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.