Book Reviews

Beyond TikTok

China’s global media strategy is ambitious and concerning. But its record so far is mixed.

By John Gershman

Tagged ChinaForeign Policytechnology

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World by Joshua Kurlantzick • Oxford University Press • 2022 • 560 pages • $30

Lawmakers in the United States and elsewhere have recently taken steps to restrict access to TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, on the grounds that it poses a national security threat. In February, the White House instructed federal agencies to delete the app from all government devices within 30 days. Britain, Canada, France, and Australia also recently banned the app from official devices. In early March, a House committee voted to advance legislation that would allow the Biden Administration to ban TikTok nationwide. On the other side, civil liberties advocates say that banning TikTok would violate Americans’ right to free speech, and a small number of congressional representatives, such as New York’s Jamaal Bowman, argue that there is no evidence that TikTok represents a security threat—and that, in any case, many of the issues raised around TikTok are shared with other social media platforms.

Policymakers and advocates on all sides of the TikTok debate would benefit from reading Joshua Kurlantzick’s Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. If they did, they would quickly learn that our obsession with TikTok risks diverting attention away from broader and more significant issues in China’s efforts to exercise global influence through media and information. Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a timely exploration and assessment of this strategy that provides a valuable historical and policy context for contemporary debates.

Kurlantzick shows that as China has increased its power (and other major players, like the United States, have lost some of theirs), it has used media and information tools to expand and consolidate its influence. Understandably, analysts and policymakers have largely focused on China’s economic power and its growing willingness to deploy military resources in the South China Sea and threaten Taiwan. But they have often overlooked how China has quietly sought to carve out its own space on the world stage, using covert efforts to reshape public opinion and policy debates in ways that align with its objectives. It is a powerful new strategy, and one that demands our attention.

Kurlantzick distinguishes among three types of power—hard, soft, and sharp—to analyze China’s recent information warfare and public diplomacy efforts. Hard power, the bread and butter of geopolitics, focuses on the use of inducements and threats, such as China’s efforts to repress pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea by building installations and harassing fishing vessels from the Philippines and other countries with claims in the region. By contrast, soft power is characterized by efforts to influence the preferences of other states through persuasion and attraction, using culture and political values. These include diplomatic initiatives and exchange programs that aim to present a benign image of a rising China and to counteract critical narratives. China’s soft power initiatives were the focus of Kurlantzick’s 2007 book, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.

Sharp power, a concept of more recent vintage, is not so much an open battle for “hearts and minds” (the sine qua non of the exercise of soft power), but a calculated, covert effort to influence “target audiences by manipulating or poisoning the information that reaches them,” in the words of a report from the National Endowment for Democracy. As political scientist Joseph Nye writes, “In an age of information, the scarcest resources are attention and credibility.” Sharp power aims to leverage both. The goals are to build dominant narratives that reflect China’s interests, often through indirect means that obscure the role of Chinese state actors, and to subvert the influence of anti-Chinese narratives with a range of tools that include content-sharing agreements, reshaping the rules of the internet, cultivating pro-Beijing constituencies, and disinformation.

The divide between soft and sharp power is not always clear, and the same tools can be used to enhance both. For example, according to Nye, China’s Confucius Institutes could be straightforward implements of soft power if they keep their focus on advancing the study of Chinese in schools and universities abroad. But if they attack academic freedom so as to avoid scrutiny of Chinese policies, they become part of the sharp power toolkit.

Kurlantzick identifies two basic approaches that China takes in its sharp power media and information strategy: direct and indirect. The direct approach has three main elements. First, China is trying to find ways to control the information that appears on people’s screens, both by establishing de facto control over many Chinese-language media outlets in other countries and by striking content-sharing deals that do not reveal the source of the information. For example, Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, has signed cooperation agreements with the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. In total, Xinhua, China’s state-run TV network (CGTN), the state radio network (CRI), and other state media organizations have partnered with more than 200 local independent news agencies worldwide. The issue is not content sharing per se, but content sharing when the content provided by the Chinese counterpart is not labeled or presented as such. The second part of the direct approach is attempts to silence or harass media outlets abroad (Chinese-language or otherwise) that produce coverage critical of China. And third, Beijing is exporting its particular model of state-controlled media to other countries, such as Cambodia and Laos.

China’s indirect approach to developing sharp power has, in turn, two prongs. The first: China attempts to influence the global rules governing international information flows by advocating for norms and rules at the International Telecommunication Union that would support national internets, regulated by states, as opposed to one international internet (a position China calls “cyber-sovereignty”). At the same time, China also seeks to control the “pipes” through which content flows—social media platforms, messaging apps, search engines, and telecommunications networks. Controlling the pipes makes it easier for China to circulate pro-Beijing narratives, whether from state or private sources, as well as to spread disinformation and attack opponents or promote allies in other countries. The United States and other countries have done more to prevent China’s control of the pipes than to combat other areas of China’s information and media effort—for example, by preventing the Chinese company Huawei’s technology from being used in 5G mobile networks.

Kurlantzick highlights China’s use of sharp power because it has been a central element of China’s more forceful and assertive foreign policy stance since Xi Jinping came to power. Precisely because it’s more covert than China’s soft power approach, the public may be less aware of, and policymakers less focused on, these efforts. But examples abound: Take, for instance, the two men recently arrested for allegedly operating a secret police station in New York’s Chinatown and the 34 officers in China’s Ministry of Public Security charged with using fake social media accounts to harass dissidents abroad. These aggressive tactics represent a major shift from China’s earlier charm offensive.

China’s current media strategy benefits from changes both at home and abroad that have made it easier for Beijing to spread its influence. Domestic shifts include Communist Party leaders recognizing the limits of China’s previous soft power charm offensive, which translated into few tangible gains, and a shift to a more assertive foreign policy stance under Xi Jinping. China has also found a burgeoning market for its technology and tactics as autocrats in the global South show a growing interest in China’s development model in general, and its state-controlled internet and media control policies in particular.

In addition to the above, Kurlantzick highlights two conditions abroad that have created opportunities for China to expand its influence using the new sharp power tactics layered on a revised version of its earlier soft power efforts. The first of these opportunities rests on the vulnerability of democratic states to sharp power operations. He argues that democracies are vulnerable precisely because of their relative openness, combined with the fact that, until recently, they focused on Russian disinformation operations to the exclusion of China’s efforts. The second condition is the performance legitimacy crisis of democratic market economies. As democratic societies seem to be unable to deliver the goods for their citizens and democratic institutions come under attack, these crises provide openings for sharp power operations.

As a result, the wealthy democracies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have found themselves largely unprepared for China’s sharp power offensive. And with a few exceptions such as Singapore and Taiwan, which have been long-standing targets of Chinese influence operations, countries outside the OECD were even less prepared. For instance, Kurlantzick notes that, unlike countries such as the United States and Australia, “Few African, Eastern European, Latin American, or South Asian states have laws circumscribing foreign interference (including foreign money) in politics.” In less democratic states, China’s sharp power faces very few restrictions. Some leaders, like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, even embrace these efforts out of a desire to adopt China’s technology and replicate its tactics.

All of which leads to the big question: Has it worked? One of Kurlantzick’s most valuable contributions to the debate over China’s global media strategy is his evaluation of how successful these efforts have been. Some commentators chronicle the scope and scale of China’s efforts to increase its influence in breathless, frantic tones, but fail to evaluate the actual effectiveness of China’s soft and sharp power strategies. Kurlantzick’s more measured view is that “for now, Beijing has had a decidedly mixed record, at best, in its media and information battle.” At a moment when there are bipartisan calls for a new Cold War with China, this clear-eyed assessment is a valuable corrective.

Whatever gains China has made in particular countries, global public opinion regarding China has declined precipitously in the last decade or so. In 2011, 51 percent of people in the United States had a positive view of China, and 36 percent a negative view. As of March, the share of Americans who saw China positively had fallen dramatically to 14 percent, while 83 percent had a negative opinion, according to the Pew Research Center. The pattern has been the same in other OECD countries. Confucius Institutes have come under fire: Some European countries are closing theirs, and in the United States, the number fell from 103 in 2017 to just 13 this year as universities shut them down in the face of criticism over their opaque funding and, in some cases, attacks on academic freedom.

Kurlantzick ends the book with a thoughtful and measured set of recommendations. His advice in 2007 in response to China’s “charm offensive” largely focused on the United States getting its own house in order and repairing the damage done to its image abroad by the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Taking stock 15 years later, he acknowledges that the United States and other OECD countries have made progress, but he argues that they haven’t done enough. As for efforts to address China’s aggressive new information and media strategy, he chronicles the initial steps taken in the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere in the six years since he started research for the book.

His recommendations start with a “know thy opponent” stance. While he notes that countries have begun to research and monitor China’s influence operations and to take some steps to restrain them, he argues that more needs to be done. This includes ongoing research and publication of information about China’s influence operations; greater cooperation among democratic countries targeted by Chinese (and Russian) disinformation efforts; and attempts to track China’s influence efforts, whether that be lobbying, political contributions from individuals or firms with pro-Beijing views, harassment of Chinese dissidents, or the establishment of media operations.

He cautions against paying too much attention to CGTN and CRI, whose audiences are limited. Instead, he writes, “Policymakers’ time would be better spent focusing on areas where Beijing is having success already: Xinhua, Xinhua’s content-sharing deals, Beijing’s de facto control of local Chinese-language outlets, and other Chinese tools like Beijing’s attempts to control information pipes.” In addition, he emphasizes the success that China has had in offering authoritarian political elites blueprints for so-called cyber-sovereignty as well as “a broader model of technology-enabled authoritarianism.”

This brings us back to TikTok. In contrast to calls for banning it, Kurlantzick offers a nuanced and constructive approach. Yes, be concerned about the possibility that TikTok’s corporate parent, ByteDance, may share user information with the Chinese government. But he reminds us that many of the reasons given for banning TikTok could apply to other apps, too. The possibility that apps can be used as platforms for disinformation, tools of censorship, or sources for extracting user data is not unique to those owned by Chinese firms: It is a broader problem requiring effective regulation worldwide. Kurlantzick argues that instead of jumping to outright bans, democracies need to deepen their investigation of social media apps and other aspects of China’s information strategy, and to release the results publicly so that citizens and policymakers can make informed judgements about appropriate policy responses to China’s influence efforts.

Kurlantzick argues against a wholesale ban on Chinese apps for two further reasons. Platforms like the instant messaging app WeChat allow people outside China to communicate with those within; banning them could break those connections and cut off sources of independent information. Moreover, he argues that a ban on TikTok, WeChat, and other apps could backfire by contributing to the split between countries with open internets and those with closed ones while giving the impression that democracies are at least partly responsible. “If democracies impose harsh bans,” he notes, “they further move the world toward a ‘digital Berlin Wall’ situation, a prospect that will undermine any hope for global internet freedom.”

Kurlantzick concludes his recommendations with a call for the United States and other countries to double down on their commitment to democracy and a free press, and to address the widespread performance legitimacy crisis in liberal democratic capitalist countries. “Leading democracies,” he notes, “certainly need to address their many problems, not only to fix their societies and politics, but also to remain compelling alternative models to China.” A sober conclusion to what is now the defining book on China’s contemporary information and media strategy.

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John Gershman is a Clinical Professor of Public Service at the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

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