IFJ’s report reveals how Beijing tries to boost its global image through the pandemic

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released a new report on Wednesday, which shows that China has used the coronavirus pandemic to boost its image in global media coverage. The author of the report thinks that journalists around the world need to enhance their media literacy in order to deal with China’s ever-improving propaganda efforts.

IFJ released a new report based on its second global survey on Wednesday, and the results show that Beijing has been using the COVID19 pandemic to boost its image in global media coverage throughout 2020. 54 journalist unions from 50 countries participated in this survey.

Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and one of the authors of the report, said there is a very considered strategy behind China’s propaganda efforts, which is to build Beijing’s discourse power on the global stage and do that through telling a good China story.

“What we see is an activation of infrastructure that has been quite painstakingly laid since 2009,” said Lim. “There has really been a shift from a quite defensive, reactive position where China was just mainly concerned about shutting down bad stories and reacting to bad stories to a much more aggressive and proactive position where stories are being actively seeded.”

The report is written by Lim, Johan Lidberg, an associate professor in Journalism at Australia’s Monash University, and Julia Bergin. Results from the survey show that more than half of all countries said coverage of China in their national media was more positive since the start of the pandemic. At least 76 percent of the countries said China has a visible presence in their media ecosystem.

Additionally, the survey also shows that China is taking a more interventionist approach to influence coverage about China in different countries’ national media. “Almost one in five countries reported that the Chinese embassy or ambassador in their country frequently comments on local media coverage of China,” wrote the report’s authors.

On the other hand, more than 80 percent of the countries expressed concern about disinformation in their national media, and while China was cited as being responsible for the uptick by over a third of the countries, 58 percent of the countries were unsure about the source of the disinformation.

Nonetheless, the survey shows that China is activating the existing media infrastructure that it has put in place globally, which includes training programs and sponsored trips for global journalists, content sharing agreements feeding state-sponsored messages into the global news ecosystems, memoranda of understanding with global journalism unions, and increasing ownership of publishing platforms.

“Beijing used its media infrastructure globally to seed positive narratives about China in national media, as well as mobilizing more novel tactics such as disinformation,” wrote the authors. “Beijing appears to be stepping up its news offerings, providing domestic and international content tailored for each country in non-Anglophone languages.”

Is China’s global propaganda effective?

Serbia is one of the countries that Beijing has produced a lot of tailored content for. According to the report, China is front and center to Serbia’s state-sanctioned storytelling. “I saw an official diplomat in the Serbian public service, use every opportunity to say, Serbia is the best country in Europe, thanks to our president and the assistance of China,” said one local journalist.

Lim points out that apart from spreading positive news about itself in different countries, China is also disseminating a lot of disinformation and negative stories about other countries’ political systems. However, many journalists think China’s propaganda only has a limited effect on the content of their national media.

One Italian journalist told the authors of the report that Italy has “the necessary antibodies” to identify fake news, while another Serbian journalist described China’s propaganda as of poor quality and irrelevant. However, the authors also found that journalists in each country admitted that more Chinese content is making its way into the news ecosystem, including one article a day in the Serbian press and fifty articles per day from China’s Xinhua News Agency carried on the news wire of Italy’s Ansa news agency.

Even though many journalists think the impact of China’s propaganda is limited, Lim said she isn’t convinced that the media literacy is that high even among journalists themselves.

“One major vulnerability is the economic vulnerability that many news organizations are suffering, which means that they are much more open to taking content from state-run Chinese sources if it’s free,” she said. “When many news outlets are not able to have anyone stationed in China, that can quickly become a choke point as the only source of information from China that’s free is through Xinhua or other state-run content-sharing agreement.”

The report also pointed out that China’s large-scale medical diplomacy campaign has allowed Beijing to score a lot of propaganda wins in many developing countries, burnishing Beijing’s image as a reliable partner.

“In some countries, China was also seen as the purveyor of the most accurate information about the new coronavirus, showing its growing influence over global narratives,” wrote the report’s authors. “This research shows that countries that are recipients of China’s Covid vaccine clearly have more positive coverage of China, but it cannot draw conclusions as to the factors behind that.”

At a time when China is more actively trying to change the global media landscape through propaganda efforts, Lim thinks journalists and media organizations should realize that “free content is not necessarily free,” because it could provide an entry point for state-run propaganda and if it’s used, it should be labeled clearly and carefully that no one is in any doubt as to what it is.

“If journalists go on the tours to China [that are sponsored by Beijing], I think it’s useful if they have a better understanding of the kind of propaganda functions that they themselves end up playing,” she said.I think journalists need to get smarter about how it goes both ways if they are going to take advantage of these opportunities.”

The article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.