Responding to China’s New Tools of Global Influence

April 1, 2020

On March 12, 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian penned a tweet that soon went viral:


Retweeted and liked thousands of times, the tweet was a glaring example of Zhao’s efforts to promote conspiracy theories shifting blame for the novel coronavirus outbreak away from China. And he didn’t stop there, even after the State Department summoned the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, to complain.

Ten years ago, Zhao was but a first secretary covering South Asian issues at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. By mid-decade, he had moved on to Pakistan, elevated to second in command at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. From that perch Zhao honed his social media skills, using Twitter to lash out at online critics of the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. No Chinese official had ever attempted a similar feat in the social media era. It quickly became clear that Zhao’s antics constituted a new Chinese propaganda experiment. This experiment took a global turn in the summer of 2019, when Zhao picked Twitter fights with the BBC and with former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Zhao’s elevation to foreign ministry spokesperson in the summer of 2019 indicates that some in Beijing believed that the experiment was a success.



Yet Zhao is a tiny piece in a wider web of Chinese policies intended to extend Beijing’s worldwide influence. The United States needs a smart response to Zhao’s provocations as well as China’s other initiatives. That response should be asymmetric, in that it should play to America’s own advantages rather than competing on Chinese terms. Equally important, Washington needs to calibrate its messages to other societies in ways that demonstrate an understanding of their interests and aspirations, rather than framing its outreach solely in terms of a U.S.-China competition.

China’s New Tools of Global Influence

In its campaign to assert a greater global influence, Beijing is testing out a variety of new tools of leverage, as well as vehicles and platforms for asserting and amplifying its preferred version of reality. In China’s Western Horizon, I assess the full range of these initiatives and their connections to other Chinese moves in the realms of economic statecraft and overseas security. In this article, I will focus on several other features specifically related to messaging and public diplomacy.

These start with the grand Belt and Road Initiative, which has spawned a vast array of bilateral and regional ventures as well as numerous multilateral summits. President Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013, declaring China’s grand mission to build a “New Silk Road Economic Belt” to knit together continental Eurasia. Subsequent speeches and reports have extended the initiative’s reach into new maritime, Arctic, and digital realms. Aside from any economic, commercial, or development agenda advanced by the Belt and Road Initiative is the public-relations value of casting Beijing in a new light: as a benign, even generous, global power.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative Forums — in which heads of state and other global leaders convened in Beijing to discuss the trajectory of Chinese-assisted infrastructure and other investments in May 2017 and April 2019 — are not the only examples of its preference for increasingly showy global diplomacy. Other multilateral ventures, from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation demonstrate Beijing’s convening power and enhance its international stature.

In recent years, Beijing has established a plethora of lower-level international conferences as well as educational and cultural exchange programs (such as Tsinghua University’s World Peace Forum, or the 30,000 scholarships in China available to Central Asian students), which have brought many of the world’s leading experts, officials, and students to China. There they are usually exposed to — and suitably impressed by — Beijing’s imperially-scaled architecture and institutions. Sometimes they are also treated to a more targeted form of propaganda, such as a visit to the “Hui Culture Park” in the northwest city of Yinchuan. There, visitors experience a sanitized, theme-park depiction of Muslim life in China as part of Beijing’s official attempt to build a “Sino-Arab cultural bridge.”

Outside China, Confucius Institutes have only recently attracted greater scrutiny for the potential threat they pose to academic independence and free speech on university campuses. These Chinese-funded institutes, ostensibly intended to offer Chinese language and cultural education, have in some instances ceded authority over curriculum and staff to Chinese officials through agreements that “feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”

Well-endowed schools in liberal societies like the United States or Australia usually have the luxury of circumscribing the reach of such institutions if they choose. Elsewhere, however, Chinese officials have translated financial contributions into pressure aimed at shutting down discussions of uncomfortable topics like Tibet or Xinjiang. Beijing is also attempting to use hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who attend overseas universities as instruments of influence and propaganda by pressuring them and their families through organizations like the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.

China’s official global media operations operate under the umbrella of “Voice of China” and include television and radio platforms. According to China’s official news agency, these platforms are intended to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication and tell good China stories.” Their propaganda mission is thus transparent.

All of these Chinese efforts at global influence are combined with pressure in multilateral settings intended to silence criticism of Beijing’s actions on Tibet, Xinjiang, or Hong Kong, or to preclude diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Together, they appear to be part of what analyst Nadège Rolland  describes in a recent report as Beijing’s effort to build “discourse power” and “to alter the norms that underpin existing institutions and put in place the building blocks of a new international system coveted by the Chinese Communist Party.” The question is how the United States should respond.

Washington’s Response Has Played to Beijing’s Advantages

As part of the response to China’s global influence efforts, U.S. President Donald Trump has engaged in a tit-for-tat escalation with Beijing over reciprocal media access. As early as February 2019, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that Chinese media outlets should register as foreign agents, given that they could hardly engage in free or independent journalism. A year later, the Trump administration announced that it would treat official Chinese media as “foreign missions” akin to embassies, rather than regular news outlets.

For its part, Beijing has never been an easy place for Western journalists, and the state has steadily clamped down in recent years. In February 2020, Beijing took the unusual step of revoking the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters, likely in response to the Trump administration’s prior moves. A month later, Washington upped the ante by ordering China’s state-run media to cut 60 of its 160 U.S.-based personnel. Spokesperson Zhao characterized the action as “political oppression on Chinese media agencies in the U.S.” The most recent salvo in the exchange came in mid-March, when Beijing revoked the press credentials for U.S. journalists working in China for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times, shuttering the operations of America’s top three newspapers.

However well-intended the Trump administration’s crackdown on purveyors of Chinese propaganda may have been at the outset, for now it appears to have backfired. Only Beijing wins from a game of escalating media repression. In retrospect, it would have been better for the United States to live with Chinese propaganda and to train its attention on exposing state-sponsored bias (as well as any more nefarious activities by Chinese staff) than to deliver an illiberal regime new causes or justifications for its own crackdown on free speech and reporting. Unfortunately, America has repeated this pattern of playing to Beijing’s advantage — or stooping to its level —across various fronts in its competition with China.

Washington’s first goal should be to establish itself as a “trusted brand” rather than just another voice. Fair-minded observers in friendly, liberal nations should not have to struggle to discern whether American or Chinese leaders are more likely to stick to objective truth-telling, as has too often been the case during Trump’s tenure. Doubts on that score undermine the U.S. position at every turn. Although sophisticated disinformation and propaganda campaigns can be extremely powerful, the United States has no comparative advantage over its illiberal adversaries in deploying such tools. Conversely, an abiding commitment by American leaders to facts, greater transparency, and the defense of free media would pay dividends over time in ways that CCP leaders in Beijing — or illiberal actors elsewhere — will never even attempt to match. The United States government should stand firmly with the newspapers that have been expelled from China and should champion their own efforts to force a rethink in Beijing. Yet this is only a narrow slice of the wider campaign for media freedom that should also be central to America’s global competition with China.

Washington’s second main goal should be to keep the door propped open for high-quality journalism and free speech around the world, and to maintain and expand platforms by which news can be reported even in undemocratic societies. The United States should be perceived as a committed partner to overseas and foreign journalists who are natural and essential allies in exposing the costs of illiberal and authoritarian rule. As other analysts have pointed out, this project is harder than it was even just a few decades ago. We have witnessed backsliding among democracies while illiberal states have armed themselves with new tools of repression.

In this context, it will not be enough for Washington to criticize Beijing on its handling of American journalists or call out China’s (or Russia’s) disinformation campaigns. The United States should also work to enable high-quality journalism by foreign media outlets. In places where American media training and education are still possible, the United States should redouble its efforts to make them accessible. In locations where journalists face technical barriers to their work imposed by illiberal regimes, the United States should partner with software and other technology providers to deliver safe workarounds. Washington should also make its high-quality scholarship available to academics throughout the world, partnering with American universities to enable free and anonymous access to libraries and databases for scholars who are now limited by financial or political obstacles. These are all areas where the United States enjoys a built-in competitive advantage over China that it should exploit.

Even as China extends the reach of its global messaging, a louder and more aggressive tone — like Zhao’s — will not necessarily prove effective with overseas audiences. To the contrary, it may alienate them. To appease American audiences incensed by Zhao, Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai assumed a “good cop” role and called such conspiracy theories “crazy.” However, Beijing is not merely banking on the popularity of its appeals. It has also shown a willingness to work with illiberal partners to shut down competing voices. American officials have attempted to warn foreign audiences of this threat. But that effort is likely to gain greater traction if it comes from local voices, for instance by way of foreign journalists who are empowered — some with American help — to investigate, unmask, and publicize instances of bribery, repression, and coercion.

Competing with China Means Understanding Local Audiences

The United States should focus greater attention on understanding local audiences and discussing issues that matter to them on their own terms. American policymakers should never lose sight of the fact that most societies around the world, even America’s traditional friends and allies, do not care deeply about the U.S.-China competition per se. They have their own interests and aspirations. Too many Americans seem unaware of the extent to which other societies no longer ascribe any singular virtue to the United States. The American “brand” has been severely tarnished over the past two decades, especially in the Muslim world, but elsewhere as well.

The policy implication is clear: in order to compete with China for global influence, the United States needs to offer realistic and appealing solutions to the practical problems faced by other nations. Where possible, Washington should offer a positive agenda rather than framing its outreach to other states in a zero-sum, “with us or against us” context. Not everything that China offers, such as major infrastructure investments associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, needs to be undercut or denigrated. For its part, China has often piggybacked on multilateral development initiatives, such as the Asian Development Bank’s Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation program, to advance its own agenda on regional economic integration. In instances where Washington aims to build credibility with local audiences through economic development schemes, U.S. officials should seek similar opportunities, even to the extent of building on Chinese projects in ways that serve local needs while demonstrating American goodwill and technical capacity.

Beijing enjoys certain advantages in its ability to direct massive amounts of capital to development and infrastructure projects overseas. In Pakistan, for instance, Beijing has delivered roughly $19 billion in new infrastructure over the past five years. Once again, America’s aim should not be to compete dollar for dollar on China’s terms. Washington should trust that a combination of U.S. Agency for International Development grants and the American private sector, backed by the new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, alongside multilateral lenders like the World Bank and allies like Japan, will make more effective and sustainable investments over the long run. Any additional investment in these areas should be driven by the expectation that it will foster economic development, not a blind competition with Chinese projects.

In addition to infrastructure or other material investments overseas, Washington should place greater emphasis on areas where it enjoys a competitive advantage, such as investments in human capital: healthcare, education, and job opportunities. These can also pay huge dividends in promoting economic development in other societies. As a part of this effort, the United States should make its universities and high-tech industries more accessible to international scholars and experts, and their families, by easing visa restrictions rather than tightening them, and subsidizing educational exchanges, especially for non-Chinese students.

Competing Amidst a Pandemic

The U.S.-China competition for global influence has continued amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, it seems that scuffles over the naming of the virus have so far attracted greater attention than the more meaningful issue of how China is leveraging its new tools of global influence to portray itself as a benevolent and capable world leader. Perhaps, as analysts like Rush Doshi and Kurt Campbell or Mira Rapp-Hooper have argued, this may be remembered as the moment that China recast the international order and displaced the United States from its traditional place of dominance.

China clearly has a head start in responding to COVID-19, and is looking for ways to exploit its advantage. If the United States is to have any chance in this global competition for influence, it will need — among other steps — to redouble its own commitment to the defense of high-quality journalism and free speech. And that effort will need to grapple with China’s new tools of influence that include but are not limited to Zhao Lijian or Beijing’s expulsion of Western journalists.

In addition, the United States should work together with its allies and partners to offer effective and sustainable solutions to practical challenges felt around the world. From Italy to Islamabad, local audiences care far less about where the virus started (or what it is named) than about where they can secure vital resources like masks and ventilators. In time, they will undoubtedly require assistance in their own economic recovery efforts. For poor and developing states, the novel coronavirus is merely the latest in a steady stream of crises they are woefully ill-prepared to meet on their own.

The United States should show itself a leader in all of these efforts. All along the way, U.S. leaders should also remember to play to America’s strengths rather than stooping to China’s level.



Daniel Markey is the author of China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is also a senior research professor in international relations and the academic director of the Master of Arts in Global Policy program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Image: Russian Kremlin