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China exploited pandemic to promote global image, peddled disinformation

News Agencies | Updated on: 13 May 2021, 12:35 IST

The coronavirus pandemic has become an opportunity for Communist China to promote its image in world media coverage, reveals a recently released research study.

The international news reporting of China throughout the past year has become more positive across the globe, it says. In some countries, China was seen as the source of the most accurate information about the coronavirus.

The study gathered data from 50 countries and reported more than half of all countries coverage of China in their national media had been more positive since the start of the pandemic. More than three-quarters, 76 per cent reported that China had a visible presence in their media, up from 64 per cent the previous year.

Analysing how China's state media have helped push Beijing's image around the world during the pandemic, the report states that in 2020, amid geopolitical tensions and international border closures, China banned foreign journalists. This measure effectively increased the global media's reliance on China's state-controlled outlets for content. "In this way, the information landscape is slowly being massaged in a direction more positive towards Beijing," observed the report.

The report released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a Brussels-based umbrella of media unions, exposed the Chinese tactics of effective information strategy that increased positive coverage of the country.

"Beijing's tactics have been quite successful," said Lim, the lead author, a former BBC and NPR China correspondent. "Overall there has been a shift over the last decade from defensive and reactive tactics to a far more assertive and proactive strategy, using content-sharing agreements, journalistic tours to China and memoranda of understanding with international journalism outlets or unions."

For many years, China has been complaining about its lack of what they called "discourse power". This led to a rapid expansion of Chinese media presence around the globe in the last decade. Under Xi Jinping leadership, Beijing has been encouraging Chinese media to "tell the China story well". It insists that Beijing's viewpoint deserves to be heard. However, Chinese sceptics are concerned that the world's media are becoming too gullible of China.

Describing the country's media strategy, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said recently that as the world's most populous nation, its voice deserved to be heard, even though it might differ from that of the west.

"The world is inherently rich and pluralistic and in the field of media there should not just be the CNN and the BBC, every country should have their own voice," she said, adding that China had an obligation to "tell the facts and truths of issues such as COVID-19. This is the genuinely responsible attitude of a responsible country."

However, such an effort to tell the China story from Beijing's perspective has not been without controversy. "Since COVID, we can see how Beijing has activated this information infrastructure to spread its own narrative, bolstered by state-backed disinformation campaigns and medical diplomacy," said Lim.

Others have made similar observations. In March, a BBC Radio 4 documentary alleged that China had been using disinformation tactics and "wolf-warrior diplomacy" to spin the message to its favour.

The IFJ report also says China has appeared to be taking a more interventionist approach, with almost one in five countries reporting that the Chinese embassy or ambassador in their country frequently comments on local media coverage of China.

The role of Chinese diplomats has been particularly curious to researchers of late. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese diplomats and state-media journalists have become increasingly active on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, even though these platforms are banned in mainland China.

A separate report published by the Oxford Internet Institute recently says this phenomenon is a part of China's efforts to shape public opinion in foreign countries. The report found that China's rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of suspicious accounts often nearly identical, created in batches and showing strong signs of coordination that covertly amplify Beijing's viewpoints.

How effective these efforts are in shaping public perceptions about China is hard for researchers to comprehend because China's quest to tell its story and the global battle for narratives do not reflect a change in perceptions.


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First published: 13 May 2021, 12:35 IST