Two weeks before the fourth session of the 21st Century Council — a group of global political and business elites founded in 2011 by a billionaire US investor along with a star-studded cast of former heads of state — was convened in Beijing in October 2013, Wu Jianmin, one of China’s most distinguished former diplomats,explained why that year’s session of the council was so unique. Unlike previous sessions in Paris and Mexico, he said, this one was convened expressly to discuss “the question of China.”
The theme chosen by the council, “Understanding China,” was timely, said Wu, because there was a danger that other countries might be “full of misconceptions about China, increasing resistance to its rise.” Those tensions, in turn, might negatively impact global developments. The former diplomat’s words about the session were prescient — though not quite in the way he imagined.
As the “Understanding China” conference celebrated its 10th anniversary last month in Guangzhou, the event, once dubbed a “shadow G20,” was a shadow of its former self. No longer was it a gathering of political luminaries interested in seriously discussing China’s global role and implications. Rather, it was a stage on which the leadership could play out its grandiose vision of itself.
Far from promoting dialogue and understanding, as Wu Jianmin originally envisioned, “Understanding China” is today a reminder of how closed and impenetrable China has become. For the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), “Understanding China” means accepting China on the Party’s terms. It is the antithesis of openness and meaningful discussion.
Gathering and Amplifying “Old Friends”
Official media coverage of the “Understanding China” international conference was the first clear sign last month of its core role as a vehicle for external propaganda. Serious international participants like those once mustered by the 21st Century Council no longer attended. In their place were more amenable “foreign friends,” many of them permanent fixtures of the Party’s external propaganda apparatus, whose voices could be leveraged to praise the leadership.
Among these friends was David Ferguson, the chief English editor at the state-run China International Publishing Group (CIPG) and translator of Xi Jinping’s Governance of China. Once hailed by China’s official international broadcaster CGTN as “the Scottish writer telling China’s story to the world,” Ferguson was quoted by Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News echoing not just Xi Jinping’s catchphrase for external propaganda, but also his grandiose claim to have pioneered a new form of democracy. “At the conference, we heard many stories from China’s grassroots, true stories — stories about whole-process democracy,” Ferguson said.
In the same article, an unidentified student from Sudan recounted the superficial cultural delights he had experienced in Guangzhou. “I wore a traditional Chinese outfit, learned Chinese calligraphy, and ate delicious food,” he said.
The CCP has a long tradition of cultivating and amplifying such borrowed voices, which provide a semblance of international dialogue and exchange while ensuring that the frames of the Party are amplified without criticism. But the use of and cultivation of such borrowed voices has accelerated under Xi Jinping, who in August 2013, just two months before the first “Understanding China” conference, emphasized external propaganda as essential to what he called, in provocative hardline terms, an “international public opinion struggle” (舆论斗争). The effort, which aimed to enhance China’s “global discourse power,” saw the CCP as engaged in an antagonistic, though smokeless, war with what then Xinhua News Agency president Li Congjun (李从军), responding to Xi’s speech, called “certain hostile forces and media in the West.”
Large-scale conferences like “Understanding China,” Belt and Road forums, and other events hosted by CCP-linked groups and state media, are forms of what can be termed “propologue” — the careful stage-managing of large-scale events in order to amplify propaganda narratives and concentrate foreign endorsement. Events of this kind today constitute a major part of China’s external propaganda strategy.
New Centers for “Propologue”
But the clearest proof of the “Understanding China” conference’s unambiguous role as an external propaganda event came weeks ahead of the event in Guangzhou, as a strategic agreement (战略协议) was announced between the conference host, the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy (中国国家创新与发展战略研究会) — an ostensible “social organization” (社团) under the state-led Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) — and the newly formed Guangdong International Communication Center (广东国际传播中心).
What is the Guangdong International Communication Center?
Launched on November 14 and drawing on the resources of the provincial CCP’s official Nanfang Media Group (南方报业传媒集团) as well as some 40 other provincial-level units (省直单位), the center is an office directly under Guangdong’s provincial propaganda department dedicated to serving the external communication objectives of the party-state. As coverage by official media outlines, the ICC, which in English will be branded GDToday, will focus on the Greater Bay Area, the integrated economic area spanning the Pearl River Delta that includes Hong Kong and Macau.
According to our research at CMP, at least 20 international communication centers (国际传播中心), or ICCs, have opened in various provinces and other jurisdictions in China since 2022. The centers, which respond to instructions issued by Xi Jinping in August 2018, are central to China’s latest efforts to restructure its external propaganda apparatus.
In his first full-fledged media policy speech on February 19, 2016, Xi Jinping spoke of the need to "work energetically to create flagship external propaganda media with relatively strong international influence." Since 2016, however, the limitations of the centralized Party-state push for greater international communication capacity have become clearer to the leadership, and strategic thinkers within the CCP.
At the China New Media Conference in July last year, Qian Tong (钱彤), the editor-in-chief of the official Xinhua news portal, told the audience that central media had "all along played the role of the main force of national communication" and had an "important and irreplaceable role," before he elaborated the lackluster results so far: "Compared with the requirements of the CCP Central Committee, however, our voice in the international arena is not strong enough, and the situation of not being able to speak out, or not being able to properly transmit what we speak, has not fundamentally changed."
One answer to this shortcoming, Tong suggested, was for central and local Chinese media to "sing in a single chorus" (唱好精彩大合唱):
International communication must be a systematic project, and telling China's story well means organizing a multi-part chorus. The central media have always played the role of the main force in international communication. But in recent years, local media, rooted in their localities, have emerged as a new force, having unique advantages and an irreplaceable and important role in international communication.
ICCs are a major part of the strategy of utilizing local media as "a new force." Drawing on the resources of provincial and other local media groups, ICCs are meant to comprise regional centers for external propaganda that expand this overarching state goal beyond the focus and dependence on central state media such as the China Media Group, Xinhua News Agency, and China Daily.
The basic idea is to capitalize on the strength of local and regional media groups, which over the past decade have been pushed to promote internal "media convergence" (媒体融合), in the hope that this might bring about more diversified and effective approaches to external propaganda, paired with regional knowledge and specialization.
In several cases, ICCs like that in Guangdong have mandates to focus on distinct geographical target zones. For example, the Yunnan International Communication Center for South and Southeast Asia (云南省南亚东南亚区域国际传播中心), or YICC, launched in May 2022, is directed toward Southeast Asia. The city-level Guangxi Chongzuo International Communication Center (广西崇左国际传播中心), close to the border with Vietnam, was launched in September, and is directed toward ASEAN countries.
During the official launch of the Guangdong ICC on November 14, Wang Xiaoming (王晓鸣), vice president of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy (CIIDS), the host of the "Understanding China" conference, signed a "strategic framework agreement for international communication work" with the Nanfang Media Group, represented by group chief Hou Xiaojun (侯小军).
The two sides agreed to "implement the national strategy" (落实国家战略) over the "Understanding China" event, using it to "communicate China's voice."
During the same event, Hou pledged that he would actively build the Guangdong ICC into "a global platform for the showcasing of the thought and image of General Secretary Xi Jinping," as well as a channel for "authoritatively releasing information about the . . . . Greater Bay Area." The signing ceremony immediately followed the conclusion of the province's annual propaganda meeting, at which Huang Kunming (黄坤明), Guangdong's top CCP leader, stressed the need, echoing Xi Jinping, to "actively build an international communication capacity system."
Coverage from the China Daily newspaper reported that the ICC would "march in the direction of becoming a flagship media for international communication in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area." Emphasizing the role of the Guangdong ICC in media and information activities directed at Hong Kong, the territory's third chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), was among the figures to offer a video message of congratulations to the new center.
State media coverage of the ICC launch said that the center currently has more than four million followers globally through its various social media accounts on platforms including Twitter (X), Facebook, and TikTok. One brand under the Guangdong ICC is "Hi, This is GBA," which has 83,000 followers on Twitter, and identifies itself only as offering "news and insights about the Greater Bay Area" — with no indication of its state affiliation. The ICC's Facebook accounts include GDToday, which has 3.3 million followers. GDToday labels itself as a "media/news company" and claims to be "the premier online source of China's Guangdong news and information," again with no mention of its direct links to the Guangdong ICC and the provincial leadership.
Another Facebook account linked to GDToday is "Daily Bae" (also here), launched two years ago as an external propaganda brand of the official Guangdong Television, which has one million followers and claims to "scope out the world's hottest topics, breaking news, and vital information," though positive stories about Guangdong predominate. Content from Daily Bae, GDToday, and other affiliated accounts are shared and amplified on international social media platforms through channels operated by central state media. One example is "Info Guangdong," a website of the Guangdong Provincial People's Government which is published by the state-run China Daily and has accounts on Twitter and Facebook.
The formation of the Guangdong ICC is an effort to further centralize the external propaganda work carried out through this growing array of international accounts, all of which are routinely cloaked to disguise their direct association with the provincial media system. In turn, the expanding national network of ICCs, many of which signed the so-called "Malanshan Declaration" in July 2023 pledging along with central state media to work in concert, is the latest innovation of Xi's mandate to build "an international communication capacity system“ (国际传播能力体系).
The strategic framework agreement signed between the "Understanding China" conference host CIIDS and the Guangdong ICC during the November 14 official launch of the new center brings to light the event's primary role as state-led propaganda amplified through this new international communication system envisioned by Xi, to which provincial officials and media have been pressed to contribute their resources.