Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. By Joshua Kurlantzick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. 560 pp.
As great-power competition between China and the United States escalates, the nonstop news cycle is threatening to outpace the scholarship on China—especially research on the ways in which Beijing’s influence operations engage the fragmented yet globalized media ecosystem outside its borders. More than ever China specialists have vast amounts of raw material to mine—a blessing and a curse.
Only a few months into 2023 and several disruptive events already have aggravated U.S.-China relations, despite the Biden administration’s aim to ease tensions by establishing a “floor” and “guardrails” for the relationship, in the words of Secretary of State Tony Blinken. The first of these events was the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon in the Montana sky days before Blinken was to make a long-anticipated visit to China. Cellphone-wielding citizens tracked the balloon as it journeyed across the country until the U.S. Air Force shot it down over the Atlantic. By then, Blinken had canceled his trip. That drama played out across traditional and social media, briefly dominating the public’s attention.
Shortly after came the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Around that time, U.S. officials publicly claimed that China planned to supply lethal aid to Russia. Beijing denied the accusation and responded with a “peace plan.” Soon after, Xi Jinping began his unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the country, allowing him to continue revamping China’s national-security bureaucracy. In the United States, the new House Select Committee on China held its first hearings, which were alternately billed as a watershed bipartisan wake-up call or fresh evidence of a new moral panic.
In a hothouse media environment that often feels like narrative and policy are fighting a battle to the death, it can be exceedingly difficult to get fidelity on a topic as nebulous as the impact of China’s efforts to influence the outside world. Writing a book on the subject is therefore no easy undertaking. For this reason, Joshua Kurlantzick’s voluminous account (more than five-hundred pages) of Chinese efforts to build a global media empire deserves admiration. In the interest of disclosure, I have known Kurlantzick for more than two decades through our shared focus on Southeast Asia and have been a source, collaborator, and genial colleague of his during that time.
Given his body of work, starting with 2007’s Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, few could be better positioned than Kurlantzick to tackle the subject of “Beijing’s global media offensive.” His new book in many ways is an updated and expanded version of his 2007 volume, revisiting many of the same themes fifteen years later. In Charm Offensive, Kurlantzick wrote presciently about China’s strategies at a time when Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “hide our capacity and bide our time” was still largely in force. As Kurlantzick notes in the new book, as recently as 2017, few people were studying Chinese global influence operations, and the subject was still poorly understood. At that time, policymakers were more worried about Russian interference in the United States, and even the closest U.S. allies were reluctant to block the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought” in UN resolutions.
Today, however, hundreds of scholars, activists, journalists, and government officials from Argentina to Burma to Zimbabwe are researching, thinking, speaking, and writing seriously and prodigiously on this topic. The U.S. government, with strong bipartisan support from Congress, is dedicating substantial resources to both understanding and combating Chinese influence efforts. These U.S. initiatives run the gamut from sharing information about suspected influence operations with state and local authorities to providing legal assistance to developing countries that are negotiating Belt and Road contracts.
This explosion of interest, activity, and scholarship creates its own set of challenges, even for a seasoned writer like Kurlantzick. Fortunately, Kurlantzick’s brisk writing style, dry humor, and liberal use of anecdotes keeps the material accessible and engrossing. Nevertheless, the sheer number of pages dedicated to describing the scale of China’s global operations can still overwhelm the reader. Covid-era travel restrictions and Beijing’s growing hostility to even mildly critical voices have severely limited direct access to China and, as a consequence, Kurlantzick’s ability to gain the sort of colorful in-person insights that characterize earlier works. As a result, the book at times feels more academic than his previous efforts.
For democracy-promotion audiences, who may remember Kurlantzick’s 2013 book Democracy in Retreat, this latest work returns to important questions about the nature of information dissemination, the role of media, rights-based approaches to the public square, and the way communications technologies complicate policymaking—especially in democratic societies. Over the past decade, the global growth of online communications, especially social media, has exploded while public trust in traditional media and other democratic institutions has simultaneously plummeted. Many studies, some published in this journal, have documented how and why these trends developed, the challenges that they present for democracies, and the tools that they provide for aggressive authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese party-state.
In examining China’s global media efforts, Kurlantzick picks up the “soft power” framing he used in Charm Offensive and augments it with the concept of “sharp power”—rightfully crediting the International Forum for Democratic Studies with coining this term for authoritarian influence tactics. But the book struggles at times to differentiate between soft power and sharp power, demonstrating that ultimately it is impossible to neatly categorize and understand the CCP’s influence operations within that dichotomy.
A case in point is the ongoing battle in the United States and other democracies over how to deal with TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese-owned short-form video app that feeds content to users via an addictive algorithm. One U.S. policymaker has labeled TikTok China’s “weapon of mass distraction.” Meanwhile, its Gen Z fans roll their eyes at “Boomer” efforts to ban the app. While the truth about TikTok is probably less frightening than its harshest critics claim, it unquestionably gathers massive amounts of user data—including locations, habits, and interests—and has been documented sharing that data with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, which potentially could be forced to share the information with the CCP. TikTok also is increasingly a key news source for many users, making it an ideal vector for CCP mis- and disinformation. With its recent acquisition of “golden shares” in ByteDance, the CCP now has even greater control over the company.
Beijing’s Global Media Offensive highlights the challenge of TikTok, revisiting the Trump administration’s 2019 attempt to force ByteDance to sell the app to a U.S. entity. Had the book not gone to print before the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States renewed its push for TikTok’s divestiture from ByteDance, Kurlantzick undoubtedly would have observed that TikTok responded to this latest salvo in the most American way imaginable: by hiring an army of lobbyists and PR firms with links to both political parties and sending its army of influencers, who have millions of followers, to Washington to protest at the Capitol and White House. The book does, however, note the growing number of democracies that are trying to curb use of the app.
Before the Xi Jinping era, most Western policymakers, business leaders, and other elites consciously ignored the “communist” part of the CCP and instead focused on China’s “reform and opening” and the seemingly limitless economic opportunities it brought. Over the past decade, that position has become increasingly untenable. Xi has reasserted and sharpened the ideological edge to Chinese policy at home and abroad in the process of enshrining himself as “chairman of everything.”
Kurlantzick correctly depicts a China that often is more opportunistic than effective at exerting its influence abroad, and he points to the ideological reasons that contributed to these failures. Because Beijing’s covert, corrupting, and coercive foreign-influence operations often mirror the way the party operates at home, they are particularly ill-suited to democracies’ more competitive information environments. For example, the “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has alienated democratic societies derives from Chinese diplomats playing to a domestic audience living under authoritarian leadership. In quasi-democratic environments such as Sri Lanka, where China has aggressively aligned itself with and enabled the deeply corrupt and abusive Rajapaksa governing clique, Beijing has seen more mixed results in mitigating the consequences of its malign behavior. Highlighting where and, critically, why these operations fall short reminds us that China stumbles regularly in its aspirations—and it also serves as a gentle rebuke to those who believed that Chinese leaders had stopped caring about ideology just because they wore well-cut suits and gave speeches at Davos extolling globalization.
This uneven track record also illustrates how the soft- versus sharp-power dichotomy can be problematic. Kurlantzick includes copious examples of how Chinese influence activities are making inroads in societies with weak institutions or malign, self-interested leadership (which describes most countries in the world). And although he generally is more sanguine about the resilience of democratic societies, the book includes examples of how soft power can make even capitalist democratic countries vulnerable to Beijing’s more blatantly pernicious operations. For example, Kurlantzick argues that Xinhua’s growing presence (and normalization, if not exactly credibility) as a newswire across the developing world gives Beijing a channel for peddling mis- and disinformation about its own intentions and activities and those of others. He illustrates this point with New Zealand, where Beijing and its proxies used Chinese-language media outlets to facilitate political manipulation, which raised the risk of anti-Asian backlash. China then weaponized the specter of racism to obfuscate the malign nature of its activities, which include targeting ethnic-Chinese Kiwis for cooptation.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to honestly categorize any of China’s current influence efforts as soft power, not least because of the hard-edged motivation that drives these activities: the paranoid conviction that the existence of genuine, viable, and successful democracies presents an existential threat to the CCP’s unilateral and authoritarian grip on power. In acknowledging the mixed effectiveness of Beijing’s efforts, especially the backlash against the “sharper” tactics such as blatant election interference and extraterritorial repression of dissident Chinese voices, Kurlantzick hints at this dark undercurrent. Yet his soft-sharp framing of the CCP’s foreign-influence efforts may obscure more than it clarifies for societies that are struggling to understand and decide how to respond to China-specific threats.
When it comes to information and media in particular, regime type matters. In Xi Jinping’s China, all CCP-directed influence operations—from feel-good, soft-focus feature stories to violence directed at overseas Chinese—are driven by the totalizing ideology and regime-preservation imperatives of the party-state. Given that Xi has explicitly stated the need to boost China’s “discourse power,” it is essential that targeted countries improve their understanding of what China is doing and build resilience within their societies, and Beijing’s Global Media Offensive lays out a helpful set of recommendations for doing so.
Recognizing the dilemma that China presents to free societies, Kurlantzick urges democracies to defend against China’s covert, coercive, and corrupting influence operations by quickly and dramatically expanding their knowledge about China’s aims and methods. He also encourages democracies to double down on calling more attention to what China is up to, especially in struggling democracies. This book provides an excellent starting point for these efforts, but the perpetually shifting landscape and Beijing’s adaptive capabilities mean that defensive approaches may not be enough. The idea of banning technologies and apps such as TikTok or setting up major trade barriers is understandably anathema to many citizens of democracies. Kurlantzick does not support the former but is more comfortable with the latter. In doing so, he favors “asymmetric” responses that leverage democratic values such as transparency and accountability—for example, through setting higher digital-security and privacy standards.
Leaning into democratic values can help to address some of Beijing’s tactics, but the aggressiveness of the CCP regime is pushing free societies to expand their definition of “defensive” policy tools. This makes many policymakers uneasy, as has been obvious in the TikTok debate as well as the back-and-forth over how to deal with Confucius Institutes and Chinese students and scholars more broadly, how to block harmful CCP influence activities without impinging on legitimate political participation, and how to treat Chinese “journalists” from state-run media outlets who are thinly veiled agents of the party-state while preserving Western journalists’ access to China.
In democratic societies, especially those with histories of anti-Chinese racism, managing these trade-offs through policymaking is like walking through a minefield in clown shoes. Witness how the House Select Committee on China has already faced charges of hysteria and racism, including from its own membership. Democratic values can limit the range of policy responses available to thwart Chinese sharp power. Beijing takes advantage of that and then works assiduously to shrink the number of policy options even further and stir discord over those that remain.
As Beijing’s Global Media Offensive shows, democracies must consider conflicting views and competing imperatives when confronting the CCP’s unrelenting efforts to manipulate the media and public opinion in their own and other countries. Balancing the values of free societies and the need to push back a determined and well-resourced adversary is difficult, but it will get easier with practice. Unfortunately, democracies will continue to have plenty of opportunities to hone their balancing acts. No matter how hard, democratic societies must continually add to their knowledge base and sharpen their skillsets so that they can defend against ongoing CCP innovations. Kurlantzick’s book should help policymakers in open societies to recognize when and where Beijing is attempting to meddle so that they can stop it with minimal damage, especially to their core values and principles.
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy