By Joshua Kurlantzick: Oxford University Press, 2022.
Joshua Kurlantzick works at the Council for Foreign Relations, which according to its mission statement is a thinktank dedicated to international questions facing the United States. The book fits neatly into the ever-expanding China threat genre. These works have proliferated in the past decade, usually written by staunch critics of China, or persons aligned with US security services.
In 2007, Joshua Kutlantzick published Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World. At this time China was under the stewardship of Hu Jintao and had yet to stamp its authority globally. The leadership in Beijing was seeking to strengthen its soft power, a term that had come into the political lexicon. Beijing’s Global Media Offensive updates China’s influence campaign over the past fifteen years, taking into account the presidency of Xi Jinping and the escalation of China’s global ambitions.
The directive from President Xi is that China should “tell its stories well”; it should project a credible, loveable and respectable image. Within China foreign affairs spokespersons speak of strengthening national “discourse power” while the propaganda system extols “positive energy”, a euphemism for nationalism, which is evident in trending topics on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
This provides the context of the China threat genre: China is depicted as a bad global actor, a powerful authoritarian state with designs of usurping the US as the leading global superpower. Its stories are therefore not to be trusted. Kurlanztick is speaking on behalf of western liberal democracy and the thinktank that he represents. Unsurprisingly, almost nothing is mentioned about the US’s transgressions. Anyone remember weapons of mass destruction?
Kurlantzick makes a strident claim: ‘China is trying to smuggle information into foreign viewers’ screens, tablets, phones, and other places…’ The villain here is “Beijing”. Beijing is code for the Chinese Communist Party and its various institutional organs although he has little to say about the machinations of such institutions. To conflate everything threatening with “Beijing”, however, is both simplistic and superficial. My Kindle search for Beijing gave up at 500, exhausted. At other times he simply refers to the China/Beijing coupling as “it”: for example, “It also wants to use its influence efforts to play more aggressive defense at home”. Yet the message of the book is that the success of its “campaign” is uneven.
This presents a credibility problem, along with the fact that Kurlantzick is neither an expert on China’s media nor a Chinese speaker. The evidence presented is from English language sources, most of which are available online. Low hanging fruit: mostly fellow travellers in the English-language foreign affairs corpus. Scholarly works are few and far between despite the fact media and political experts on China are plentiful, people who read and consult Chinese reports, who understand the intrigues of China’s political machinations. For instance, Chinese language sources are readily available in translation, such as Reading the Chinese Dream (curated by David Ownby), Discourse Power (by Turia Gering), Tracking People’s Daily (by Manoj Kewalramani) and Pekingnology (by Zichen Wang).
Interview sources are conspicuously anonymous, or secretive, such as experts within US agencies such as the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and the Center for Naval Analyses (CAN). Chinese informants are presented anecdotally. Kurlantzick mentions Chinese leaders, policy makers and academics who he spoke with “at the time”, but we don’t know who these people actually are, when “at the time” was, and where such conversations occurred. Compared with Joanna Chiu’s excellent China Unbound, which actually endeavours to provide both sides of the story, and which has actual interviews with real people, Kurlantzick is dealing in second hand information, a bit like processed food. He could be seen as an agent of US soft, or sharp power. But who knows what these terms mean now?
Soft and sharp: what does it all mean?
Soft power is a desired but somewhat nebulous commodity. Nations seek to enhance their attractiveness globally through diplomacy, foreign aid and cultural exchange; at least this is how the US political theorist Joseph Nye depicted it, when he coined the term in 1990. Soft power has a lot to do with perception: how values are perceived by others. Such values are often conveyed by media. Hollywood, for instance, contributes to the US government’s soft power, as does the BBC for the UK. The term has become muddied in recent times and the most cited national league table, the Portland Soft Power 30, has gone into remission since 2019. The Lowy Asia Power Index on the other hand has avoided using soft power, no doubt due to its inherent definitional fuzziness. In a book co-authored with colleagues in 2020, we delved into problems with evaluating soft power, and this was before COVID-19 skewered the rankings.
Kurlantzick’s definition is: ‘any effort involving tools of influence’ that are not ‘coercive, covert and disinforming means of influencing other states.’ The emphasis here is on tools, not perception and apparently it can be anything that you want it to be. The author maintains that Chinese officials and academics use his definition. However, there is no evidence provided to support this claim. In actual fact, Chinese officials and academics generally adhere to Nye’s definition but question the weighting Nye, and international ranking agencies such as Portland Soft Power 30, place on western democratic values. However, Nye is virtually airbrushed out of the account, and is only mentioned three times in passing.
The “offensive”, according to Kurlantzick, is more about sharp power. Sharp power involves disinformation and is attributed by western analysts to authoritarian states. In the case of China, this takes many forms: from covert attempts to intervene in democratic elections; to the buying up of media outlets overseas by pro-China interests and subsequent editorial control over airing contentious issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea; to incentives to foreign thought leaders to promote the CCP’s line, or support that is given to pro-China politicians. And because it is covert, it escapes attention. A number of the media organs mentioned in the book are located outside China. Significantly, a number of overseas media companies have been taken over by pro-Beijing interests, while many have succumbed to the financial lure of Chinese state advertorials.
Kurlantzick argues that both powers, soft and sharp, work together. Certainly, the regime in Beijing disputes its use of coercion and points the finger at foreign (i.e. US) misinformation and disinformation, a kind of diplomatic blame shifting game no doubt, and a ploy to show that strategic information warfare is not confined to authoritarian states. So-called colour revolutions incited by hostile western forces are often the subject of Chinese news services.
Kurlantzick catalogues a range of media, for instance, Xinhua News Agency, The Global Times, China Daily; and television services such as China Global TV network (CGTN) and the digital service Star Times. Kurlantzick cites an anecdotal case that foreign guests on Chinese TV talk shows are carefully screened so that they don’t criticise the regime. It’s believable but surely more information is needed than just casual anecdotes.
Kurlantzick says that Chinese media have amplified Russian disinformation about Ukraine on their news services and contends that there has been a blackout about Ukraine. There is some truth here but it is far from the reality. I listen to CCTV news bulletins daily and have done so for the past two years since the crisis began. While giving greater credence to Russia, CCTV also provides a perspective from Ukraine. In the west we only see one side. The South China Morning Post, which Kurlantzick claims is “controlled” by Beijing according to a 2019 report, provides critical perspectives on the war, even criticizing China’s stance!
Kurlantzick talks about Beijing’s desire to “control the pipes”, referring to electronic distribution channels. The metaphor is simplistic. Many overseas Chinese subscribe to Chinese digital information services and have done so for the past two decades; they get their news direct without having to bother about local news services, which present limited news stories about China, or news that is negative. The book briefly examines popular messaging apps such as WeChat and Weibo that service the Chinese Diaspora and provides evidence from western studies that claim that these are monitored from China. But it doesn’t go beyond the obvious culprits. There are many examples that are conspicuous by their absence, for instance Reddit, and other Q&A forums, which have arguably more influence than traditional print media.
The book advances a compelling argument to see the Chinese government as directing an offensive, but in the interests of balance more could have been said about the relations between governments and media in the countries that are being infiltrated. Media in liberal democracies generally frame China in line with foreign affairs advice and currently China is framed as untrustworthy and threatening, a narrative that is stoking the embers of a new cold war.
The question for me, however, is: how can a book of such uneven quality pass peer review? The answer I guess is that even university presses have to make money.
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