China’s PR battle
The China-backed COVID propaganda machine is beginning to unravel. For months the Chinese government has used COVID as a cover for its own failings and human rights abuses.
Chinese-backed sources have made out as if a lab origin of the virus was a conspiracy theory. Now the rhetoric has changed, and China is trying to pin the blame on American biological warfare.
With Chinese activities in a range of areas being reported unfavourably in the international media, China’s dictator Xi Jinping has instructed Chinese leaders to redouble their efforts in assuring that China asserts itself more effectively on the world stage and present a better public image.
The Chinese President said it was imperative for the Chinese government to strengthen its voice and status in light of recent public relations disasters, like the crude fake social media imagery China released attempting to frame an Australian soldier holding the knife to the throat of an Afghani girl.
The remarks, made by Mr Xi as he addressed a session of the ruling party’s 25-member politiburo recently, come at a time when China’s global image is being battered over human rights abuses at home, the heavy handed crackdowns in Hong Kong, bellicose actions off its coastline and criticisms of its sluggish response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the propaganda machine has become more forceful in recent years, Mr Xi said Beijing must build a more sophisticated “strategic communicative system with distinct Chinese characteristics” to manipulate global public opinion.
While China uses its state-run social media to control narratives, it faces challenges when interfacing with the freer press of the Western world.
With the right communication tools, China would have more friends and be seen around the world as “credible, lovable and respectable”, Mr Xi claimed, though critics have pointed out that this is wishful thinking as it means that China would have to lie about nearly everything.
The Chinese dictator said that the world must learn that the “Communist Party is truly striving for the wellbeing of the Chinese people, and understand why Marxism works, and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is good.”
The tough sell would be pursued in several ways: “We should better play the role of high-level experts, use important international conventions and forums, and make our voices heard through foreign mainstream media,” Xi said.
The Chinese Communist Party has long seen propaganda as crucial to its rule, and it spends billions each year on a vast network of lacklustre foreign-language channels. In recent years, Chinese diplomats were encouraged to set up accounts on Western social media – unavailable in China – to promote Beijing’s narrative, be it about the conditions in the Muslim region of Xinjiang, the takeover of Hong Kong or the origin of COVID-19.
China’s cyberwarfare arm has been trailing Russia in this space for years. China largely relies on denial of service style attacks onto foreign websites. Its social media agents are often ineffective, as their skill and narrative do not galvinise populist opinion unlike the operations being run by Moscow.
Chinese propaganda outlets have been widely exposed and panned for spreading misinformation, often with fake accounts, during the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests and later about the pandemic. Often in Western’s minds, Chinese news or information with a positive spin about China is readily associated with lying and is disbelieved by most of the relatively few Westerns who encounter this “fake news”.
China is actively supplying news by its state media to developing nations and even Western countries to try to change the narrative worldwide. However, with trusted sources like AAP, Reuters and so forth, China is over a century too late in the news market.
The CCP has also stepped up its wolf warrior diplomacy campaign against Western media over their “biased” reporting, in part by making life more difficult for foreign journalists, especially those working in China from Australia, the UK and the US. Charges of spying against Western journalists seem to elicit only sympathy in Western nations for these journalists.
As the CCP’s authoritarian ideology is increasingly in conflict with traditional Western values, Beijing sees world opinion as a battlefield where it must take command, as it has done at home, where all media are state-controlled. This makes its media out of place with the more emotional and cookie cutter narratives that Western audiences expect.
At the politburo meeting, Mr Xi praised the country’s past achievements in overseas propaganda. “We’ve effectively guided global opinion and conducted struggles in global opinion,” he said. “We’ve noticeably raised our voice and boosted our influence.”
In future, Beijing should customise its approach to different regions, nations and audiences, he said. “We must pay attention to have the right tone. We are not only open, confident but also humble and modest. We strive to build a Chinese image that is credible, lovable and respectable.”
China has failed in its PR on numerous occasions. One example was where Western media and governments accused China of genocide against their Muslim Uighur population. In response, a regional government power in China organised a Zoom session featuring numerous testimonials from Uighurs in Xinjiang. The result was complete contempt and disbelief from Western audiences. China’s messaging completely backfired.
Thus with the recent reversals in the West regarding the Chinese origins of COVID-19, China is now scrambling to hide the truth that the virus was manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory. The only question that now remains that China desperately does not want to answer is whether the virus was deliberately released.