Last March, just weeks after the first few cases of COVID-19 started trickling into the Middle East, Chinese state-controlled broadcaster CGTN published a video designed to combat alleged disinformation on the virus’ origins. The video was in Arabic.
The Chinese narrator, who calls herself Ms.V, explains in perfect Arabic that COVID-19 could not have originated at a food market in Wuhan and points to several other possible sources – including the October 2019 Military World Games in that city, where athletes from over 100 countries competed.
“It is expected that patient zero in China came from outside China,” Ms.V says, as translated by Haaretz. While she calls this a novel “explanation” for the source of COVID, the English subtitle opts for the word “interpretation.”
“We are all looking forward to an answer from certain governments; that they face the public with greater transparency,” Ms.V concludes, with no trace of irony, in a disinformation video meant to target “rumors.”
What might seem like a strange video is actually part of an effort by the Chinese government to control the COVID narrative in a campaign for global deception.
China’s state-run Xinhua news site features a plethora of daily articles on the country’s success in handling the pandemic and the growing number of cases elsewhere. Meanwhile, Xinhua’s English edition reports on the success rates of Chinese vaccines and is filled with photos of Chinese medical aid being unloaded in nations in need.
Every day, the Chinese media is putting “an immense effort into portraying itself as a positive actor, as someone who offered medical equipment to various countries around the world. Now it’s more about vaccines,” says Alex Pevzner, research assistant in the Israel-China Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and director of the Chinese Media Center at Israel’s College of Management. “COVID is an opportunity to spin the narrative in Chinese favor.”
While the media outside China has reported on Beijing’s disinformation campaign during the pandemic, China’s efforts to sway international public opinion have been going on for far longer, an attempt especially evident in the Middle East.
In addition to Chinese, Xinhua publishes in English, French, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic, with 170 bureaus across the globe. The Beijing outlet remains firmly under the control of the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.
The Arabic Xinhua site publishes an impressive number of news stories daily, most simply following the news cycle: constitutional talks in Syria, protests in Tunisia, suicide bombings in Iraq, UN-brokered cease-fires in Libya. For Israel, subjects include the normalization with Gulf countries, the probe at the International Criminal Court, election news and clashes in the West Bank.
Other stories feature Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for unity in the fight against COVID, China’s cooperation with the World Health Organization in investigating the origins of the virus and senior officials such as the Palestinian Authority’s Nabil Shaath telling Xinhua that China’s handling of the pandemic is an inspiration.
The Arabic site also features a section called “China and the Arab states,” with countless articles highlighting “fruitful cooperation” between China and the Middle East, growing economic ties under China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the “bright future” in store in the region for the two great friends.
A recent article in Arabic boasts how continued economic ties during the pandemic “embodies a vision of common destiny,” adding that “after its success in curbing the spread of the pandemic, China has provided strong support to Arab countries by sending aid, medical devices and health experts, which proves that they are the true and intimate friend of Arabs through concrete actions, and establishes the vision of a community of shared future for mankind.”
Haaretz was unable to find the same report on Xinhua’s English and Chinese websites, and, as of press time, the news agency had not responded to a request for comment on this article.
Haaretz’s analysis of Xinhua’s coverage found a much more blatant attempt to peddle pro-Communist Party messages in Arabic than in English.
Two associate professors from University College Dublin, Alexander Dukalskis and Samuel Brazys, have analyzed data from over 1.8 million Xinhua articles since 2015. They concluded that not only does Xinhua tailor messages in nuanced ways depending on different audiences around the world, the agency stresses certain themes depending on the region. They also found that Xinhua’s foreign-language coverage tends to highlight bad news in stories on Western countries, while giving China a more positive spin.
The economy is a big theme for Middle East coverage.
“The media in China is a tool for the [Communist] party to first of all publicize its goals for economic development or ties with a particular country, and this kind of effort is constantly going on,” says Pevzner of the Chinese Media Center.
When appealing to a Middle East audience, “China presents itself as the champion of the global south,” Pevzner says. “In this context, the Middle East is part of the global south and the Non-Aligned Movement; it was a playground for global rivalries between the Soviet Union and the United States, and China is always at the side of Middle Eastern countries.”
A prime example of this is the Chinese media’s coverage of the Palestinian issue.
“Outwardly for the purpose of China boosting its image, China presents itself as a responsible stakeholder in the Palestinian case,” Pevzner says, noting that Chinese state outlets report almost exclusively about Palestinian affairs in Arabic and English, while reports on the issue in Chinese are virtually nonexistent.
China uses its Arabic-language outlets to win over the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, where many countries are key business partners for China (a major purchaser of oil). With its media, Beijing makes clear to its partners where its loyalties stand.
“It makes sense strategically for the Communist Party to concentrate on cultivating goodwill and soft power in a region where it is more likely to succeed than, say, in Western countries whose free press largely immunizes populations from the propaganda efforts of rival countries,” says William Cochrane-Dyet, a postgraduate student of China’s ties with the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute.
“Unfamiliarity with China in the region makes it more susceptible to China’s propagandistic endeavors,” Cochrane-Dyet adds.
‘Telling China’s story’
In addition to Xinhua and CGTN, The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, also publishes in Arabic. Also, pro-Beijing businesspeople buy stakes in foreign news companies as a way to skew content, while foreign journalists receive training on how to cover China in a positive light. According to Freedom House in Washington, Chinese state media reaches hundreds of millions of television viewers, radio listeners and social media users abroad, “in many cases without transparency as to its origins.”
Such efforts can be traced back to 2007, when the Communist Party began talking about soft power at its 17th Party Congress. Two years later, then-party leader Hu Jintao allocated $7 billion to the revamping of China’s foreign propaganda system. Efforts and funding have been ramped up under Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping. In Xi’s words, the goal is to “tell China’s story well.”
According to a Communist Party strategy paper known as “Document 9,” allegedly leaked in 2013 by dissident journalist Gao Yu, anyone advocating the West’s view of the media aims to “gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology.”
A George Washington University political scientist, David Shambaugh, estimates that China allots as much as $10 billion annually in its campaign to boost its international image.
As Dukalskis of University College Dublin puts it, China’s “leaders have long understood that they had an image problem and have taken steps to improve the party-state’s image. They invest in external propaganda, cultivate potential foreign opinion leaders, attempt to censor or discredit critical messengers, and so on.
“Xi Jinping has accelerated and built on these efforts in his bid to increase what the party calls China’s ‘discourse power’ or ‘speaking rights.’ The basic idea is that as a global power, Beijing believes that it should more proactively shape global political discourse and norms.”
So what good are such enormous efforts in local languages when people have options like BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya? According to Dukalskis, Beijing is trying to brand its foreign propaganda outlets as the equivalent of these giants.
Perhaps a clue about branding tactics can be found on Twitter, which can’t be accessed by people in mainland China. Xinhua Arabic’s Twitter account boasts some 16,500 followers, while for CGTN Arabic the number is 689,700, most of whom appear to be based in the Middle East. But the agencies’ tweets stir very little interaction, an unusual phenomena for accounts with as many followers as they claim to have.
According to Dukalskis, “it is hard to reliably determine the genuine readership or viewership of China’s party-state outlets.” Previous investigations have called into question swarms of accounts helping amplify a pro-Beijing message on social media.
But data from Arab Barometer, a pollster, provides a larger glimpse into public perception of the Middle East. In nine out of 12 countries surveyed in 2018 and 2019, roughly half or more of the respondents said they favored stronger economic ties with China. About 70 percent of Jordanians favored stronger ties, and 30 percent of Egyptians.
The study found that Chinese investments are more welcome among the Middle East’s elite. Also, an article late last month in Xinhua Arabic reveled in the positive perception of China found by Arab Barometer. The article provides percentage ratings on negative views of the United States.
Meanwhile, according to a 2019 Pew study, Israelis had a 66 percent favorable view of China, compared with a 40 percent median globally. Lebanon was 68 percent favorable, Tunisia 63 percent and Turkey 37 percent.
A story of soft power influence
“China’s party-state media presence is now truly global. The idea is for China to tell its story in a way that is consistent with the CCP’s political priorities,” Dukalskis says, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “For a long time, party elites have lamented the dominance of the Western news media and have sought to make outlets like Xinhua and CGTN respectable alternatives.”
Beyond branding, a major effort is underway to influence foreign journalists and newspapers. Beijing-backed actors are slowly acquiring stakes in newspapers worldwide, including Australia-based Global CAMG Media Group and the previously independent South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, once known for its tough and critical reporting.
In 2018, investors with ties to China’s partially state-owned Phoenix TV bought a radio station in Tijuana, Mexico, near the U.S. border. The station even started broadcasting in Chinese; Sen. Ted Cruz called it a “puppet of the Chinese Communist Party.” Chinese outlet GBTimes also bought stakes in or provided content to Hungarian and Italian radio stations.
A 2015 Reuters investigation found that a network of at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries were broadcasting content supplied by the state-run China Radio International, or CRI.
China even launched a Belt and Road News Network over 26 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and the Middle East. According to the network’s charter, it aims to provide data on Belt and Road Initiative projects and investments in six languages, including Arabic. The website launched in 2019.
Beyond influencing local news organizations, Beijing woos international journalists to come to China for “training programs,” offering them free trips and access to government officials as long as they reportedly produce pro-China stories. Compared with the local scale, China also reportedly offers journalists larger salaries with the prospects of reaching larger audiences if they work for publications like Xinhua or CGTN.
“My stories were not seen by 1 million people. They were seen by 100 million people,” a former Xinhua employee told The Guardian.
It seems Xinhua articles on the Middle East are written by a mix of Chinese Arabic speakers and local journalists. While most pieces do not include bylines, those that do – usually in English – are written by people with Arabic names and sometimes Hebrew names such as Mahmoud Fouly, Dana Halawi and Keren Setton. Many articles also list “huaxia” as an editor.
Xinhua also acts internationally as a wire service, charging news outlets less than Reuters and The Associated Press, sometimes even reportedly giving away free content. A 2018 Financial Times investigation found that CCTV, China’s state-controlled broadcaster, provides “free video footage and television scripts to 1,700 smaller foreign news organizations and media groups.”
According to Freedom House, in 2017 the China Intercontinental Communication Center collaborated with the United Arab Emirates’ Image Nation to produce and air Chinese-centered documentaries on the latter’s Quest Arabiya station, which broadcasts to 45 million households in 22 countries in the Middle East.
While it’s clear that China has been able to penetrate local markets to tell its story on a global scale, it’s hard to tell whether anyone, especially in the Middle East, is actually watching and listening.
As China strives to craft an environment conducive to its regional interests, business relations between China and Arab states continue to flourish despite Beijing’s simultaneous dealings with some countries’ foes in the region, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and/or Israel.
For now it can be said that China’s strategy of “borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean” is allowing business partners to brush off skepticism and close the deal.
“I suspect that ... the efficacy of Chinese soft power diplomacy in the Middle East is limited, at best,” Pevzner says. “I think it’s more about the economic power of China meeting Arab elite opinion, not necessarily that of the person on the street.”
While Chinese media influence is probably driven by economic incentives, Cochrane-Dyet says it’s worth considering “how China’s energy dependency on the region is reliant on U.S. security architecture, which is declining: The development of firmly positive perceptions toward China could be important if, or when, it is forced to assume a more physical presence in the region.”
As he puts it, “It is as much about reinforcing its relationships today as it is about developing its regional soft power in preparation for greater engagement with the Middle East in the future.”