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How the People’s Republic of China Seeks to Reshape the Global Information Environment
Global Engagement Center Special Report
6 MINUTE READ
October 5, 2023

Executive Summary

Every country should have the ability to tell its story to the world. However, a nation’s narrative should be based on facts and rise and fall on its own merits. The PRC employs a variety of deceptive and coercive methods as it attempts to influence the international information environment. Beijing’s information manipulation spans the use of propaganda, disinformation, and censorship. Unchecked, the PRC’s efforts will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing’s.

PRC Information Manipulation

The PRC spends billions of dollars annually on foreign information manipulation efforts. Beijing uses false or biased information to promote positive views of the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the same time, the PRC suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement. More broadly, the PRC seeks to cultivate and uphold a global incentive structure that encourages foreign governments, elites, journalists, and civil society to accept its preferred narratives and avoid criticizing its conduct.

The PRC’s approach to information manipulation includes leveraging propaganda and censorship, promoting digital authoritarianism, exploiting international organizations and bilateral partnerships, pairing cooptation and pressure, and exercising control of Chinese-language media. Collectively, these five elements could enable Beijing to reshape the global information environment along multiple axes:

Overt and covert influence over content and platforms. Beijing seeks to maximize the reach of biased or false pro-PRC content. It has acquired stakes in foreign media through public and non-public means and sponsored online influencers. Beijing has also secured sometimes restrictive content sharing agreements with local outlets that can result in trusted mastheads providing legitimacy to unlabeled or obscured PRC content. In addition, Beijing has also worked to coopt prominent voices in the international information environment such as foreign political elites and journalists. Beyond focusing on content producers, the PRC has targeted platforms for global information dissemination, for example, investing in digital television services in Africa and satellite networks.

Constraints on global freedom of expression. On issues it deems sensitive, the PRC has employed online and real-world intimidation to silence dissent and encourage self-censorship. The PRC has also taken measures against corporations in situations where they are perceived to have challenged its desired narratives on issues like Xinjiang. Within democratic countries, Beijing has taken advantage of open societies to take legal action to suppress critical voices. On WeChat, an application used by many Chinese-speaking communities outside the PRC, Beijing has exercised technical censorship and harassed individual content producers. Notably, data harvested by PRC corporations operating overseas have enabled Beijing to fine-tune global censorship by targeting specific individuals and organizations.

An emerging community of digital authoritarians. The PRC promotes digital authoritarianism, which involves the use of digital infrastructure to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news, promote disinformation, and deny other human rights. Through disseminating technologies for surveillance and censorship, often through capabilities bundled under the umbrella of “smart” or “safe cities,” the PRC has exported aspects of its domestic information environment globally. Beijing has also propagated information control tactics, with a particular focus on Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In parallel, the PRC has promoted authoritarian digital norms that other countries have adopted at a rapid pace. As other countries emulate the PRC, their information ecosystems have become more receptive to Beijing’s propaganda, disinformation, and censorship requests.

Future Impact

The PRC’s global information manipulation is not simply a matter of public diplomacy – but a challenge to the integrity of the global information space. Unchecked, Beijing’s efforts could result in a future in which technology exported by the PRC, coopted local governments, and fear of Beijing’s direct retaliation produce a sharp contraction of global freedom of expression. Beijing would play a significant – and often hidden – role in determining the print and digital content that audiences in developing countries consume. Multilateral fora and select bilateral relationships would amplify Beijing’s preferred narratives on issues such as Taiwan and the international economy. Access to global data combined with the latest developments in artificial intelligence technology would enable the PRC to surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favor. Lastly, Beijing’s global censorship efforts would result in a highly curated international information environment characterized by gaps and inherent pro-PRC biases.

In this future, the information available to publics, media, civil society, academia, and governments as they engage with the PRC could be distorted by propaganda and disinformation and circumscribed by censorship. This would pose a direct challenge to all nations that seek to predicate their relations with the PRC on fact-based assessments of their sovereign interests. This future is not pre-ordained. Although backed by unprecedented resources, the PRC’s propaganda and censorship have, to date, yielded mixed results. When targeting democratic countries, Beijing has encountered major setbacks, often due to pushback from local media and civil society. Global understanding of PRC information manipulation is a starting point for a future in which the PRC’s ideas, values, and stories must compete on an even playing field.