The CCP lie machine is everywhere, but luckily it’s also quite bad. For now, at least
Little ties together Facebook’s most followed pages, which include celebrities and soccer teams, corporate accounts, and mobile games. But among the news pages, the pattern is clear: all are in English and all, save BBC News, are the property of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The CCP’s emergence as Facebook’s preeminent news source is the culmination of a half-century of experimentation, expansion, and investment in international propaganda. But the follower counts bely a faltering propaganda effort. Despite success in co-opting native news sources in Taiwan, the CCP has struggled to adapt its messaging to the demands of Western social networks — all banned in China — resulting in an impact far inferior to that of peers and even dissident groups.
As China began to liberalize and open up to the world under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the state looked to follow the United States and the Soviet Union in asserting global influence. China Radio International (CRI), the CCP’s answer to Radio Free Asia, already broadcast in 12 languages by the time of Deng’s rise in 1978. In 1980, the Propaganda Department complemented CRI with an External Propaganda Group which launched China Daily, an English-language broadsheet, and today Facebook’s third most followed news page. In 1991, the CCP elevated the External Propaganda Group to an administrative office directly reporting to the cabinet, charged with promoting the Chinese view of events to the world, especially related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.
Two years later, China Daily launched the tabloid Global Times, now Facebook’s number two news page. China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcast monopoly, launched China Global Television Network (CGTN) in 1994, aimed at an international, English-speaking audience. The PLA codified the purpose of China’s burgeoning media empire in a 2003 document titled “Political Work Regulations.” The paper sought to provide China with a framework to achieve military objectives without the use of military force. Information warfare, or “public opinion warfare,” was key to this vision and soon found a testing ground in Taiwan.
Hierarchy of CCP International Propaganda
In 2000, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had ousted the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in presidential elections and in 2004 took the legislature. The DPP, in Beijing’s eyes, were radical separatists and a threat to Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. The CCP acquired a major stake in Want Want Media, one of Taiwan’s largest media conglomerates. The editors at Want Want properties began regular coordination with the CCP’s Taiwan Affairs Office. A relentless pro-KMT campaign helped the Nationalists sweep the elections in 2008.
Success in Taiwan, and global ambitions writ large, helped to convince Chinese leaders to redouble their efforts at international propaganda. In 2010, China devoted $6bn to expand its global media footprint. Global Times, the Information Office’s tabloid, launched an English-language that year and CGTN, the international broadcaster, launched Russian- and Arabic-language channels. By 2014, observers estimated China was spending $7bn-$10bn per year on international propaganda. The focus turned to Facebook, where no Chinese outlet surpassed one million followers as of early 2015. But by the middle of 2016, CGTN surpassed the BBC to become the most followed news page on Facebook. By the middle of 2018, China Daily, state broadsheet People’s Daily, and state newswire Xinhua each overtook the BBC, securing Facebook’s top four slots for the CCP. CCTV is on track to eclipse the BBC in the coming months.
Despite the platform Facebook has afforded the People’s Republic, and a significant investment, China has struggled to score wins beyond its immediate vicinity. The number of likes, comments, and shares (collectively called engagements) are far below expected for China’s follower count, suggesting either an inactive or uninterested audience. Chinese messaging is poorly adapted for global social networks, with no clear target audience and few of the traits required for viral content.
The contrast is most stark with Russia, whose international propaganda budget is a tenth of China’s. Russia mirrors China’s success on Facebook on YouTube, where RT is the platform’s most watched news network, and the Russian government among YouTube’s top publishers of any kind. Western social networks reward conspiracy and outrage, which permeates Russian domestic media and became a mainstay of international broadcasting. The most effective conspiracies cast the opposing side in the most apocalyptic terms, and RT has developed different brands for those different audiences: RT America for the far-Right, Watching the Hawks for the far-Left. The results were staggering: RT used its position atop YouTube to help usher personalities like Alex Jones and movements like the alt-Right into the American mainstream while landing an interview in 2016 from then-candidate Donald Trump.
But where Russia thrives in the modern information environment, China falters, inhibited by a bland and promotional tone and no clear target audience. Failing not only to replicate the success of near-peer competitors like Russia, China fails also in competition with far smaller rivals. Falun Gong, the dissident religious movement exiled from China, devotes $18m annually to its media venture — Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty (NTD) TV, a fraction of China’s $10bn international propaganda budget. But while China aims to reach as broad of an audience as possible with inoffensive content, Falun Gong crafts inflammatory and conspiratorial content geared towards the American far-Right. China can’t compete. In the four weeks following the 2020 US election, the Chinese government published 318 videos relating to the election, amassing 19.2 million views. Falun Gong published 25 YouTube videos peddling election fraud conspiracies, amassing 27.1 million views.
While swaying public opinion on the election was not a main focus of Chinese international propaganda in 2020, messaging also failed at its three main objectives: deflecting blame for Covid, minimizing the backlash to the mass detention of Uyghurs, and obfuscating over Chinese maneuvers in Hong Kong. Reactions in comments were overwhelmingly negative and, around the world, the bottom fell out from China’s reputation.
At a visit to state newswire Xinhua, President Xi Jinping declared, “[Media] must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics, and action.” In the digital age, the close alignment of Chinese messaging to the CCP party line has resulted in a halting effort to gain global influence. Despite its shortcomings, China’s information operations have clear wins. An analysis by The Economist found that the majority of China’s Facebook followers are in Africa, where China has invested massively in expanding its economic influence. Economic influence has translated to political influence in Taiwanese elections through the acquisition of native media outlets. China has the resources to adapt to the Russian and Falun Gong model — picking a side, or both sides, and pumping out conspiracies and vitriol. Past underperformance is no guarantee of future failure.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.