BOOK REVIEW: Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World
By Joshua Kurlantzick. Oxford University Press. Hard cover, 560pp with notes and index, US$29.95.
By: Benjamin Blythe
In Joshua Kurlantzick’s book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, he argues that while China has not succeeded in influencing media abroad to achieve its foreign policy goals in all aspects, both policymakers and ordinary people across the world should recognize “that Beijing will surely improve – a great deal, and rapidly” in both its influence and information strategies.
Kurlantzick’s book outlines how China’s tools for shaping overseas perceptions and reinforcing China’s broader foreign policy goals have been implemented in the past. He also suggests how other countries should respond to China’s rising challenge to international media freedom. His discussion of China’s various tactics to influence overseas media can be generally separated into “soft” and “sharp” power. He argues that the latter has been increasingly prominent in recent years.
While soft power is open cultural, economic, and academic engagement with other nations, sharp power is covert manipulation of other countries’ institutions to shape, and often distract, states’ foreign policy preferences. Kurlantzick argues that while China throughout the 1990s and 2000s favored a “charm offensive” of soft power, Xi Jinping and officials under his administrations have increasingly combined soft and sharp power tools to influence foreign perceptions of China. The global scope of these tools contradicts Chinese leaders’ claims that their foreign policy interests are narrowly focused on China’s own internal state security.
The book lays out numerous examples of the tactics Chinese leaders use to influence foreign countries’ leaders and citizens around the world, with focuses on Southeast Asia and developed Western and Asian democracies. His analysis relies on both personal experience as an international journalist, as well as a wide range of contemporary news reports from across the world. Through a variety of case studies of interventions by Chinese actors, he reveals the mixed outcomes of these tactics over time, geography, and political systems. Chinese media companies with either state ownership, such as CGTN and Xinhua, or heavy state involvement set up bureaus abroad and share content with their international counterparts to spread pro-China sentiment or distract from domestic controversies such as those in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet.
Beyond these explicit publications, Chinese media and telecommunications companies slip misleading stories “through the back door” of foreign outlets, which are published without attribution to Chinese state actors. These companies also support the spread of physical and digital telecommunications infrastructure susceptible to Chinese government oversight and censorship. However, these soft and sharp tactics are much more effective in countries with leaders and media institutions already susceptible to authoritarian tendencies, such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Despite the global decline in democracy, developed democratic states have proven to be more resilient to China’s media manipulation methods, with many countries like Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly the United States introducing policies to counter China’s tactics.
Beijing’s Global Media Offensive serves both as an overview of China’s international media impact and as a warning to policymakers and journalists of China’s rising capability to shape global narratives. This warning is especially applicable given that Russia has muddied the water in the international perception of its invasion of Ukraine and China is increasingly emulating the Russian media model. So far, misinformation spread by Chinese outlets has mostly either highlighted China’s geoeconomic impact abroad or downplayed domestic crises. The increasing technological sophistication of China’s telecommunication firms will not only increase the Chinese government’s capability to achieve these goals, but also potentially draw other nations into China’s orbit if conflicts over China’s territorial claims arise. As Kurlantzick notes, Western policymakers should be aware of the variety of methods for coercion China uses and tailor their own soft power tools to respond to Chinese attempts to shape the narratives on key regional and global issues.
Given the complexity of China’s global reach and the blurred lines between state and non-state actors, Kurlantzick provides an excellent analysis of the methods and motivations behind China’s overseas influence for both new and experienced China-watchers. His book weaves broader trends in Chinese media influence campaigns with key examples of Chinese intervention into foreign media. As a result, readers will walk away with both a wider perspective on China’s overall international media strategy, as well as what motivations drove actors both in China and abroad in specific cases of Chinese intervention into the global flow of information. In his recommendations for a path forward, Kurlantzick also considers the scope of China’s influence campaigns and takes into account how the United States and other developed democracies should distinguish between soft and sharp power programs in their responses. While the primary audience for this book seems to be Americans, citizens in other countries susceptible to Chinese influence across the world would benefit from understanding how and why Chinese actors use media institutions to shape the narrative on key global issues.
Benjamin Blythe is a graduate student at Indiana University's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies