Symposium | The U.S.-China Future

Global Reach: Information Is a Weapon

By Aleksandra W. Gadzala

Tagged AfricaChinageopoliticsSouth America

Tell China’s stories well, spread China’s voice well,” Xi Jinping told Chinese state broadcaster Central China Television (CCTV)—now China Global Television Network (CGTN)—in 2017. Since assuming the mantle of political power in November 2012, Xi has gone to great lengths to redefine Chinese foreign policy. As of 2013, China’s foreign policy has matured from one of “near seas defense” to an active offensive strategy focused on securing Chinese interests abroad, including in Africa and Latin America. In doing so, China’s foreign policy has also come to embrace soft power tactics, previously absent from Beijing’s foreign policy toolkit. Specifically, under Xi, China has intensified its focus on “seizing discursive power”—that is, political influence achieved through communication methods—and “propagating China’s voice” on the international stage. Discursive power has become integral to China’s national power. Indeed, for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), information is a weapon. And today, China is engaged in a contest for global narrative dominance.

Narratives are key to establishing collective memory, which is how groups of people remember their past and perceive their present. For the Chinese, for instance, the period from roughly 1849 to 1949 is recalled as the “century of humiliation,” during which China sustained foreign intervention and imperialism from Western powers and Japan. Unlike personal memory, which can be a static, unchanging snapshot of the past, collective memory is dynamic, forged through shared stories, commemorative ceremonies, technologies, and interactions among members of a community. Scholars of collective memory such as Maurice Halbwachs, Eric Hobsbawm, and Émile Durkheim have all independently argued that collective memory engenders group solidarity. Moreover, it is a kind of knowledge—a way of classifying and seeing the world. It yields a collective sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, real and fake. It is a means of shaping the boundaries of a community’s political and social order.

As China’s foreign policy has evolved, much attention has been given to the CCP’s political, economic, and military efforts overseas—and rightly so. Between 2000 and 2017, China extended more than $282 billion in financing to African governments and more than $150 billion to Latin American ones. The value of China-Africa trade was $128 billion in 2016 compared to $50 billion ten years prior. Also in Africa, China has installed its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. In Latin America, China is now the number one trading partner of Brazil and Chile, having surpassed the United States. Latin American states are increasingly eager to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the CCP’s trillion-dollar strategic vision for trade and infrastructure routes spanning Eurasia, into the South Pacific, Africa, and Latin America. By some estimates, the BRI could cover “65 percent of the world’s population, one-third of global GDP, and about a quarter of all goods and services the world moves.”

Equally as impressive, however, are the CCP’s efforts to produce a shared sense of global community and a kind of global collective memory in which China, and the world at large, are perceived through Beijing’s (state-sponsored) eyes. In Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, the CCP has capitalized on the tools afforded by globalization—media, educational institutions, technology—to compete for the global narrative while advancing China’s foreign-policy objectives.


Chinese officials have long complained that Western media dominate global discourse and harbor prejudice against China. In a speech on China-Africa media cooperation in 2013, China’s ambassador to Kenya, Liu Guangyuan, lamented that it is “unethical to force a bad image on China-Africa relations” and that “China and Africa should flatly refuse to be part of this insincere scheme.” The more sincere scheme, from Liu’s perspective, was to shed a positive light on China-Africa ties and “break the monopoly of the current international discourse.”

In 2009, the CCP revealed plans to allocate $6.6 billion to fund the expansion of Chinese state media in Africa. While nobody knows for sure how much China spends on these efforts today, some estimates suggest the annual budget for “external propaganda,” globally, runs in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, has more than 20 outlets throughout Africa. CNC World, Xinhua’s television station, began broadcasting to African satellite and cable viewers in early 2011. In 2012, CGTN opened its first overseas hub in Nairobi and launched CCTV Africa. The network is now the largest non-African television initiative on the continent. And 2012 also saw the launch of China Daily Africa, the African edition of China’s largest English-language newspaper—it is published in Nairobi and distributed all over the continent, in various venues, including Kenya Airways flights—and ChinAfrica Magazine, published in South Africa by ChinAfrica Media and Publishing, the African branch of China International Publishing Group. In addition to running the magazine, ChinAfrica aims to “introduce China’s culture, opinions,” with special attention to “hearing African voices in a bid to understand their needs to develop relations with China.”

The presence of these outlets allows China to compete directly with other news agencies like Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN, and the BBC, and to convey its officially sanctioned perspective on the news. To ensure readership and audience, outlets purchase space in African newspapers. Xinhua has allegedly bought space in eight Zimbabwean state-controlled community newspapers that run international pages carrying Xinhua stories. It also publishes in collaboration with South Africa’s official Bua News Agency.
In Venezuela, too, the government-run television channel TeleSUR devotes an entire section of its website to republishing daily Xinhua content. While China’s media efforts in Latin America have so far been more contained than in Africa, they are steadily increasing as political and economic ties between China and the region strengthen. National media outlets in Brazil, Cuba, and Chile also republish Xinhua content, which is generally a mix of Chinese-centric news and foreign and local affairs. Both Xinhua and People’s Daily, the CCP’s official newspaper, produce daily content in Spanish and in Portuguese––as does China Radio International (CRI), China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster, an opaque and authoritarian version of Voice of America. In 2015, Reuters reported that CRI was running a covert network of 33 radio stations broadcasting its content in 14 countries, including even the United States. CRI today operates 58 stations in 35 countries. In the United States alone, CRI content is believed to be broadcast by more than 30 outlets. CRI’s head, Wang Gengnian, has described Beijing’s media messaging approach as jie chuan chu hai, “borrowing a boat to go out to sea”—using foreign media outlets to carry China’s narrative.

(Cultural, Political) Education

Narrative is also a powerful means of fostering collective memory because it establishes a basic framework within which an otherwise chaotic set of events is organized and given meaning. It is also powerful insofar as it is draws on human emotions. As Oxford University professor Todd Hall points out, emotionalism in foreign affairs often serves strategic purposes. Take empathy, for example. Empathy requires an individual to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” And at the end of that mile, we understand that someone—or in this case that state—better. As a result, we may be inclined to side with her in disputes. Or to support her membership to various organizations. In its effort to propagate a positive image of itself, China expects to occasion precisely this kind of empathy among its international peers. African countries today vote more often with China at the United Nations than they have in the past. Of course, the resultant monetary kickbacks likely have as much to do with this as does any emotional inclination.

“Doudou and Her Mothers-in-Law” is a Chinese television series about the domestic life of two ordinary Chinese families set in contemporary China. After airing in Shanghai in 2009, it was exported to Tanzania in 2011. It has become a huge commercial and popular success and has expanded to Kenya and Uganda. As Larry Hanauer and Lyle J. Morris have reported, Xi apparently told a Tanzanian audience in 2013, it helps Africans “learn the joys and sorrows of an ordinary Chinese family.” It is part of what the CCP calls “people-to-people-exchanges,” which it started to emphasize in 2017 to expand upon what are predominantly government-to-government and trade-and-investment oriented ties. While such exchanges have always been part of China’s engagement with Africa and Latin America, Beijing now sees them as an increasingly critical component of its discursive power and foreign-policy agenda.

The exchanges take various forms, ranging from popular media programming, educational initiatives, and political training workshops for foreign government officials. They reach almost anyone deemed influential in local societies: “journalists, scholars, diplomats, and students . . . entrepreneurs, politicians, and future leaders in all fields,” as noted by the National Endowment for Democracy. And their overarching aim is to educate the next generation of decision-makers about China’s history, culture, and experiences in economic development and governance.

As part of its media efforts, for instance, Beijing intends to train hundreds of Latin American journalists over the next five years. It already trains upwards of 1,000 African journalists each year in “international communications” and Chinese history. While it is not always clear what transpires during such trainings, one such training for Tanzanian government officials in 2015 was followed, later that year, by Tanzania’s introduction of a cybercrime law and subsequent restrictions that closely mimic China’s own content restrictions. Tanzanians who operate online media—including bloggers—are required to apply for licenses and pay annual maintenance fees. If they fail to block and censor content that the government considers “indecent, obscene […] will offend or incite others, cause annoyance or lead to public disorder,” they face a slew of vague penalties, including imprisonment. At a media roundtable between leaders from China and Tanzania, Edwin Ngonyani, Tanzania’s deputy minister for transport and communications, observed, “Our Chinese friends have managed to block such media in their country and replaced them with their homegrown sites that are safe, constructive, and popular.”

An estimated 10,000 African and 10,000 Latin American officials undergo political trainings each year, most of them in China. Programs for senior-level officials are hosted in Beijing, and the more common programs for mid- to low-level officials are based in local Chinese cities. Almost universally, they involve 1) lectures at a Chinese educational institution, 2) field trips to local governments and meetings with local officials and businesses, and 3) cultural programs. Ethiopia, China’s most eager student, has sent several high-level delegations to China since the mid-1990s. The most recent one, in February 2016, focused on “domestic development,” including grassroots mobilization and “how to manage youth.” The trainings often paint a picture of Chinese identity as that of a nation that is still developing, just like many of its African and Latin American counterparts. They impart a sense of “groupness,” both uniting government officials under an overarching political and social order, and establishing a shared account of past, present, and future.

The trainings also extend to everyday citizens and students. At the 2014 Forum of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Beijing committed to training 1,000 young Latin American leaders by 2024 under the banner of the “Bridge to the Future” exchange program, similar to the China-Africa Young Leaders Forum. Organized by the All-China Youth Federation, which represents 52 youth organizations headed by the Communist Youth League of China, the program aims to build a network of young leaders who may eventually emerge as “friendship envoys” between China and Latin America. Its components mirror those of the government training workshops.
Between 2015 and 2019, Beijing additionally extended 6,000 government scholarships to Latin American students. Among English-speaking African students, China is now the most popular destination, having surpassed both the United States and the UK. The number of Africans studying in China grew from 2,000 in 2000 to an astounding 50,000 in 2015. Through its efforts, China is steadily chipping away at an important area of American competitiveness. The United States has a rich history of educational ties with both regions. For example, in the 1960s the State Department began financing air travel for African scholarship recipients, bringing 750 East Africans to American universities. In the decades since, the United States emerged as the preferred destination for African students. Cultural exchange programs like the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), too, have provided hundreds of Africans and Latin Americans with fellowships to study in the United States and to forge connections with American businesses and civil society. But China is now catching up. Driving the appeal is a growing interest in China, strengthening bilateral ties, and sophisticated communications campaigns on local social media networks.


In a 2016 speech, Xi called for core technologies to be “self-developed and controllable,” meaning that the government should have broad discretion to decide how it protects information networks, devices, and data. Xi didn’t specify what counts as a “core technology.” The list shifts based on the situation. For the CCP, technology is an integral tool in its contest for narrative dominance. The CCP consistently emphasizes political and ideological security in its focus on cybersecurity and repeatedly calls for “cyber sovereignty,” by which is meant not only Chinese independence from foreign technologies, but foreign compliance with Chinese cyber standards, including its surveillance policies.

The aforementioned example of Tanzania is one of many. In Venezuela, China is helping Nicolás Maduro’s fraudulent regime rollout a smart-card ID, carnet de la patria, as part of a program similar to its own controversial social credit system, which relies on mass surveillance and big data analyses to assess citizens’ business, economic, and social reputation. In Zimbabwe, Chinese artificial intelligence company CloudWalk is providing the government with mass facial recognition systems that will be used to create a national facial ID database. Despite growing scrutiny from the United States and some European partners, Huawei is holding trials for 5G rollout with Africa’s biggest telecoms: MTN, Vodacom, and Safaricom. Six out of Brazil’s seven 4G mobile networks have been created by Huawei. The list goes on.

As technologies have expanded and become more interconnected, the CCP has had to adapt its strategy in its contest for discursive power and refine its surveillance and censorship tactics. Realizing that full censorship will likely backfire, China’s leadership has taken a multipronged approach that it exports overseas. To advance its narrative it distracts from others. It also strategically uses technology—including the Internet and social messaging apps—to spread its message.

One study estimated that the CCP hires between 500,000 and 2 million people to surreptitiously insert deceptive writings into online media content, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. This so-called “50 Cent Party”—Internet commentators hired by the CCP—posts content that generally involves cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the CCP, or various party symbols. A study by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of San Diego found that an estimated 448 million posts are fabricated each year. A little over half of them are made on government sites, and the rest on commercial sites—mixed into streams with family news, cat photos, and the like—and on popular social messaging apps. A public WeChat account, “Buy For and From Africa,” for example, is run by a former Xinhua employee in Nairobi. Along with tips intended for Africans wishing to do business in China and vice versa, the account is peppered with glowing reflections on Chinese culture, business, and political governance. Initially, platforms like WeChat provided space for competing narratives to emerge. Now, they provide the CCP with unprecedented insights into the lives of Chinese (and potentially other) citizens, and are an efficient means for China’s leadership to centralize its discursive efforts.

The globalized age, some argue, is characterized by a process of continual uprooting and relocation of identity through which memory loses any common point of reference. If true, then the stable community that creates and sustains collective memories becomes an ephemeral character. In its efforts to centralize critical technologies with expansive reach, China aims to be that character. WeChat has an estimated one billion monthly users worldwide, including an estimated 5 million in South Africa, where it has partnered with Standard Bank—one of the country’s top five banks, which also happens to be backed by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s largest lender by assets—to launch WeChat Wallet, a mobile payments system. In 2018, WeChat also integrated with M-Pesa, Africa’s largest mobile money platform. This allows M-Pesa users in African countries to send mobile money payments to WeChat users in China. Probably not coincidentally, it also potentially allows the CCP to extend its surveillance reach to M-Pesa’s 32 million African users.

The CCP has admitted to using WeChat to spread, almost in real-time, its spin on various political events, and to censoring divergent viewpoints. It has also admitted to retrieving deleted messages on the app.

Who Wins?

In some parts of Africa and Latin America, China’s discursive push seems to be working. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found 61 percent of Peruvians, 52 percent of Brazilians, and 51 percent of Chileans held favorable views of China. Favorability rates for the United States among these populations were 51 percent, 50 percent, and 39 percent, respectively. A 2016 report by Afrobarometer found that 63 percent of respondents from 36 African countries held a positive view of China’s influence in their country. Twenty-four percent of respondents cited China as the best development model for their countries—second only to the United States. While part of China’s improving reception is likely a result of its large-scale infrastructure financing, its narrative push is certainly a factor.

This presents U.S. policymakers with several challenges. Of course, this is not the first time that information has been weaponized and used for hostile purposes by a competing nation. The Soviet Union resorted to such methods during the Cold War and authoritarian governments have long tried to fabricate narratives that reduce the attractiveness of democracy. In other words, while these tactics may be new to China’s foreign policy, they are not new overall. What is new, however, is the speed with which these “stories” spread and the countless tools used to spread them. With its armies of paid trolls, along with outlets like Xinhua and CGTN, and technology powerhouses like Huawei and WeChat, China can distract from other narratives and advance its own on a minute-to-minute basis.

It is also important to recall that China thinks long-term. Still ingrained in the CCP’s political psyche is the Maoist notion of protracted warfare—of a long war against a hostile enemy. Its education initiatives and political training workshops are not necessarily intended for the here-and-now, but rather for future generations. Through its efforts, Beijing is laying the groundwork for its eventual narrative dominance and a global collective memory fashioned to its liking. The challenge for the United States here is to abandon its short-termism and think strategically in the long-term as well. The challenge, too, is to resist the temptation to go it alone and resort to similar tactics. Covert U.S. discursive warfare is unlikely to stay covert for long and, when revealed, may undercut other worthwhile efforts.

Fortunately, the dynamism of collective memory affords policymakers opportunities to counter China’s global narrative contest in other ways. Many involve bolstering soft power tactics, which the United States has, over the years, largely abandoned in Africa and Latin America. Openness remains the best defense. Faced with this challenge, it is essential for the United States to not only continue programs like the Young African Leaders Initiative and Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, for instance, but to increase support for regional civil societies and journalists who can check up on China’s sinister activities. Over the years, journalists in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia have exposed the CCP’s propaganda efforts and misdeeds despite being pressured to “tell China’s stories well.” To counter Beijing’s tactics, it will be more effective for the United States to amplify local voices than to criticize China on its own. This will also help Washington align itself as a partner and to forgo the paternalistic overtones often associated with chiding foreign leaders who engage with China.

In many respects, American, African, and Latin American leaders face similar challenges vis-a-vis China’s global narrative contest. Creating a shared sense of empathy and “group-ness” around these difficulties, as well as forging platforms for mutual learning, may go a long way. Such measures might involve tracking and documenting Chinese tactics in order to better identify them and sharing information. They could also include creating multilateral working groups among journalists, policymakers, academics, country and subject-matter experts, and technology companies that aim to not only to identify the risk but also to devise shared guidelines to help safeguard media, educational institutions, and strategic technologies within their countries. Democracies have not yet developed adequate strategies for deterrence and resilience. Considerably more resources and research need to be devoted to this task.

Narratives are powerful because they help us make sense of the passage of time and of the world around us. They are a means of classifying, ordering, and giving meaning. As China extends its focus on “seizing discursive power” in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, it calls into question the liberal democratic story. It dares it to be wrong. This means that, for the United States and other champions of liberal democracy, the best offense is a good defense. We must resolutely champion democratic values and provide a realistic alternative to the narrative China is advancing. Otherwise, 20 years from now, the global order may be far removed from what it is today: governed less by ideas of openness, transparency, public reason, public accountability, and more akin to the security-clearance levels of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Some people will know everything, others will know a little, most will know nothing. At the center of this new order will be China and the CCP, which will command both political and normative authority. The story of the world 20 years from now may be China’s story, in which liberal democracy will be but a brief chapter—a necessary detour en route to something else. If this is not the future story we wish for, now is the time to more resoundingly tell and stand by our current one—before it’s too late.

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Aleksandra W. Gadzala is Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and founder and CEO of Magpie Advisory. She is author of Africa and China: How Africans and Their Governments Are Shaping Relations with China.

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