China’s Expanding Influence Operations: Online Propagandists Play the Long Game


President Xi Jinping has overseen a major expansion and upgrade of China’s external propaganda program, aimed at glorifying the Communist regime and weakening its adversaries. Tracing the recent growth and evolution of this “media offensive,” the author highlights the role of cherry-picking (as opposed to blatant disinformation) in China’s slow but steady foreign influence campaign.

A Paradigm Shift

The field of international politics has long been dominated by a state-centric, material grasp of world affairs. It has operated on the premises that states are the key actors; that their primary interest is in ensuring their own countries’ survival and enhancing their power; and that military might is the primary means by which they pursue such goals. Today, these basic premises are becoming difficult to sustain.

One reason is that a growing number of states—in many cases motivated by the subnational goal of sustaining an autocratic ruler and regime—are routinely using non-state entities to conduct influence operations aimed at hobbling their adversaries’ diplomatic and security capabilities by weakening their societies from within. In other words, the threats we miss by focusing solely on the behavior of state actors are growing more serious all the time.

The other factor is the growing influence of narratives built through the selective communication of information, as opposed to the movement of physical resources like military and economic capacity. Moreover, given the growing strategic role of information, it has become more important than ever that we focus not simply on what is being said but also on what is being omitted. This is especially true when dealing with China’s influence operations.

The Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations, unlike Russia’s, are oriented toward long-term results. Even if its individual efforts appear ineffective over the short term, it is vital that we analyze, understand, and deal with them appropriately. In the following, we will explore recent trends in China’s influence operations, examining their increasingly diverse methods and growing scale as well as their key objectives.

Influence Operations Under Xi Jinping

The CCP has stepped up its foreign influence operations since Xi Jinping became president in 2013. In August that year, Xi issued a call to “tell China’s story well” through more extensive, intensive, and innovative “external propaganda.” Since then, the CCP has greatly augmented its efforts to control the narrative with the aim of disseminating party propaganda abroad and burnishing China’s international image. These efforts have involved strengthening ties with foreign media outlets, buying up foreign media, and consolidating the CCP’s control over information emanating from China.

The CCP’s influence operations took a more aggressive turn in 2019, during the mass Hong Kong protests that led to Beijing’s harshly criticized crackdown. This is when the CCP began making full-scale use of disinformation in a bid to influence public opinion overseas, according to a report by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute. Within China, the party had already made extensive use of such domestic platforms as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ to fill China’s censored cyberspace with disinformation and propaganda glorifying the CCP. However, a new approach was needed for Hong Kong, which lies outside the Great Firewall (China’s Internet censorship system) and is fully connected to international society via cyberspace. This is why the CCP’s propaganda organs began actively spreading disinformation via platforms like Facebook and Twitter (now known as X), which are blocked in China. Through these channels, the party broadcast criticism of the demonstrators, presented as the opinions of non-Chinese observers, along with false accusations that the protests were instigated by foreign agents and that people were being paid to take part.

This trend gathered momentum in 2020, as COVID-19 spread outward from Wuhan, and Beijing’s lack of transparency came under global criticism. Addressing the crisis in a speech on February 3, 2020, Xi ordered tighter control of social media to ensure that “the Internet is always filled with positive energy.” Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have documented a surge in English-language Chinese propaganda on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube beginning around that time. Much of the content is aimed at shaping the COVID narrative, as by stressing the Chinese government’s constructive, cooperative stance and criticizing the US administration’s handling of the pandemic as selfish and incompetent.

The same approach was used to influence Japanese public opinion. For example, on February 8, 2020, the Japanese-language China Radio International, under the direction of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, began uploading a series of YouTube videos titled Shingata haien to no tatakai (Combatting the Novel Pneumonia). The content focuses on the CCP’s heroic and effective response to the pandemic, but it also includes an occasional dig at the US government. From the timing, it seems clear that this public relations campaign was a response to Xi’s directive of February 3.

A Ballooning Budget

The intensification of foreign influence operations is reflected in an increase in spending. According to a report by the US nongovernmental organization Freedom House, which tracks China’s influence operations, the CCP’s reported 2023 budget for “diplomatic endeavors,” a category that covers external propaganda, was 54 billion yuan (about $7.9 billion), an increase of 12.2% from the previous year. This, the group points out, dwarfs the rate at which the government boosted its spending in areas like defense (7.2%), public security (6.4%), and science and technology (2.0%).

Of course, there is no way to know exactly how much of this budget is actually spent on foreign influence operations, but in 2017, an analysis by David Shambaugh of George Washington University produced an estimate of about $10 billion for China’s annual external-propaganda budget. In a 2020 paper, Ryan Fedasiuk of the US-based Jamestown Foundation used budget and expense reports from national and regional government and CCP entities to estimate the total amount spent annually by major united front organizations and arrived a figure of $2.6 billion, exceeding the entire budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (United front organizations are nodes in a vast network of entities, supported by the CCP and the Chinese government, that carry out a wide range of propaganda and influence campaigns at home and overseas.—Ed.)

Weakening the Enemy from Within

According to Joshua Kurlantzick, author of the 2022 book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, the CCP’s influence operations are aimed at such goals as maintaining the CCP’s control over China, shaping China’s image abroad, delegitimizing the government of Taiwan, influencing international organizations and rule-making, eroding American influence, and contributing to the decline of democracy worldwide. As Kurlantzick explains, a key thrust of the campaign is weakening the United States and other democratic societies from within by amplifying divisions over hot-button issues and undermining trust in public institutions. Another main objective is driving a wedge between democratic partners and allies to erode their solidarity vis-a-vis China.

The strategy was on vivid display in the wake of Japan’s decision to release treated wastewater from the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean, a process that began in 2023. Chinese media outlets broadcast and disseminated Japanese-language reports on opposition to the release plan in countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which have been tightening diplomatic and security ties with Japan. These reports served to sow doubt among many Japanese users while fueling indignation toward South Korea and Taiwan among others. Similar tactics were employed in South Korea and Taiwan.

Manipulation by Omission

Disinformation has become a fairly hot topic in Japan in the wake of widespread disinformation associated with the water-release issue. Certainly the public needs to be alert to the dangers of false information. But by focusing too narrowly on disinformation, we risk losing sight of a problem that is harder to pinpoint and counter—namely, the CCP’s efforts to shape public discourse by disseminating politically cherry-picked information. What is withheld is at least as important as what is reported.

In the case of the wastewater-discharge issue, there were indeed individuals and groups around the world expressing opposition to the plan, and there is nothing wrong with reporting on those developments. But the CCP-controlled media never bothered to mention the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scientifically-based conclusion that the program was safe, or the fact that the governments of South Korea, Taiwan, and other neighboring countries had given it their approval.

This kind of selective, politically biased reporting is one of the CCP’s favorite tools for influencing public opinion on a whole range of issues. In a study I published in 2020, I examined the content posted on the Japanese-language website Record China (which has ties to the CCP’s United Front Work Department). I found that coverage of the Republic of Korea tended to be highly political, spotlighting issues that divide Japan and South Korea, to the neglect of other, less controversial, topics.

Correspondence Analysis of Words Used in Record China Titles (2019)

As part of that study, I carried out a correspondence analysis of key terms used in the titles of articles published on Record China in 2019. The accompanying chart visualizes the results of that analysis. The size of the bubbles shows the frequency with which the terms were used, while their proximity indicates how often they appeared together. As we can see, the terms South Korea and Japan-ROK tended to appear either with words that call to mind intergovernmental relations—such as government, prime minister, and president—or with words connoting controversy, such as problem and criticism.

By contrast, the word China was most often accompanied by sport-related terms, such as athletes and soccer. Chinese (referring to people) was followed by words like tourists and customers. From these results, we can infer that the site’s editorial policy is to encourage friendly feelings toward China by avoiding political content while fueling negative feelings toward South Korea by highlighting political controversy. Wu Dongwen’s analysis of Record China articles published in 2021 and 2022 confirmed these conclusions.

The information disseminated by this website is not fabricated. Since it cannot be identified and rejected as false information, it has a greater tendency to seep into our public discourse. Going forward, the CCP will doubtless rely heavily on this strategy to influence public opinion on vital questions pertaining to security and diplomatic relations.

We are each of us targets of China’s media offensive. To defend against it, we must evaluate information as part of a bigger package and be alert not only to blatant distortions and falsehoods but also to political bias in the selection of information to publish.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Chinese newspapers announce the first release of treated wastewater from the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean on August 25, 2023. © Kyōdō.)

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