It has been a difficult year for many Western democracies — and China is rubbing it in. As Donald J. Trump rose in the Republican primaries, the state-run Xinhua news agency gleefully described the United States presidential election as “an entertaining drama that illustrates the malfunction of the self-claimed world standard of democracy.” Another Xinhua article exploited the leak of Democratic Party emails to reassert that “money politics has become an incurable disease of the American electoral system.”
America’s democracy is not the only target. China’s state media also came out swinging after the British vote to leave the European Union. An article in Global Times put it bluntly: “Brexit lays bare Western democracy’s facade.”
At a time when the West is struggling with the shortcomings of the democratic process, China is seizing the opportunity to promote its own system. Much more so than his immediate predecessors, President Xi Jinping views his country in an ideological competition with the West. No longer content with stopping the influence of democratic ideas at China’s borders, Chinese propaganda experts have decided they need to focus on making China’s political system attractive abroad if the Communist Party wants to stay in power.
Backed by an estimated annual budget of $10 billion, Chinese media organizations are expanding their global presence, heeding Mr. Xi’s call to media organizations to “tell China’s story well.” This means casting the Chinese political system, the so-called China model, as meritocratic, efficiency-oriented rule by well-trained technocrat visionaries that is superior to Western democracy.
China’s propaganda is getting smarter. A good example is a video, “How to Make Leaders,” produced by a company thought to have Communist Party backing. Circulated online and aimed at both Chinese and foreign audiences, the film compares the process of becoming the country’s top leader in the United States with those of Britain and China. While the Chinese system is shown as a meritocracy in which leaders are trained and tested over decades, the presentation of the American electoral process mainly focuses on the need to raise money. This video and others like it are professionally produced and much less easily identified as propaganda than the Communist Party’s traditional campaigns, which were famous for their awkward language.
The tools to spread Beijing’s vision are expanding as the party has enlisted private companies in its quest to conquer foreign media markets. The most prominent example is the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s acquisition of The South China Morning Post, which stirred fears that the Hong Kong newspaper’s reporting would come under more direct control from Beijing.
Chinese state-media institutions have also established content distribution agreements with Australian companies in recent years. In Africa, where the Chinese media’s presence has surged in the past decade, Beijing has actively promoted its brand of soft, government-friendly journalism as an alternative to watchdog journalism.
In the United States, some high-profile Chinese attempts to buy major news media companies — such as the party-owned Southern Media Group’s bid to buy Newsweek in 2010 — have failed. But The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal both publish a paid supplement prepared by China Daily, a state-backed newspaper, called China Watch. Xinhua is broadcasting its messages from a giant billboard in Times Square, and billions of dollars of Chinese investment have flooded into Hollywood in recent years.
China has also gained a foothold in academic institutions around the world. A number of Western schools and universities have closed the Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes on their campuses in response to what they considered inappropriate efforts to spread Beijing’s views. Yet some 500 Confucius Institutes remain around the world, with plans in place to double the number to 1,000 by 2020.
China may face an uphill battle in trying to influence public opinion in the West, but it would be wrong to dismiss the efforts. A lot is at stake.
Widespread acceptance of the China model would hurt China itself. More legitimacy for the Communist Party would decrease pressure for the government to institute meaningful political reforms. A widely accepted monolithic ideology would further suppress expressions of individual creativity and pluralism in Chinese society.
The China model may also challenge principles of good governance around the globe. With many Western democracies in apparent crisis, Chinese propaganda may fall on fertile ground in developing nations, which have been impressed by China’s economic success and social stability.
In responding to this challenge, Western governments should resist the temptation to emulate China’s methods. In the United States Senate, the proposed Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016, which seeks to offer counternarratives to Chinese (and Russian) propaganda, is a good example of a misguided reaction: American propaganda would give legitimacy to the idea that governments should sponsor information campaigns. A similarly imprudent measure was a 2011 House proposal to restrict the number of visas for Chinese journalists, a response to Beijing’s policies toward foreign reporters.
Rather than trying to sell a glossy version of democracy or silence their critics, Western countries should focus on measures that foster pluralistic discourse. One option would be to expand programs at American and European universities to promote more interaction between locals and their visiting Chinese students. Likewise, measures to increase transparency for university and think-tank funding, which can be murky and in the West has been tied to Chinese sources, would be effective.
Above all, it’s crucial to show that it is possible to point out the flaws and failures of current Western political systems without undermining what is valuable about them: pluralism, freedom of speech and the willingness for introspection. Let’s not sacrifice those values by entering into a propaganda war.
Mareike Ohlberg and Bertram Lang are research associates at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.