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China has used pandemic to boost global image, report says

·6-min read

Over the past year, researchers who study China have begun closely scrutinising how the country is positioning itself in a world that its leader, Xi Jinping, has said is “experiencing profound changes unseen in a century”.

Supporters say that as a major player in international politics, China’s viewpoint deserves to be heard. Opponents, however, worry that the world’s media are becoming too credulous of China.

A report released on Wednesday by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a Brussels-based umbrella of media unions, shows exactly these two sides of the discussion on China.

Related: Inside China's audacious global propaganda campaign

It says that on the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has become an opportunity for China to boost its image in global media coverage. The international news reporting of the country throughout last year has become more positive, it says. In some countries, China was seen as the source of the most accurate information about the coronavirus.

At the same time, media outlets in many parts of the world, and in Asia in particular, are pushing back against China’s influence. In the 21 Asia Pacific countries the report surveyed, for example, the resistance to China’s media outreach is strong. One-quarter of respondents reported a ban on Chinese apps in their country, and almost half of all Asia Pacific nations said Chinese influence on their national media was negative.

‘Positive’ image

Between December 2020 and January 2021, the report’s three authors – Louisa Lim, Julia Bergin and Johan Lidberg – gathered data from 54 journalist unions in 50 countries and territories across three continents.

More than half of all countries said coverage of China in their national media had been more positive since the start of the pandemic. Three-quarters (76%) reported that China had a visible presence in their media, up from 64% the previous year.

“Beijing’s tactics have been quite successful,” said Lim, the lead author, a former BBC and NPR China correspondent and now a senior lecturer at University of Melbourne. “Overall there has been a shift over the last decade from defensive and reactive tactics to a far more assertive and proactive strategy, using content-sharing agreements, journalistic tours to China and memoranda of understanding with international journalism outlets or unions.”

In 2020, amid geopolitical tensions and international border closures, Beijing in effect froze its visa applications for foreign journalists. Lim and her colleagues think this measure has had the effect of increasing the global media’s reliance on China’s state-controlled outlets for content. “In this way, the information landscape is slowly being massaged in a direction more positive towards Beijing,” they write.

Maria Repnikova, who directs the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University said these findings were not surprising, but it was difficult to distinguish to what extent the increasing positive coverage of China is a result of China’s effective information strategy or China’s efficient performance during the pandemic, especially in comparison to the US.

Related: How China's strained relationship with foreign media unravelled

“[Also], the report presents the Chinese state as somewhat monolithic and deliberate. In reality, much of Chinese communication work is decentralised, the quality of reporting and communication varies a lot even across Chinese media agencies, and there is a degree of improvisation that characterises all these efforts,” Repnikova said.

‘Every country should have its voice’

For many years, leaders in Beijing have complained about China’s lack of what they called “discourse power”. This led to a rapid expansion of Chinese media presence around the globe in the last decade. Under Xi, Beijing has been encouraging Chinese media to “tell the China story well”.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying addressed the subject of China’s media strategy on Tuesday, saying that as the world’s most populous nation, its voice deserved to be heard, even though it might differ from that of the west.

“The world is inherently rich and pluralistic, and in the field of media there should not just be the CNN and the BBC; every country should have their own voice,” she said, adding that China had an obligation to “tell the facts and truths of issues such as Covid-19 … This is the genuinely responsible attitude of a responsible country.”

Such an effort to tell the China story from Beijing’s perspective has not been without controversy, however. “Since Covid, we can see how Beijing has activated this information infrastructure to spread its own narrative, bolstered by state-backed disinformation campaigns and medical diplomacy,” said Lim.

Related: China targeting non-English-speaking journalists in new push for influence – study

Others have made similar observations. In March, a BBC Radio 4 documentary alleged that China had been using disinformation tactics and “wolf-warrior diplomacy” to spin the message to its favour. The Chinese embassy in London vehemently denied the charge, urging the BBC to “abandon bias, correct its mistake and report China in an objective, fair and balanced manner”.

The IFJ report also says Beijing has appeared to be taking a more “interventionist approach”, with almost one in five countries reporting that the Chinese embassy or ambassador in their country “frequently comments on local media coverage of China”.

Twitter diplomacy

The role of Chinese diplomats has been particularly curious to researchers of late. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese diplomats and state-media journalists have become increasingly active on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, even though these platforms are banned in mainland China.

A separate report published by the Oxford Internet Institute on Tuesday says this phenomenon is a part of Beijing’s efforts “to shape public opinion in foreign countries”.

The Oxford report is based on a seven-month investigation and represents a global audit of social media activity by Chinese diplomats and state-backed media outlets. Researchers examined every tweet and Facebook post produced by Beijing’s diplomats and 10 of the largest state-controlled media outlets between June 2020 and February 2021.

They found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of suspicious accounts – often nearly identical, created in batches and showing strong signs of coordination – that “covertly” amplify Beijing’s viewpoints.

“If you look at the numbers, one might argue that many of these accounts do not have genuine followers, hence very little meaningful penetration on social media,” said Marcel Schliebs, the lead researcher. “But on the other hand, because the act of retweets may influence Twitter algorithms – which is a black box to us – this may be effective in shaping what actual local users see on Twitter.”

In a response to the AP news agency, a research partner in the Oxford study, the Chinese embassy in London said it was aware of the concerns about Twitter rules. “If it is against the rules of social media to retweet the Chinese embassy’s tweets, then shouldn’t these rules be more applicable to retweets of malicious rumours, smears and false information against China? We hope relevant companies will not adopt double standards,” it said.

For Repnikova, the global battle for narratives and China’s quest to tell its story involves not just Chinese state actors but also western technology firms, whose opaque algorithms have made it harder for researchers to comprehend the fuller picture.

“What we need to understand further, however, is how effective these efforts are in shaping public perceptions about China,” she said. “Information flooding does not necessarily equate to a change in perceptions.”