How China Influences Media in Central and Eastern Europe

 In China, GDI, Poland

The ancient Chinese mil­i­tary strate­gist Sun Tzu believed that it is better to attack the enemy’s mind than to attack for­ti­fied cities. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a rather keen dis­ci­ple of Sun Tzu, and it has been using modern media and social net­works to “attack the minds” and win the hearts of Europeans in a rather skill­ful and so far under­re­port­ed way.

A prime exam­ple of the China’s strat­e­gy to dom­i­nate the dis­course in European media has been its attempts to change the nar­ra­tive on Hong Kong’s ongo­ing protests. China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a net­work of China spe­cial­ists in the region, dis­cov­ered that during the protests in Hong Kong from August to October, PRC embassies in Central and Eastern Europe approached local media with an offer to pub­lish an ambassador’s op-ed or an inter­view with the head of the embassy pro­mot­ing the offi­cial “real account” on the protests.

In the Czech Republic, PRC Ambassador Zhang Jianmin wrote an op-ed crit­i­cal of the Hong Kong protests and men­tion­ing for­eign influ­ence behind the scenes; the piece was pub­lished in Parlamentní listy, an alter­na­tive, yet widely read news server. In Latvia, Chinese chargé d’affaires Sun Yinglai gave an inter­view on the issue to NRA, one of the biggest news­pa­pers in the coun­try. In Estonia, the Chinese ambassador’s op-ed got pub­lished in Postimees, the largest news­pa­per in the coun­try. Vilniaus diena in Lithuania car­ried a sim­i­lar arti­cle signed by the ambas­sador. A left-wing outlet, Trybuna, in Poland and extreme left Nové Slovo in Slovakia also car­ried op-eds signed by China’s respec­tive ambas­sadors crit­i­ciz­ing the Hong Kong protests. Moreover, in Slovakia, a main­stream busi­ness daily, Trend, pub­lished a paid arti­cle (adver­to­r­i­al) by Lin Lin, the PRC ambas­sador to Slovakia, on the same issue. Apart from the Central and Eastern EU member states, sim­i­lar arti­cles were found in media out­lets in North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

What some arti­cles in the above men­tioned media had also in common was a ref­er­ence to the “bright” or “better future of Hong Kong” that would follow if and when the protests stop. Interestingly, this iden­ti­cal phrase was found in Czech, Estonian, Latvian, North Macedonian, Polish, and Slovak arti­cles, reveal­ing a coor­di­nat­ed, region-wide effort to swing the nar­ra­tive in favor of the Chinese Communist Party’s dis­course.

The media out­lets where pro-China nar­ra­tives on the Hong Kong protests were pub­lished ranged from alter­na­tive to main­stream, includ­ing a high ratio of left-lean­ing out­lets. The pro­por­tion of arti­cles pub­lished in for­mal­ly com­mer­cial sec­tions was rel­a­tive­ly high, which sug­gests the edi­tors saw a lack of cred­i­bil­i­ty of the texts. Moreover, inter­views with jour­nal­ists in Estonia uncov­ered that op-ed pub­lished in Estonian Postimees was alleged­ly facil­i­tat­ed by a PR com­pa­ny hired by the Chinese Embassy. A sim­i­lar strat­e­gy of hiring a public rela­tions com­pa­nies to get the Chinese Communist Party’s mes­sage to the European public has not been con­firmed (yet) in other out­lets. The inci­dent itself, how­ev­er, presents a rather dis­turb­ing exam­ple of how far China is will­ing to go to white­wash its actions in Hong Kong.

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It has been known to China schol­ars deal­ing with influ­ence that to over­come the cred­i­bil­i­ty gap, China has increas­ing­ly employed a strat­e­gy which can be lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed as “borrow a boat to go to sea” (jian chuan chu hai). It aims at iden­ti­fy­ing out­lets that can carry mes­sages on behalf of China whether through out­right acqui­si­tion, co-own­er­ship (whether the share is above or below con­trol­ling level), and/or form­ing part­ner­ships through con­tent-shar­ing.

This “boat” strat­e­gy has been iden­ti­fied in the region of Central and Eastern Europe by project ChinfluenCE, which car­ried out a large-scale map­ping of media out­lets and their report­ing on China in con­nec­tion to econ­o­my and pol­i­tics. ChinfluenCE ana­lyzed the evo­lu­tion of dis­cours­es in Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian media through­out the period from 2010 to mid-2017. Discourse analy­sis uncov­ered that in 2015, when the alleged­ly pri­vate Chinese com­pa­ny CEFC invest­ed in the Czech com­pa­ny Empresa Media, the tone of the report­ing by its two media out­lets (TV Barrandov and the mag­a­zine Týden) changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Before the acqui­si­tion the media pro­duced a mix­ture of pos­i­tive, neg­a­tive, and neu­tral reports on China; how­ev­er, from the day of the acqui­si­tion, they start­ed report­ing on China only in a pos­i­tive manner (both neg­a­tive as well as neu­tral reports on China dis­ap­peared com­plete­ly from the media dis­course of these two out­lets). Not only has the tone changed, but also its China-relat­ed focus shift­ed — espe­cial­ly on TV Barrando. The net­work, already famous for weekly inter­views with the Czech President Miloš Zeman, who backed China’s nar­ra­tives, now start­ed to cover China’s Belt and Road and 17+1 ini­tia­tives with a fre­quen­cy unpar­al­leled in com­par­i­son to 40 other Czech media out­lets — both pub­licly as well as pri­vate­ly owned.

If a direct acqui­si­tion is not pos­si­ble, China employs con­tent-shar­ing tac­tics. In the Czech Republic, in con­nec­tion with the 70th anniver­sary of estab­lish­ing bilat­er­al diplo­mat­ic rela­tions, the Chinese embassy pro­duced an eight-page sup­ple­ment to the local nation-wide daily Právo. The sec­tion was obscure­ly labeled as a “theme and com­mer­cial sup­ple­ment.” The arti­cles were exclu­sive­ly pos­i­tive on China and were signed by the daily’s reporters, easily mis­lead­ing read­ers into believ­ing that the sup­ple­ment was the usual report­ing by the media.

Despite the numer­ous afore­men­tioned cases and many others, some of them well doc­u­ment­ed, pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Europe still do not con­sid­er media as strate­gic assets and are not aware of how easily media can be turned by for­eign influ­ence into her­alds of unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic nar­ra­tives. Those nar­ra­tives can then con­tribute to fur­ther divi­sions of soci­ety, ques­tion­ing of pro-Western and pro-EU for­eign policy lean­ing, or back­ing of eco­nom­ic inter­ests of author­i­tar­i­an regimes. The cases of China’s nar­ra­tives on Hong Kong being placed in European media out­lets should serve as a wake up call to pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the European Union.

It could be argued that the invest­ment screen­ing mech­a­nism adopt­ed by the EU in April aims at pro­tect­ing media from for­eign hos­tile influ­ence. The mech­a­nism, how­ev­er, is insuf­fi­cient as it only maps and does not block unwel­come invest­ment in the media sector. National invest­ment screen­ing mech­a­nisms and other legal reg­u­la­tions togeth­er with a mental shift toward under­stand­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of media are absolute­ly cru­cial.

Ivana Karásková, Ph.D., is a China Research Fellow and founder of projects ChinfluenCE and CHOICE at the Association for International Affairs (AMO). She lec­tures on China’s for­eign policy and EU-China rela­tions at Charles University in Prague.

Source: The Diplomat

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