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The Dragon's Propaganda Threat By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, May 11, 2009


A recent expert hearing proved a needed reminder that homeland security is about more than guarding against covert terrorist cells. A graver long-range enemy is funding larger operations and has penetrated deep into major American institutions, acquired U.S. technological secrets, and influences U.S. opinion-makers, as well as a large contingent of its own countrymen living overseas.

On April 30, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on Chinese propaganda and influence campaigns around the world. As scholars testified, Beijing’s ambitions dwarf those of madmen hiding in caves, and the one party state is mounting a full court press to achieve its aims. The Chinese Communists are promoting Chinese nationalism both at home and among the Overseas Chinese, while playing on the self-interest of foreign business leaders and the anti-nationalism of liberal intellectuals to further their rise at the expense of the United States and its allies.  

The Commission was created by Congress and its twelve members are appointed on an equal, bipartisan basis by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.  

The Commission invited six experts to testify on the propaganda issue, but I found the work of Dr. Anne-Marie Brady the most compelling. She is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She has run an international research team since 2005 studying Chinese influence operations and last year published Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Rowman & Littlefield).  

The Chinese government puts a high value on propaganda work, describing it as the life blood (shengmingxian) of the Party-State. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) divides propaganda into two categories: internal directed toward the Chinese people, and external directed toward foreigners in China, Overseas Chinese, and the outside world Internal propaganda is defensive, meant to support the status quo of one-party rule and to combat Western criticism of the dictatorship. External propaganda is both defensive and offensive. Defensively, it seeks to protect Beijing’s rise from foreign actions that might curb its growth in wealth and power. Offensively, it pushes “reunification” with Taiwan and the attainment of equal status among the leading world powers in a “multilateral” international system. This means undermining the “hegemonic” influence of the United States at every turn. 

The CCP was shocked by the support the Overseas Chinese gave the pro-democracy protests that led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese authorities needed to turn this sentiment around. They have used two methods. One has been the lure of profits to tap into the considerable economic resources of the Overseas Chinese for investment and technological transfer. China has drawn in large sums of foreign direct investment, with more than half of the money coming from the Chinese diaspora.  

Hand in hand with the economic appeal is the appeal to ethnic-patriotic sentiment towards the Chinese Motherland. As Brady told the commission, the goal was to “encourage a constructive attitude towards Overseas Chinese helping to make China ‘rich and strong’ (fu qiang). These efforts have been remarkably successful.” 

Beijing’s local Chinese language newspapers, radio and television stations; the Internet, and a China Central Television channel (CCTV 4) beamed into foreign markets. Beijing also supports overseas cultural activities; including the teaching of the Chinese language, cultural conferences, and ‘root seeking’ tours back ‘home.’ Confucius Institutes are being opened around the world to better coordinate the cultural campaign. Beijing wants the Overseas Chinese to reject assimilation into the foreign lands to which they fled Maoist China and return to a common allegiance to the ancient Motherland. In 2005, CCTV-9 was revamped into the Chinese version of CNN and BBC, a 24-hour news channel with a global audience. “The station has been granted substantial resources in terms of equipment; but has no editorial independence. CCTV-9 journalists are under constant pressure to present a positive account of China,” according to Brady. 

The state-run Xinhua News Service currently provides free content to the Chinese language news media outside China. As Brady reported, “Formerly Hong Kong and Taiwan-based news groups were the main source of news for Overseas Chinese, but in the last ten years they have basically been driven out of the market by a plethora of free Chinese newspapers which derive virtually all their content from the Mainland media.” Few Chinese language newspapers outside China have the financial resources to resist the offer of free content. The same goes for Chinese language radio and television stations abroad. Chinese embassy officials work closely with the Overseas Chinese media in order to ensure their continued compliance with the party line.  

In the West it is often argued that the Internet will open China to liberal ideas, but Beijing has been successful in using the Internet to rally patriotic bloggers and hackers. This outpouring of support for the Motherland was most evident in the reaction among Chinese both at home and overseas to Western coverage of unrest in Tibet in March 2008 and, a month later, in the battle between pro-Tibet and pro-China demonstrations during the global Olympic torch relay. Brady noted that “These protests and the later demonstrations were genuine and popular, which shows the effectiveness of China’s efforts to rebuild positive public opinion within the Chinese diaspora, but it should be noted that they received official support, both symbolic and practical. This development matches the rise of popular nationalism within China since 1989, which has been fostered from the top down, but has a genuine resonance with the Chinese population.” One of the evocative slogans promoted by Beijing and picked up online was simple: “Love China.”  

During the question period following Brady’s presentation, there was discussion concerning whether the growth of “professionalism” within the Chinese media would work against nationalist sentiment. If professionalism is deemed to be the Western model which pits writers against government policy and national interests as the way of proving independence, Brady had her doubts. Feelings of national pride are alive and well in China. “The Party has high legitimacy” Brady noted, “the patriotic public flocks to CCTV.”

The Chinese people want their country to be come rich and strong, and to take its “rightful” place among the leading world powers, if, indeed, not become the new hegemon as it combines its massive population with advanced technology to create the planet’s largest industrial economy. Only in the decadent West can it be thought that as China modernizes and increases its capabilities, its people will become weaker in spirit and less ambitious.  

Beijing wants to ensnare influential foreigners into the romance of a rising China. As Brady testified, “promoting the Chinese economy and encouraging further foreign investment and trade has become the primary task of foreign propaganda work, particularly after 1992. Throughout the 1990s China was certainly successful in promoting awareness of its economic growth and enthusiasm for the opportunities which the Chinese market offered international investors.”  

Other witnesses before the Commission picked up on this theme. “China’s efforts to influence U.S. academics, journalists, think tank personnel and other shapers of public opinion are part of its overall aims in the world,” testified Ross Terrill, a historian and Research Associate with Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Asian Studies. Dr. Terrill has written widely about China since the 1970s. One of his examples demonstrated how easily liberal institutions can fall for the blandishments of very non-liberal regimes. Terrill told the commissioners how, “Prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard went far down the path to offering a workshop for public security officials from Beijing on how to handle the foreign press descending on Beijing for the Olympics. Not a workshop for Chinese journalists, but one for police on how to handle journalists. The workshop was cancelled at the last moment after Nieman alumnae raised questions. Sometimes American intellectuals are more trustful of a foreign government that puts on a good show than of our own government that operates within a cacophony of debate.” 

Scholars friendly to China are granted access to officials and research materials, along with other benefits, to build their careers, whereas academics and journalists who are skeptical or questioning of the regime are denied visas and discredited in intellectual circles. But universities are not the only Chinese target. “Money may appear from a businessman with excellent connections in China and it is hard for a think tank, needing funds for its research on China, to decline it. But the money may bring with it major Chinese ideological input into the program of the U.S. think tank,” said Terrill, adding, “In the last year or two, Chinese companies have started making healthy donations to think tanks in Western societies.”  

Larry Wortzel, the vice-chair of the Commission who had run the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute before becoming Vice President for foreign policy and defense studies at the Heritage Foundation, mentioned that the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia is working with the China Foreign Affairs University. Yet, as the CITS knows, the CFAU is not a real university, but an arm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One CITS-CFAU project is on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a major issue of contention in U.S.-China relations. Why the Beijing regime would want to influence how this issue is developed should be obvious. But greed can blind people in academe as well as in business. And to further raise concern, CITS projects in China are funded by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, two left-wing organizations hostile to U.S. national security policies. 

Terrill also noted the large number of Chinese students on U.S. campuses. He noted “the Soviet Union possessed no such human bridge into our society; no authoritarian country has ever had so many of its citizens living in the USA as China does today.” Most of these students are working in science and engineering, including on major technology projects in the private sector, some with military applications. As a sign of the deep problems in the U.S. education system, research centers, universities and corporations strongly oppose any restrictions on Chinese students because there are not enough American students or graduates in the technical fields. It is said that without Chinese students, who currently number around 100,000, many research projects would collapse. Of course, any breakthroughs gained from these American programs will find their way to Chinese industry. 

Dr. Jacqueline Newmyer is President and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group, a Cambridge, Mass.-based defense consultancy. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Her main concerns have been the military expansion of China and Iran, but campaigns to undermine a robust U.S. response to these foreign developments are part of the problem. She noted that at Harvard there is much talk among American students and faculty about national decline, with many expressing the liberal view that it would be a good thing for the United States to give up its global leadership role and withdraw inward. In contrast, Chinese students at Harvard are encouraged by such talk, making them even prouder of their country’s rise and optimistic that China will replace America as world leader.  

Newmyer noted that China is not the first foreign power to invest in cultural propaganda operations meant to mobilize opinion in sub-sectors of a target country’s population. She pointed out that Beijing is in many ways copying the model used by Saudi Arabia in funding mosques, Islamic schools, Middle East think tanks and academic studies programs in Western countries.  

Brady was still the most explicit in the information she provided the commission, explaining, “The CCP has had a longstanding policy of utilising foreigners in its propaganda work. This is called ‘using foreign strength to promote China’ Historically, pro-CCP foreigners have been extremely useful in producing a wide range of propaganda materials, ranging from books, films and poetry, to public and private lobbying.”  

The Communist Chinese lack the Islamist hijackers' faith, but both groups take the long view of history. They believe Beijing has a rightful role in world history and must displace the United States in order to fulfill it. As the experts proved, they are well aware of the tremendous foreign assets they possess, which may help them accomplish their goal.


William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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