely blocked or restricted from all ByteDance platforms, including TikTok, for reasons such as advocating for Uyghur independence,” the report said.
ByteDance also added people to its blacklist if they were viewed as posing a risk of spreading criticism of Beijing on the service.
To further expand its influence, Chinese leaders target foreign political elites — often former political leaders and retired government officials — by offering seats on corporate boards and academic appointments, as a way to mute elite criticism of the regime.
For example, China’s recruited former European and Latin American national leaders to support Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a Beijing infrastructure financing program that U.S. officials say has been used to promote the benefits of China’s communist system in the developed world.
China also has successfully cultivated foreign journalists to promote pro-Beijing narratives through paid travel to China, professional residencies and graduate education.
Some of the participants were given “clear instructions from PRC interlocutors about how they should report both during their trips and afterward,” the report said. “Some participants later incorporate PRC talking points into their reporting, enabling Beijing to advance its preferred narratives without direct attribution.”
The hugely popular Chinese messaging app WeChat also is being used for propaganda and disinformation, the report said.
“The PRC’s success in exercising control over Chinese-language media is a cautionary harbinger of how its larger efforts could ultimately reshape the global information environment,” the report said.
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