Information war: How China came close to taking full control of Pakistan’s media

NEW DELHI: Beijing is investing billions of dollars to construct a global information ecosystem in which preferred narratives, propaganda and disinformation gain traction and become dominant while suppressing views it deems threatening, according to a report by the US Department of State.
“As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has grown more confident in its power, it appears to have calculated that it can more aggressively pursue its interests via information manipulation,” said the Global Engagement Center, which comes under the US State Department.

The report warned that if left unchecked, China’s efforts to disseminate misinformation will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing.

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Concerted effort
President Xi Jinping has significantly expanded China’s efforts to shape the global information environment. In 2013, he directed state media to “tell China’s story well”. In 2021, Xi pressed state media to strengthen their propaganda efforts and tailor “precise communication methods” to influence foreign audiences globally.
Leveraging propaganda and censorship; promoting digital authoritarianism; exploiting international organisations and bilateral partnerships; pairing co-optation and pressure; and exercising control of Chinese-language media, are the five primary elements of China’s approach towards information manipulation, the report said.
“Usage of the five mutually reinforcing elements enable Beijing to exert control over the narratives in the global information space through advancing false or biased pro-PRC content and suppressing critical voices.”

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China, Russia join hands
The report also highlighted that Beijing and Moscow have ratcheted up cooperation in the information space concerning Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.
“PRC government officials and state media have routinely amplified the Kremlin’s propaganda, conspiracy theories, and disinformation about the war while officially purporting to be neutral, giving Moscow significant rhetorical cover even as Russia’s forces engaged in alleged war crimes in Ukraine,” said the report.
It further noted that Russia has returned the favor by promoting PRC propaganda related to Taiwan and other PRC interests such as South China Sea, its human rights practices, domestic economy, and international economic engagement.

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Acquiring stakes in foreign media
The report states that Beijing has sought to maximise the reach of biased or false pro-PRC content by acquiring stakes in foreign media through public and non-public means.
Beijing has also secured sometimes restrictive content sharing agreements with local outlets that can result in trusted mastheads providing legitimacy to unlabeled or obscured PRC content.
In addition, Beijing has also worked to coopt prominent voices in the international information environment such as foreign political elites and journalists.
Beyond focusing on content producers, the PRC has targeted platforms for global information dissemination, for example, investing in digital television services in Africa and satellite networks.
Intimidation to silence dissent globally
On issues it deems sensitive, the PRC has employed online and real-world intimidation to silence dissent and encourage self-censorship, the report said.
The PRC has also taken measures against corporations in situations where they are perceived to have challenged its desired narratives on issues like Xinjiang.
Within democratic countries, Beijing has taken advantage of open societies to take legal action to suppress critical voices.
On WeChat, an application used by many Chinese-speaking communities outside the PRC, Beijing has exercised technical censorship and harassed individual content producers. Notably, data harvested by PRC corporations operating overseas have enabled Beijing to fine-tune global censorship by targeting specific individuals and organizations.
Digital authoritarians
According to the report, the PRC promotes digital authoritarianism, which involves the use of digital infrastructure to repress freedom of expression, censor independent news, promote disinformation, and deny other human rights.
Through disseminating technologies for surveillance and censorship, often through capabilities bundled under the umbrella of “smart” or “safe cities”, the PRC has exported aspects of its domestic information environment globally.
Beijing has also propagated information control tactics, with a particular focus on Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In parallel, the PRC has promoted authoritarian digital norms that other countries have adopted at a rapid pace. As other countries emulate the PRC, their information
ecosystems have become more receptive to Beijing’s propaganda, disinformation, and censorship requests.
Brazen attempt to control Pakistan’s media in 2021
The report highlighted that in 2021, China sought to negotiate significant control over Pakistani media as part of the China-Pakistan Media Corridor, including establishing a jointly operated “nerve center” to monitor and shape Pakistan’s information environment.
The PRC’s draft concept paper called for monitoring Pakistan’s information environment by streamlining inputs from think tanks, opinion leaders, CPEC study centers, media organisations, PRC companies, and even local Confucius Institutes.
The proposed nerve center would have relied on “three mechanisms” and “two platforms” to carry out this mission.
The mechanisms would have provided means to convert “important reports” into Urdu products to sway popular opinion; provide PRC Embassy reports directly to Pakistan’s official press release system; and monitor and respond to public criticism about the PRC.
The two proposed platforms called for the creation of a joint PRC-Pakistan authoritative system for “dispelling rumors” and a newsfeed application to promote approved news to the local market.
The report noted that Islamabad never seriously entertained the proposal.
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