A small news website in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A popular South African digital media platform. A Spanish language newswire service. Over the past year, all three far-flung news organizations have run similar stories claiming that a U.S.-run lab had created covid-19 or, more recently, articles that said the U.S. was operating a secret bioweapons program in Ukraine.
That these theories have also been simultaneously promoted by Chinese government officials is no coincidence — all three of those media outlets have ties to the Chinese government.
Over the past couple of decades, China has built an international media empire: opening state media bureaus overseas, investing in foreign media companies and forging partnerships with others. It’s part of a broader campaign to build its global influence, especially in developing countries, as laid out in a recent report from the Atlantic Council.
“We see a lot about China’s financing and economic investment in these regions, but that’s only one side of the story of Chinese influence,” said Kenton Thibaut, a resident China fellow at the Atlantic Council and one of the report’s authors. China’s use of global media outlets and other forms of soft power to spread its views, Thibaut said, is underappreciated.
Over the past two years, China has put its international media network to work shaping public opinion on covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and its foreign policies and image more broadly. In many parts of the world, China is competing against more well-established European, American and local outlets, but Chinese media has already become a dominant news source in several countries.
That has raised red flags on many fronts. Recent examples of Chinese state media “reporting” for global audiences have been thinly veiled expressions of official Chinese policies regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong and other controversial areas. Other examples have involved blatant cases of misinformation — vis-à-vis Ukraine and the pandemic in particular. There are also concerns that China, which is ranked in the bottom 10 countries for press freedom, is spreading its restrictive approach to journalism.
“If Chinese media is going to gain some form of hegemony in Africa, it will have negative consequences for freedom of information and democracy in Africa,” said Emeka Umejei, a lecturer in communications at the University of Ghana.
The messages: What Chinese-backed media is saying
One side of China’s overseas media campaign is purely promotional. Chinese media outlets and their local partners around the world often highlight the successes of China’s diplomats and the latest megaprojects in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s high-profile global infrastructure campaign. Readers of China Daily Africa, for example, might find these stories: “Ghana’s students enjoy benefits of Chinese language”; “Marathon staged on Chinese-built expressway, reviving Kenyans’ hope for economic vitality”; and “Liberian official hails China for helping vulnerable groups.” Such articles are a staple of the Chinese approach, blended in with more typical examples of global news stories.
After the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan, Chinese media outlets around the world also played a prominent role as China sought to restore its global image, touting its response to the crisis. Coverage during this period included stories about China’s donation of critical medical equipment to poorer nations. For readers of Xinhua Español in Latin America, there were stories about China’s largesse in sharing its vaccines: “Sinovac supplies 260 million COVID-19 vaccines globally,” one headline read.
Another side of China’s global coverage veers from these promotional, PR-style stories to cases of flat-out misinformation. After the March 2021 release of a World Health Organization report on covid’s origins, China made a concerted effort to spread a false narrative. The Atlantic Council documented how China-backed media outlets in multiple countries helped push the theory that covid had originated from Fort Detrick, a U.S. military base in Maryland.
Independent Online (IOL), a partially Chinese-owned South African outlet, joined the chorus. In September 2021, the publication’s foreign editor wrote an op-ed that repeated messaging from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “China has made a request for the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick,” she wrote. “Given the many questions that still exist around the origins of Covid-19, such investigations are imperative in order to make proper and accurate findings.” In a tactic the Atlantic Council’s Thibaut described as “information laundering,” the Chinese Embassy in South Africa and Chinese media then used the editor’s piece to amplify its own point. The headline in China’s People’s Daily read, “Investigation of US labs necessary for COVID-19 origins tracing: S. African media.”
“It’s using this veneer of local reporting to pretend that there’s this preponderance of evidence for China’s conspiracy when it’s really all coming from Chinese media,” Thibaut told Grid.
Similar articles appeared in many outlets across the world, and the theory also ricocheted on social media. In one instance, a Chinese diplomat in Iran translated a People’s Daily article on the topic into Persian and shared it on Twitter.
“Normally they aren’t huge peddlers of conspiracy theories, they mostly focus on positive messages of China, preventing criticism and criticizing geopolitical rivals,” said Thibaut. “They’re usually not like, as Russia is, these active disseminators of disinformation. But this was in response to a crisis where they saw they really had to try to move public opinion quickly and really diffuse the issue quickly.”
The Ukraine war has been another case in point. China has backed the Kremlin line on the war in its own state media around the world, including the repetition of clearly false narratives about the conflict.
In late March, a South African student leader penned an op-ed in IOL titled, “We should all be concerned about U.S. biolabs in Ukraine.” The piece echoed Russian and Chinese government talking points, falsely accusing the U.S. of running bioweapons labs in Ukraine. “Over the years, there have been deadly leaks linked to US military biolabs in Ukraine, South Korea, Kazakhstan and Georgia,” the article said. “All this seems to indicate an aggressive ‘biological appetite’ from the US and the development of bio-weaponry.” Once again, it wasn’t just that the article appeared in a media outlet backed by China; Chinese media took the additional step of “information laundering” — using the story to create the illusion of global support for the theory. On April 1, Chinese news agency Xinhua ran an article citing the original essay under the heading: “U.S. biolabs in Ukraine raise worldwide concerns: S. African youth leader.”
Recently, Dani Madrid-Morales, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield, identified several other cases in which China spread this misinformation. In April, Interfax, a Russian media outlet, published an article stating that Ukraine had tried to hide a U.S.-funded military biolab program. The Chinese news agency Xinhua translated that piece into French, and it appeared word for word on a small news website in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Chinese misinformation that targets the West may hold more appeal in the Global South. Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University, said recently that “a lot of these countries, including their leaders and publics, have preexisting skepticism toward the West and preexisting critiques of kind of this positioning of this war as this good vs. evil. They take a stance where they also critique the United States and its own unaccountable wars, and as a result, they may echo some of these Chinese messages.”
How China spreads the word
China’s overseas media push began several decades ago as an accessory to its booming international business deals. It is only recently, since the ascension of Xi Jinping as president in 2012, that these efforts have taken on a more aggressively political flavor.
In 2013, Xi said in a speech, “[We] must meticulously and properly conduct external propaganda, innovating external propaganda methods, working hard to create new concepts, new categories and new expressions that integrate the Chinese and the foreign, telling China’s story well, communicating China’s voice well.”
China has set out to “tell its story well” in several ways.
One method simply involves setting up shop overseas. As other global news organizations have downsized, China’s biggest state-owned media companies have established bureaus and hired correspondents all over the world. Xinhua, for instance, set up an Africa bureau in Nairobi in 2004, and CCTV (now CGTN) followed suit in 2012. These outlets and other state media radio stations and newspapers publish in dozens of languages worldwide.
Other methods have been more innovative. StarTimes, a Chinese television company, provides cheap cable TV packages in Africa that come with Chinese state-run TV channels. Their service now reaches more than 10 million customers across 30 African countries. Influence has also been purchased: In 2012, Chinese state-owned companies bought a 20 percent stake in IOL, the South African media platform that has since published several pieces toeing the Chinese party line — including the Fort Detrick theory. Researchers at Freedom House also found that GBTimes, a Chinese news organization, has acquired stakes in radio stations in Europe through which it spreads pro-China content.
These acquisitions are representative of what the government describes as “borrowing a boat out to sea” — in other words, China using established local media organizations to disseminate its messages. Another version of the practice involves Chinese state media allowing local publications to republish their content for a steep discount — or even for free. Xinhua has led the way: Its articles are syndicated throughout the world, including via the African News Agency. That’s how a small newspaper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to publish a story on the supposed U.S. bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Chinese outlets also piggyback on local media by buying ad inserts that blend in with the local content.
China isn’t alone in establishing a worldwide media presence. Russia famously spreads state messages — and disinformation. Under a different umbrella — to support democracy and freedom of the press — Western countries have long backed media development initiatives in foreign countries along with funding their own media outlets such as Voice of America, which are editorially independent by charter. But China is unique. “I don’t think you can find any country that has this breadth of activities and diversity” that China does, said Madrid-Morales. The range of activities, he added, from media trainings for foreign journalists to content production abroad, hasn’t been seen since the Cold War.
Who is reading?
Of course, China’s global media push — no matter its scope — is influential only if it can find an audience.
Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman, a professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, have observed a range of responses to Chinese-sponsored media in Africa. Some South African and Kenyan students they interviewed were glad to see more positive coverage of the continent compared with Western coverage, which many feel has a negative bias. But the researchers say they’ve seen limited uptake. Just 2 percent of South Africans and Kenyans tune into China Radio International and read the China Daily Africa edition, they found.
“There’s a stigma and the fact that [they are] so heavily censored … you just think to yourself: ‘It’s biased reporting, I’m going somewhere else,’” one student at the University of Cape Town told the researchers, echoing a sentiment held by others.
In some parts of the world, Chinese media has made significant inroads. Madrid-Morales found that Xinhua was responsible for more than 80 percent of the newswire content on covid-19 and China in Congo and 80 percent in Sierra Leone. In the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, his research showed that 75 percent of the coverage in the Ugandan magazine the Independent was from Xinhua, likely because the free content was appealing for a publication with a tight budget.
Readers of the publication have seen the war through the lens of the Chinese government, which has tacitly supported Russia. They would have read about the financial consequences of the war — which are blamed on Western sanctions — but not the death, crimes or the flow of refugees, which are all due to the Russian invasion. “None of that appears in this coverage,” he said in a recent lecture.
It is through these content partnerships, where republication of Chinese sources often goes unlabeled, that Umejie believes China is gaining the most traction. “There’s some level of acceptance happening here, because they are not coming through a Chinese platform,” he said. “Most likely, they’re coming through a local platform.” This was true in Nigeria and Ghana, he said, which have partnerships with Xinhua.
Researchers worry that poorer countries, which are less able to support independent journalism, and those that already have a restricted media space due to authoritarian regimes, may be the most susceptible to China’s media influence.
And China’s global media ambitions are growing. “If you look at this longitudinally, definitely, China has made huge progress over the last 10 years, from being a marginal actor in the media space to being part of the media space — in some countries, a very small presence; in some countries, a larger presence,” said Madrid-Morales. “So in that sense, there is progress, and if we look at the future, that presence is likely to grow.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.