Inside China’s strategy to influence the world’s media

China’s sophisticated and systematic strategy to embed itself in the global news landscape and build its discourse power beyond borders is one of the key findings of a new report launched today by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The China Story: Reshaping the World’s Media explores the results from quantitative and qualitative survey data from 58 journalist unions spanning the Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America and the Middle East and casts a new light on the multilayered approach that China is taking to reshape the global news agenda.

The global research was undertaken with IFJ’s affiliated unions and journalist representative associations around the world and indicates the significant and wide-ranging impact of China’s moves to extend its influence through initiatives including journalism exchange programs, union cooperation, content sharing, training programs, media acquisitions and promulgation of China’s grand infrastructure scheme, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The China Story is the second IFJ China research report, following 2019’s Weaponising the free press? China’s global media offensive  that broadly examined China’s rapidly evolving media influence in the world.

The research found one-third of the unions surveyed had been approached by, or were in discussion with, Chinese journalism unions or entities and 38 per cent of those - 14 per cent of the total - had registered Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs). The IFJ data also shows that China is conducting a media outreach campaign in almost every continent, equally targeting both developed and developing countries.

The IFJ, the world’s largest voice for journalists, said the survey clearly illustrates how China’s media is increasing its global footprint in the world’s media and its strategy showed clear signs of targeting journalists to “outsource its influence” in developing countries with ineffective or repressive governments, yet also clearly cut across both the developed and developing world.

The report also details how unions described a recent emphasis on organizing Chinese tours for Muslim journalists, even from non-Muslim countries, with some being taken to the north-western province of Xinjiang, where at least one million Uighurs are reported to be in political indoctrination camps, in an attempt to sway the global narrative.

Almost half of all respondents in the IFJ survey (44 per cent) said China’s role in their national media was ‘positive’ with a significant level of support including tangible help such as the donation of computers and recording devices for journalism unions, as well as educational aid and MOUs for content sharing and training programs. In many African countries, China has expanded access to media by offering affordable packages to remote areas.

Chinese companies are more and more ‘buying boats’ or ‘building’ them by taking stakes in existing legacy companies or setting up digital joint ventures overseas, according to the report. One of China’s biggest media plays in Africa is through the Chinese owned StarTimes satellite, based in Kenya, which boasts 25 million subscribers in more than 30 African countries.

Through survey data and roundtable national discussions, the IFJ research found that hundreds of senior journalists from both developed and developing nations had taken part in government-sponsored trips. Three-quarters of respondents told the IFJ they believed the trips to be beneficial to their national media. 

While focusing on developing countries, Beijing continues to offer sponsored trips to China for senior journalists from strategic developed countries like Australia where the All China Journalist Association (ACJA) has organized programs including a partnership with the Australian China Relations Institute (ACRI) at University of Technology Sydney that has brought at least 28 Australian journalists to China since 2016.

The report notes: “The results have, in many cases, produced stories that faithfully echo Beijing’s position on issues ranging from the South China Sea to technological developments in China.”

Some journalists expressed concerns about the increasing role of Chinese propaganda in the media ecosystems of their own countries. In the Philippines, for example, journalists voiced suspicions that Beijing’s ultimate aim was to influence the Filipino government itself through close cooperation with the President Duterte’s communications team.

The report recommends that unions can play a greater role in educating and preparing journalists participating in Chinese-funded trips by providing information and training on China’s global media strategies, the impact on content sharing agreements and media literacy programs to better educate the public on how to detect news bias.    

The IFJ said: “This significant survey is the first of its kind undertaken by the IFJ and its affiliates. The data makes it clear just how extensive Chinese outreach campaigns have been to global journalism unions and to journalists from Europe to Africa and the Middle East.”

The IFJ sees this research as being a significant foundation for the IFJ and its member unions to play a greater role in educating and preparing journalists participating in Chinese-funded trips and creating response strategies on media influence operations. Particularly, journalist representative bodies are in a key position to discuss critical issues and share perspectives and expertise on issues impacting media including working conditions, wages and professional practice.

The IFJ added:“With increasing numbers of Chinese journalists working globally, it also provides an insight and understanding of the powerful place China’s media now occupies and one that should not be underestimated.”