China is overhauling its state media to better control domestic content and to create a propaganda behemoth that will spread Beijing’s message around the world. Both objectives align with President Xi Jinping’s goals of ensuring that his people and the global public hear the messages that he wants them to hear and see the images that he wants to project. The rest of the world must be alert to the intent behind this effort and understand that the Chinese state and media operate in concert. Objective truth is an alien concept to the Chinese leadership: All messages are political and thus subject to state — and party — control.
Last week, China announced that it was merging three national radio and television entities — China Central Television, China Radio International and China National Radio — to create a single “Voice of China.” The new broadcaster will be one of the world’s largest, with nearly 15,000 employees and dozens of bureaus around the world, producing programs in more than 60 languages. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that the Voice of China seeks to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication and tell good China stories.”
The name is a shrewd one. It echoes that of Voice of America, the U.S.-government funded entity established during World War II to advance U.S. interests, and its adoption will make it difficult for foreign governments to object that the new entity is a propaganda outlet. There is no evidence, however, that Voice of China, like VoA, will offer a complete image of China. Xi said as much in remarks during a 2016 speech to state-run media broadcasters: “The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name.”
Voice of China wants to provide a reassuring image of China, one that blunts any concern about Beijing’s growing influence in the world. The Chinese leadership seeks to realize the “China Dream,” a return to the country’s pre-eminence in regional affairs, and, through the multitrillion dollar One Belt, One Road initiative, extend China’s reach beyond its periphery.
This effort is buttressed by the work of the Confucius Institutes, more than 1,500 teaching centers established in 140 countries since 2004. It is estimated that Confucius Institutes provide Chinese language and culture lessons to more than 1.5 million students around the word. All are intended to promote Chinese “soft power,” or the attractiveness of Chinese ideas and values, in a way that wins the country supporters abroad. That effort has had mixed success. Views of China run the gamut, but they are predominately negative and familiarity tends to lead to increasing criticism.
The Confucius Institutes closely control conversations among their students — and sometimes even within the educational institutions that accept them — by sharply delimiting acceptable topics and views. That approach is reflected in Chinese internal media controls, which are also tightening. China’s media regulator — the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television — will merge with the Ministry of Culture to create a super cultural ministry under the State Council. This new entity is part of a broader redesign that deeply integrates the state and party. The new state broadcaster will put loyalty to the party first — as part of the publicity machine — and will, reports Xinhua, “publicize party theory, guidelines and policies.” (The integration of state and party is occurring in almost every field throughout the national bureaucracy.)
Ever tighter control of the media has been a hallmark of the Xi era. This approach is evident in the increasingly nationalistic and patriotic movies that now play in Chinese theaters, as well as in music and video games that promote socialist values.
The use of media to shape public opinion abroad is called “sharp power,” and represents a new front in the battle for public opinion. In contrast to “soft power,” the use of “sharp power” is a more active attempt to shape perceptions of a country. China is not the only country battling in this arena: Russia is leading state efforts to shape the media landscape with the aggressive use of RT and influence campaigns in foreign social media platforms.
There is nothing wrong with working to shape perceptions of a country. The problem is that the marketplace of ideas in some countries is not free and open, but instead subject to restraint, distortion and manipulation. Transparency is the answer to these problems but it is the media that is supposed to create transparency. Media consumers must be vigilant against state efforts to influence their thinking: A propaganda offensive is coming.