Opinion | Civil Rights

How the US government can counter China's growing media influence

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The Chinese state media advertorial supplement "China Watch" runs regularly in major U.S. newspapers, and a 2018 supplement in the Des Moines Register took a particularly politicized tone on the U.S.-China trade war.

Chinese Americans have seen posts on Chinese firm Tencent's WeChat social media platform silenced in group conversations, including when the messages touched on local Asian American political issues.  

And Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) dominates the Chinese-language cable landscape in the United States, relative to the Taiwanese station ETTV and the US-based NTDTV, despite the latter's online popularity and reports of behind-the-scenes Chinese pressure on U.S. cable companies to keep it off the air.

These are a few examples of the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is affecting news that Americans consume and share in the United States, noted a Freedom House report released this week on the implications for democracy of China's global media influence. 

The CCP has developed the world's most multilayered and sophisticated apparatus of media control at home. Over the past decade, it also has vastly expanded its ability to influence media reporting, content dissemination, public debate and, in some cases, electoral politics outside China. Where the potential for undermining press freedom has not been activated, the groundwork is being laid for future influence, if Beijing decides to deploy it.

The expansion of the CCP's foreign media influence is a global campaign, and the United States is among its targets. The results already have affected the news consumption of millions of Americans. Moreover, the varied and aggressive ways in which the CCP seeks to influence media narratives abroad undermine democratic governance and electoral competition in other countries, such as Taiwan. The cumulative effects of these efforts, if unchecked, could have far-reaching implications for democratic governance, press freedom and U.S. influence worldwide.

Actions by American policymakers and media development donors will play a critical role in coming years to counter the potential negative impact of Beijing's media influence campaigns. There are several steps that Congress, the Trump administration and other U.S. governmental bodies can take:

Increase transparency. Take action to enhance publicly available information about Chinese media influence activities in the United States. This should include increased reporting requirements for spending on paid advertorials, ownership structures and other economic ties to Chinese government actors. The Department of Justice (DOJ) should expand its recent requests to CGTN and Xinhua news to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to other state media or linked outlets, especially CCTV.

Sanction Chinese diplomats. The Department of State should sanction diplomats and security agents when they overstep their bounds and attempt to interfere with media reporting and operations by independent news outlets in the United States, including pressuring businesses to withdraw advertising from critical media and threatening repercussions for the families in China of Chinese American, Uighur or Tibetan journalists. U.S. officials should protest such incidents, conveying that such behavior may violate diplomatic protocols.

Scrutinize censorship and surveillance. Congress should look closely at Tencent's apparent censorship of Americans' communications on WeChat. In recent months, evidence has emerged of WeChat censors silencing conversations among Chinese Americans about domestic U.S. policy and capturing for "review" messages sent in the United States that include sensitive trigger keywords such as "Tiananmen" and "Communist Party." Congress should hold hearings to better understand the scope, nature and impact of politicized censorship and surveillance, and explore avenues for pressuring Tencent to uphold the rights to free expression and privacy of users within the United States jurisdiction.

Support independent Chinese-language media. U.S. grant-making entities and other agencies should support media that offer an alternative to Chinese state media for Chinese Americans. Media development funders should include exile and diaspora media in funding, training and other assistance opportunities for Chinese-language media, including for responding to cyber attacks. U.S. government officials should proactively engage with such media, providing interviews, while resisting pressure from Chinese diplomats to marginalize them. The FCC should investigate whether any unfair practices underpin CCTV's dominance.

Having an economically powerful authoritarian-led state rapidly expand its influence over media production and dissemination channels in other countries, including the United States, is a relatively new phenomenon. The current impact of Chinese media influence operations on democratic institutions and practice remains relatively limited, although it disproportionately affects diaspora communities. Nevertheless, the sheer scale, economic clout and expanding network of relationships involved highlights the CCP's enhanced ability to interfere aggressively in American life and politics, should it choose to do so.

Yet, the ability of the CCP to achieve its desired goals through its foreign media influence campaigns remains contested. Critical reporting about Chinese government actions within and outside of China appears with regularity in mainstream U.S. media, reaching large audiences. A number of independent Chinese-language media and websites, which offer Chinese Americans an alternative to state propaganda, have become more professionalized and influential in recent years. By adopting and implementing the above recommendations, U.S. policymakers can build on these strengths to uphold democratic principles, human rights and press freedom.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, director of its China Media Bulletin, and author of "The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How Communist Party Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets Based Outside China." Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_G_Cook.

Annie Boyajian is director of advocacy at Freedom House and a former legislative director on Capitol Hill. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieBoyajian.

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