The ongoing protests in China, over the disastrous zero-COVID policy and over the cult of personality, extreme authoritarianism, and unresponsive rule of Xi Jinping, continue to plague the Chinese authorities. Although the government has used repression and censorship to reduce protests at universities and in some major urban areas, the demonstrations have become angrier elsewhere, spreading to migrant workers and some rural areas.
But while the demonstrations are rattling the Chinese government, they also are having another effect: They are undermining China’s decade-long effort to build a global influence campaign designed to make China as powerful in shaping global narratives as the United States and to export China’s authoritarian approach to speech, politics, and societal control.
China has devoted massive sums to this influence campaign under Xi, the first Chinese leader since Mao to suggest that China has a model of economic development superior to that of liberal democracy. Beijing has been modernizing and upgrading its state media — including its global TV network CGTN, its global radio network China Radio International, and its newswire Xinhua — and intervening in other countries’ domestic politics for the first time in decades. In addition to presenting China’s system as the most effective form of government, Beijing probably wants to tarnish democracy in the process.
Rush Doshi, a prominent China scholar, argues that the influence effort has been part of a new strategy “to displace the United States as the global leader.”
For a few years, it seemed as if this influence project was helping Beijing sway global opinion and wield power inside other states. The Chinese government, usually via proxies, has gained control of most of the local Chinese-language media in countries around the world, including the United States. The Chinese-language media, shifting to mostly pro-Beijing content, often touted China’s strongly growing economy, stability, and initially effective efforts to contain the coronavirus — in contrast to many liberal democracies’ initial struggles with COVID in 2020.
Beijing meddled in other countries’ politics more directly, too. It is accused of paying Australian politicians to do its bidding, such as Senator Sam Dastyari, who resigned in disgrace in 2017. In hopes of affecting the 2018 election in Malaysia, it tried to save embattled prime minister Najib Razak from a massive scandal over the siphoning of state funds, and it even offered to spy on reporters digging into the leader’s finances. In the 2020 election in Taiwan, China reportedly used Taiwanese media outlets loyal to Beijing to promote one presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, and attack the other one, President Tsai Ing-wen, a hardliner on Beijing. (Notably, this campaign did not succeed and probably even backfired, as it angered many local voters.) During the recent US midterm elections, the Justice Department arrested several Chinese operatives for trying to affect New York congressional races, including, allegedly, by planning to smear a Chinese American candidate. Beijing also ramped up its disinformation efforts in the 2022 midterms, though some of them were caught and quashed by Meta, Twitter, and other social media platforms.
Beijing also has wielded other tools of soft power, like cultural diplomacy, formal diplomacy, aid projects, and links to diaspora Chinese communities. Overall, according to leading China expert David Shambaugh, China has been spending around $10 billion a year on soft power efforts globally.
These efforts bore some results in the 2010s. As China’s popularity in polls remained relatively high in many developing countries, and even in some liberal democracies, the government rolled out its massive Belt and Road infrastructure lending program. This won it more admirers, particularly in developing regions. It seemed Xi had a real alternative to liberal democracy, which was suffering from its own crises, as authoritarian populist leaders degraded it, and which at first seemed unable to contain COVID while China staved it off through intensive lockdowns.
But the protests in recent weeks, which cap off years of smaller but angry demonstrations against the zero-COVID restrictions, are a huge setback for China’s global influence campaign. Beijing does not look like a better alternative to liberal democracies now.
The protests have exposed the major flaws in China’s model of development. The model, with its cult of personality around Xi, is brittle. It fails to effectively process new information and respond flexibly. And it depends on a much higher level of surveillance and repression — increasingly visible to the rest of the world — than most people would accept.
Because of the government’s intense authoritarianism and xenophobia, it refused to import effective vaccines, leaving much of China’s population exposed. Even slightly less authoritarian capitalist states like Vietnam, by contrast, responded flexibly to COVID and bought Western vaccines to fight the pandemic.
All this is undermining the economic growth that is central to China’s supposedly successful model. It has done further harm to the private sector, which has driven China’s economic expansion but which Xi has already repressed in favor of state firms. And it has alienated the young Chinese who would be the country’s future innovators and corporate titans.
Now the state-owned media that Beijing tried to modernize into truly watchable and listenable outlets have reverted to bland propaganda, both abroad and at home. The turgid content won’t burnish China’s reputation.
Ultimately, the protests probably will be crushed, as China has lengthy experience quelling such demonstrations. But the damage they have done to China’s influence campaign will last years into the future.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.”