ChinaJune 28 2022, 15:06 pm

China Is Increasing Its Discourse Power Operations in the Global South, Eroding Democracies and Bolstering Authoritarianism, Study Finds

The Atlantic Council’s DFR­Lab, a US think tank, recent­ly pub­lished a study exam­in­ing China’s invest­ment in pro­pa­gan­da and influ­ence oper­a­tions in Sub-Saha­ran Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca, and the Mid­dle East. The study found that Chi­nese influ­ence efforts have had clear impacts in terms of both erod­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions and bol­ster­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism, and sig­nal poten­tial trou­ble for demo­c­ra­t­ic resilience in the Glob­al South. Accord­ing to the DFR­Lab study:

April 20, 2022 To this end, one focus of China’s glob­al dis­course pow­er push has been to fos­ter buy-in from lead­ers in the Glob­al South for Chi­nese-defined norms. This includes its prin­ci­ples of “non-inter­fer­ence” in oth­er coun­tries’ inter­nal affairs and on a con­cept of “human rights” that active­ly sub­or­di­nates per­son­al and civic free­doms in favor of state-cen­tered eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. It is meant to stand in oppo­si­tion to a West­ern human rights frame­work that Chi­na crit­i­cizes as hav­ing been used for inter­ven­tion­ist ends, for exam­ple, in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bei­jing also sees con­trol over the media envi­ron­ment as crit­i­cal for enhanc­ing its dis­course pow­er so that it can spread a pos­i­tive “Chi­na sto­ry” (讲好中国故事). In doing so, it is bet­ter able to pro­mote its image as a respon­si­ble pow­er and gain sup­port for China’s mod­el of inter­na­tion­al relations—one that priv­i­leges state sov­er­eign­ty over uni­ver­sal human rights, gov­ern­ment con­trol over pub­lic dis­course, and author­i­tar­i­an­ism over democ­ra­cy. As Chi­nese schol­ars Mi Guang­hong and Mi Yang put it, “strength­en­ing the dis­sem­i­na­tion, influ­ence and cre­ativ­i­ty of exter­nal pro­pa­gan­da is [in the fun­da­men­tal inter­ests of] the coun­try, with pro­found prac­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance.”  China’s dis­course pow­er strat­e­gy also involves cre­at­ing mul­ti­lat­er­al region­al orga­ni­za­tions to advance its inter­ests. This includes the Forum on Chi­na-Africa Coop­er­a­tion (FOCAC) in Africa, the Forum of Chi­na and the Com­mu­ni­ty of Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean States (Chi­na-CELAC Forum) in Latin Amer­i­ca, and the Chi­na-Arab States Coop­er­a­tion Forum (CASCF) in the Mid­dle East. Chi­na lever­ages its posi­tion in these forums to gain sup­port for its inter­na­tion­al ini­tia­tives, to deep­en its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal engage­ment, and to pro­mote state nar­ra­tives. For exam­ple, one con­cept cen­tral to China’s dis­course pow­er strat­e­gy is its vision to build a “com­mu­ni­ty with a shared future”—language Chi­nese offi­cials and diplo­mats often use in Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI)-connected engage­ments with for­eign coun­ter­parts to sig­ni­fy China’s pur­suit of a mul­ti­lat­er­al approach to inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as an alter­na­tive to the “uni­lat­er­al” approach tak­en by the Unit­ed States. This strat­e­gy is what Chi­nese schol­ars call the “sub­cu­ta­neous injec­tion” the­o­ry of communications—winning inter­na­tion­al “friends” who under­stand their own local con­texts and are able to “tell China’s sto­ry” to allow for a more “imme­di­ate and quick” dis­sem­i­na­tion of Chi­nese dis­course pri­or­i­ties in the region.

Read the full study here.

The DFR­Lab study notes that one focus of China’s glob­al dis­course pow­er push has been to fos­ter buy-in from lead­ers in the Glob­al South for Chi­nese-defined norms, includ­ing prin­ci­ples of “non-inter­fer­ence” and state-cen­tric “human rights.” Chi­na also seeks to gain con­trol over the media envi­ron­ment to spread a pos­i­tive “Chi­na sto­ry” and use mul­ti­lat­er­al, region­al orga­ni­za­tions to advance its inter­ests. The study con­cludes that China’s influ­ence efforts have seen mixed suc­cess in Latin Amer­i­ca, cit­ing a sur­vey accord­ing to which trust in the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has decreased 20 per­cent over nine years in eigh­teen coun­tries sur­veyed in Latin Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean, from 58 per­cent in 2012 to 38 per­cent in 2021. At the same time, anoth­er sur­vey cit­ed in the report shows that majori­ties or plu­ral­i­ties in almost all the Mid­dle East­ern, Latin Amer­i­can, and Sub-Saha­ran African coun­tries have a favor­able view of China.

A recent study on Chi­nese engage­ment with Latin Amer­i­ca and Caribbean mul­ti­lat­er­al insti­tu­tions found that Chi­na uses active lob­by­ing, with a focus on their lead­er­ship, in com­bi­na­tion with col­lab­o­ra­tion on events, loan funds, and oth­er selec­tive ben­e­fits, to achieve an impact dis­pro­por­tion­ate to its lev­el of finan­cial par­tic­i­pa­tion or oth­er relevance.

In Octo­ber, the Glob­al Influ­ence Oper­a­tions Report report­ed that Chi­na has recent­ly adopt­ed a more aggres­sive approach to spread its soft pow­er and that its strat­e­gy to cul­ti­vate a pos­i­tive image of Chi­na has pri­mar­i­ly suc­ceed­ed in devel­op­ing markets.


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