Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Chinese interference is dangerous – but also often ineffective and counterproductive

Understanding Beijing’s failures now is crucial ahead of a time when efforts to shape opinion are more sophisticated.

Despite spending billions, Chinese state media serve up a bland news diet (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Despite spending billions, Chinese state media serve up a bland news diet (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Published 23 Feb 2023   Follow @JoshKurlantzick

In a speech at the Australian National University last week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil minced no words about how the government perceives the danger of foreign interference – primarily from China – in Australia. “Foreign interference … it is activities carried out or directed by a foreign state that are coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine,” the minister noted. “The threat is ever present. It is relentless and it is insidious. And it not only affects individuals, it fundamentally undermines our democratic processes.”

While O’Neil went on to say “this is not just a China problem, although it is a China problem”, it is certainly true that Beijing has attempted, using various tools, to wield significant influence within Australian politics and society – as it increasingly has around the world in recent years. Indeed, for the first time since Mao’s era, China is assertively trying to meddle in the internal politics and societies of countries on nearly every continent, not just limiting itself to wielding influence in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, its near neighbourhood.

As has been well reported by the Australian media, Beijing has used various means to try to foster self-censorship about China’s actions on Australian university campuses, has gained control of a large portion of the Chinese-language press in Australia (and elsewhere), has directly tried to influence specific politicians, has upgraded its disinformation efforts on social media, has attempted to use economic coercion against Australia, and has tried to use the soft power of its state media to alter opinions of Beijing.

And yet what O’Neil does not mention, and what I examine in detail in my new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World is that, to date, China has failed in its efforts more often than not, using clumsy and ineffective tactics, and leading to backlashes against it around the world – and in Australia.

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World

China’s state media, which it has lavished billions on, has had minimal effect on populations around the world, other than Xinhua, which is slowly gaining an audience. In studies I obtained conducted by the Gallup research organisation, big Chinese state media such as China Global Television Network and China Radio International still have almost no audience in most of the countries they operate, because despite their spending they serve up a bland news diet. They are also increasingly banned in liberal democracies, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

China may have meddled in Australian politics, and tried to do the same in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, Canada and other countries during election seasons, but its efforts often have been caught – and worked against Beijing. China’s attempts to insert itself into the 2018 Malaysian national elections actually helped Mahathir Mohamad’s coalition, which espoused fairly hawkish views on China, win the race. And Beijing’s outright meddling in the 2020–21 Taiwanese presidential election, using pro-Beijing media outlets in Taiwan and other tools to support KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, failed miserably. Easily exposed, it angered many Taiwanese and helped the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, despised by Beijing, win a second presidential term.

Similarly, meddling in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom has led to tough new laws on interference in Australia, a crackdown on foreign influence in America, and likely similar legislation in much of continental Europe in the near future. It has also resulted in publics ranging from Northeast Asia to Europe to North America to Australia developing intensely negative views of China, exactly the opposite of what Beijing needs to wield effective soft power. (Backing Vladimir Putin hasn’t exactly helped China’s global public appeal either.)

Even on university campuses and on social media, where fears have grown that Beijing is fostering intensive self-censorship and spreading rampant disinformation, China has had only mixed success. Its disinformation efforts, though becoming more sophisticated, still remain fairly clumsy in much of the world, compared to those of Russia, for instance.

On campuses, high-profile incidents of self-censorship have led to the closure of Confucius Institutes, a major source of Chinese soft power, in many liberal democracies; within a few years, nearly all will likely be closed in North America, Europe and Australia. In places such as the United States and Europe, China’s efforts to pressure students on campus and foster self-censorship have further sparked legislative inquiries into campus freedoms, undermining Beijing’s goals.

And even China’s biggest weapon, its ability to wield economic coercion against states that anger it, has been blunted somewhat, as its blows against Australia did not decisively weaken the Australian economy, and its attempts to bully smaller states such as Lithuania made it look foolish, and rallied European countries to that Baltic state’s side.

Overall, then, foreign interference is a serious worry – but it is important to see China’s flaws and mistakes right now, to understand what it is doing wrong – and help prepare for how it might adapt and do better in the future.

You may also be interested in