Hong Kong, November 28


very country likes to promote itself, but China has more reasons than most to do so. With few real friends and allies around the world, an Orwellian police surveillance state at home, and coercive bullying abroad, China is always on the lookout for schemes and individuals that will highlight any positive virtues.

One way that China can gain positive publicity is to use its economic clout and a willing bevvy of what are commonly called "useful idiots" to spout its praises. Sometimes these mouthpieces are foreign politicians, businesspeople or academics, but increasingly it is social media influencers who are being co-opted willingly or in ignorance to push Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points.

Such people are increasingly promoting or defending China's position on sensitive political issues. Especially during times of tension or criticism, China rolls out supporters to deflect arguments or attempt to seize back its narrative. Prime examples include the origins of COVID-19 and China's draconian lockdowns, ownership of the South China Sea and Beijing's dismissal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's verdict, the status of Tibet, the incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report this month entitled "Singing from the CCP's Songsheet: The Role of Foreign Influencers in China's Propaganda System". The authors - Fergus Ryan, Matt Knight and Daria Impiombato warned that much previous reporting "ignores the reality that all foreign influencers in China are operating in an ecosystem over which the party has total control. That doesn't mean that all foreign influencers have become tools of the CCP. Many of themavoid political topics altogether, but the temptation to garner traffic, profits and plaudits by aligning their content to party-approved narratives is proving tempting for a growing cadre of foreign influencers."

The authors concluded: "This process of market-enabled propaganda production provides obvious benefits both to the influencers and to the party, which is able to leverage them in order to boost its credibility at home and more effectively penetrate audiences overseas. The use of foreign influencers also creates a degree of plausible deniability for the CCP's international-facing propaganda."

The CCP controls more than 1.4 billion people and, to do so, it must suppress free speech, regulate political activity and operate a vast propaganda machine. Just as the US commendably promotes democracy and the rule of law worldwide, so China pushes its own agenda of controlling minds and legitimizing one-party authoritarianism. All communist regimes dress themselves up in attractive attire - for example, Lenin called his dictatorship "democratic centralism". So, too, China's brutal regime likes to paint its socialism in glowing terms. Who better to do so than ignorant or greedy foreigners?

The ASPI authors wrote: "By leveraging the total control that the party-state has over the information environment in China, the CCP is able to eliminate discordant foreign voices and establish a monoculture of foreigners who, when talking about matters of political importance to the party, adhere to the 'main melody'. Instead of a cacophony of competing views and voices, the party hopes to achieve 'polyphonous communication' by corralling foreign influencers with party-state media workers masquerading as influencers as well as state-approved ethnic-minority influencers into a harmonious choir."

This strategy of using foreign useful idiots is still developing, but it is already meeting remarkable success. Just look at the spectacle of 300 of America's business elite - the likes of Elon Musk of Tesla, Tim Cook of Apple and Albert Bourla of Pfizer - who recently crowded into the Hyatt Regency to meet Chairman Xi Jinping in San Francisco. They welcomed Xi with a standing ovation, their souls already enslaved to the capitalist endeavor of making money in China.

Even as these business leaders were fawning over Xi, protestors in San Francisco showing their displeasure with the Chinese government were being beaten up and harassed by Chinese goons, some of whom were wielding metal rods, flagpoles, closed umbrellas and pepper spray. Chinese internal security forces are free to act like this on home turf, but they are now freely exporting this government mandate to stifle dissent anywhere they like overseas too.

The ASPI report noted: "As this strategy of market-enabled propaganda production continues to evolve, it's likely to have significant implications for the global information landscape. The growing use of foreign influencers will make it increasingly difficult for social-media platforms, foreign governments and individuals to distinguish between genuine and/or factual content and propaganda. That, in turn, could complicate efforts to counter disinformation and protect the integrity of public discourse. Moreover, as more influencers are drawn into this ecosystem, the line between independent voices and those influenced by the party's narratives may become increasingly blurred, further challenging the ability of audiences to discern reportage from manipulation."

This is already evident on X (formerly Twitter), as Musk removes the need for state- affiliated voices to identify themselves. There is a vast gray area available for China and its minions to exploit.

Fergus Ryan, senior analyst at the Cyber, Technology and Security Centre of ASPI, pointed out that China's influencer market is "booming". "While many avoid politics, a growing cadre, tempted by traffic, profits and plaudits, are aligning their content toCCP-approved narratives."

Ryan continued: "The PRC's censorship regime cloisters its people in an information environment that's cut off from the rest of the world and primed with a nationalistic ideology. Nationalism sells, and foreigners know it. It's a shortcut to viral fame." One example is Bart Baker, a US YouTuber who abandoned more than ten million YouTube subscribers in 2019 to operate exclusively on Chinese platforms. For example, in one online clip he smashes his inferior iPhone after buying a superior Huawei model. Another CCP advocate - active on social media and equally uncritical of China - is Andy Boreham from New Zealand, who works for the Shanghai Daily.

Ryan said that "the line between authentic expression and rehearsed narratives has become somewhat murky. At times, it even seems a quid pro quo arrangement is in play," as foreigners recite identical scripts. The ASPI representative admitted that "the foreigner-loves-China schtick has worn thin for many Chinese viewers. In Chinese internet slang, those who are seen to be praising China to attract views are said to be using a type of 'wealth password' - a formula or shortcut to internet fame and fortune."

Such clumsy Chinese attempts to promote feel-good vibes have attracted widespread criticism from netizens. Ryan reported: "A 2021 commentary by the Chinese Communist Youth League railed against vloggers manufacturing fake patriotic content for clicks: 'It is shameful to turn patriotism into a cheap transaction and consume people's patriotic feelings'. Nonetheless, China's propaganda apparatus sees the enormous propaganda power of foreign influencers, and has attempted to harness them. The goal is to cultivate a group of 'foreign mouths', 'foreign pens' and 'foreign brains' who can stand up and speak for China at critical moments."

Indeed, the CCP is implementing influence operations at universities, studios and via competitions with thousands of dollars in prizes. These competitions not only enable influencers to earn money, but also awards and official recognition from the party-state. They also serve to signal to the foreign influencers the kind of talking points the party would prefer they stick to. These various signals have, over time, shaped the market."

Of course, these influencers are also encouraged to criticize the West even while praising China. One example is US influencer Nathan Rich, who goes by the nickname "Hotpot King". He has pumped out a steady stream of videos fueling doubts about the origins of COVID-19, earning millions of views in the process.

Similarly, Jerry Kowal, another US influencer, presents himself as an objective observer untainted by foreign media bias against China. Kowal's videos landed him a rare opportunity to livestream directly from New York City for CCTV News during the pandemic. Such a privilege is rarely extended to foreigners, and naturally it is only available to those who toe the party line.

Ryan explained: "By coordinating these foreign influencers with other communicators like state-approved ethnic minority vloggers, Beijing aspires to create a unified choir of voices capable of promoting party narratives more effectively than traditional official PRC media."

Nathan Ruser, also of ASPI, tweeted: "If you want to be an online influencer in China you can either steer clear of politics, or loudly proclaim the 'right' politics to Beijing. I think it's fair to say the second option comes with more opportunity, and that the influencer-to-propagandist pipeline is in full swing." This influence work is the responsibility of all Chinese too. Xi's work report at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 said this: "We will encourage intellectuals who are not party members, and people belonging to new social groups, to play the important roles they have in building socialism with Chinese characteristics."

China claims not to "interfere" in other countries' domestic affairs, but these are mere words. Moving far beyond soft power, Beijing deliberately exerts pressure by measures such as threatening family members of expatriate Chinese, and covertly buying up overseas Chinese publications and forcing others out of business by boycotting advertisers. Some even claim that the CCP controls perhaps 95 per cent of Chinese-language newspapers in Australia.

While commentators for years were applauding China's inexorable rise, they completely overlooked the nefarious and subtle means it used to influence others. Both Australia and New Zealand, for example, have had members of parliament receiving donations from Chinese loyalists. Even worse, Yang Jian served as a member of parliament in New Zealand for nine years till 2020, even though he was a former Chinese military intelligence officer and hid this fact in his immigration history. Similarly, Sam Dastyari in Australia's Labour Party delivered Chinese talking points even at the expense of Labour policy. Resigning in 2018, Dastyari had accepted financial favors and assistance with political fundraising from Chinese sources. Five Eyes counterintelligence officials have all identified CCP efforts to cultivate the careers of local politicians, because these often become tomorrow's national leaders. Political interference is a constant friction with China, as it infringes upon core values such as sovereignty and freedom of speech. Unfortunately, much of this activity occurs in gray areas where it may not be explicitly illegal.

It must be remembered that influence operations are not rogue activities, for they are routine, everyday activities at the very heart of CCP efforts. Communism has always extended beyond borders, with diaspora communities an obvious target because of the need to stop subversive ideas fermenting. China views national security as including the domain of ideas - what people think can be dangerous to the party.

There are several entities through which the CCP builds political influence and power. One is the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), chaired by Wang Huning. Two Politburo members also direct the United Front Work Department and Propaganda Department - Shi Taifeng and Li Shulei respectively.

Mao Zedong explained the United Front Work's purpose like this: "To mobilize [the party's] friends to strike at [the party's] enemies." Mao viewed the front as a magic weapon on par with the People's Liberation Army. The United Work Front's estimated budget in 2019 was USD 2.6 billion, so Beijing is pumping in huge amounts of dollars to exert influence on others.

Another avenue for these influence operations is Confucius Institutes. In 2021, the Human Rights Foundation warned that they "cultivated a climate of intimidation and surveillance within American classrooms," with information censorship prevalent. By mid-2022, 104 out of 118 institutes in the US had been closed down. However, dozens have resurfaced in other forms. China is investing heavily in shaping those contexts by which it wishes to be understood. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of useful idiots prepared to support the oppressive regime of the CCP in its nefarious efforts.

China grows more masterful in its employment of useful idiots

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