Author: Dalia Parete

Dalia is a CMP researcher with a background in Chinese foreign policy and Taiwan studies. She previously worked at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the Royal United Service Institute, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

A Fire That Can’t Be Extinguished

Those who play with fire will get burned. As Lai Ching-te (賴清德) was sworn in yesterday as the fifth democratically elected president of the Republic of China (ROC), the official name of Taiwan, seething sentiments like this one blazed across China’s official media.

Such language contrasted sharply with Lai’s message of “peace and mutual prosperity” (和平共榮) for both sides of the strait, delivered during a lively ceremony outside Taiwan’s Presidential Office whose theme for the day focused on national unity and democratic values: “Weaving Taiwan together; progressing democracy.”

Fiery Rhetoric

In a commentary on Lai’s speech posted online shortly after midnight today, China’s official Xinhua News Agency painted a portrait of Lai as a vocal proponent of what it called “the separatist fallacy of ‘Taiwan independence.’” In typical fashion, the headline — which included the fiery reference above — referred to Lai only as “the regional leader of Taiwan” (台湾地区领导人), emphasizing China’s claims to sovereignty over the islands.

Line by line, the Xinhua commentary dissected Lai’s speech, exposing what it claimed to be deceitful and separatist undertones, and responded with emotive and polemical attacks. Lai, it said, was a “worker for Taiwan independence” (台独工作者); a “troublemaker” (麻烦制造者). According to the news agency, his speech was “a naked confession of Taiwan independence.”

Lai’s message of peace and mutual prosperity was brushed aside. “The hope for cross-strait dialogue, exchanges, and cooperation is false,” said the Xinhua commentary, “and the continued deterioration of cross-strait relations is true.”  The article urged the Taiwanese to oppose independence and support unification.

With even harsher language, the Cross-Straits Voices channel of the CCP’s official China Media Group (CMG) adopted an adversarial tone. In the face of efforts toward Taiwan’s independence, it said, “peace in the Taiwan Strait is like fire and water” (台海和平水火不容).

Lai’s message of peace and mutual prosperity was brushed aside.

The channel characterized Lai’s speech, which focused on the four themes of stability, self-confidence, responsibility, and solidarity, as a blatant attempt to “lean on foreign [countries] to push independence” (倚外谋独), “internationalizing” the Taiwan question. The commentary was chockful of snide and aggressive characterizations of Lai’s words and intent. He “stubbornly adhered” (顽固坚持) to the notion of Taiwan independence, or “blatantly propagandized” (大肆宣扬) it. And he “incited” (煽动) the people of Taiwan to “hate and fear China” (仇中恐中).

By the outlet’s admission, there was nothing Lai could say to alleviate China’s concerns about his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has now won its third consecutive four-year presidential term — a first since Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. “No matter what Lai says or how he says it, nothing changes the fact that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China,” said the outlet.

The CMG piece was widely syndicated across Chinese websites and social media channels, often identified as being from “Watching the Taiwan Strait” (看台海), a social media brand under CMG. The article appeared in such outlets as the Shanghai Observer (上观), an online publication under Shanghai’s official Liberation Daily (解放日报); Guangming Daily Online, a website operated by the Central Propaganda Department’s chief newspaper, and the myriad social media accounts of Global Times.

The article was also shared through “Watching the Taiwan Strait” accounts on foreign social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, where its official CCP affiliations are not clearly labeled.

Full-Page Fury

In today’s edition of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper, the entire space of page four is devoted to official responses to Lai’s inauguration in Taiwan — with nine separate pieces in all.

Along the left-hand margin of the page is a report from Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, where Wang Yi, visiting to attend a meeting with ministerial members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), is quoted as emphasizing that “the one-China principle is the lynchpin for maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.” This is followed to the right by a pair of statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

Page four of today’s edition of the People’s Daily.

Another large article on the page gathers together several international remarks that affirm China’s sovereignty over Taiwan — a typical tactic in CCP propaganda, which historically relies heavily on foreign voices. The voices ostensibly supporting China on the Taiwan question include the speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, a spokesperson from Pakistan’s foreign ministry, a Congolese education official, parliamentary speakers from Botswana and Malawi, and a deputy prime minister of Uganda, to name just a very few.

But one of the strongest tones comes at the bottom of the page, in a commentary attributed to “Zhong Yiping” (钟一平). This is almost certainly a homophonous official pen name for an opinion representing the central CCP leadership. In many such pen names, the character “Zhong,” literally “bell,” is a stand-in for China. In this case, the second two characters in the name likely refer directly to “one China” and “peace” — essentially a homophone of the notion of “peaceful unification.”

Not surprisingly, the need for “peaceful unification” is the central theme of this page-four commentary, which concludes by urging both sides to “jointly pursue the bright future of peaceful unification.”

Social Silence

Today, as yesterday, social media platforms inside China are restricting posts and searches about Taiwan’s newly inaugurated president. As Chinese-language outlets outside China have reported, searches on the popular Weibo platform for the hashtag “#Lai Ching-te” (#赖清德) turned up a message yesterday that read: “According to relevant regulations and policies, the content of this topic cannot be displayed.”

Screenshot of Weibo on May 21, search for “Lai Ching-te.”

Searches today on Weibo for “Lai Ching-te” do yield results — with one serious limitation. All of the posts listed in the search results are from CCP-run media, listed hierarchically. At the top is the official account of the People’s Daily, followed by its spin-off, the Global Times.

Historically, elections in Taiwan have been a topic of interest for internet users in China, and the authorities are keen to contain and “guide” any related news and discussion. During Taiwan’s presidential election back in January, Weibo censored all hashtags associated with the presidential elections in Taiwan, which briefly trended.

Thanks to China’s conscientious filters on Taiwan, any curious reader in China who tries to search “Lai Ching-te” on social media will be faced with a wall of fire and fury.  

Additional research contributed by David Bandurski.

A Feminist Odyssey

Lü Pin began her involvement in women’s rights in the 1990s, as a new generation of women’s activism was bubbling in the wake of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995. Then a recent graduate of Shandong University, she was working as a journalist for China Women’s News (中国妇女报), the official publication of the All-China Women’s Federation or ACWF (中华全国妇女联合会), a Communist Party-affiliated “mass organization.”

After a decade at the paper, Lü set off on her own to found Feminist Voices (女权之声), an independent outlet based on Weibo and WeChat. Also known in English as Women’s Voice, it advocated for women and offered a support network for this new generation of activists, helping them analyze and discuss feminist issues. The online platform was permanently shut down by the authorities in 2018, by which point Lü was continuing her writing and activism from the United States, fearing harassment for her work in China. Now pursuing a PhD at Rutgers University, Lü Pin’s passion for advocacy and activism has never faded. She continues to moderate the Facebook group Free Chinese Feminists, where she shares news and updates on the state of women’s rights in China. 

Last month, CMP’s Dalia Parete sat down with Lü Pin to discuss her journey as a feminist and the ways women’s issues are portrayed in China today. 

Dalia Parete: I know you’ve been engaged with women’s issues and feminism in China for many years, but perhaps you could start by telling us how you first became interested in, or concerned about these issues. What got you involved?

Lü Pin: In 1994, after graduating from university, I was offered a job as a reporter at the China Women’s News. At that time, I had not been exposed to feminism and had little interest in women’s issues. Knowing nothing about feminism, I became exposed to women’s issues through my work at a time when preparations for the upcoming Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing were in full swing. I attended the NGO Forum at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 as a reporter and was greatly impressed by the fervent feminist spirit and the diverse range of issues discussed by participants from all over the world.

The year following that conference, a few of my colleagues and some gender scholars founded a volunteer group dedicated to media and gender equality, though I was not actively involved with this group until about 1998. Around International Women’s Day that year, I participated in a gender awareness training session organized by a colleague along with other female journalists. During an icebreaker activity when asked, “Who are you?” I responded with “a journalist.” The facilitator showed her response to the same question as “a female journalist.” This experience was among my earliest realizations that incorporating a gender perspective into my work was not only possible but could also make a significant difference.

Two issues that initially caught my attention were gender bias in mass media and domestic violence against women. As a result, my colleagues and I, in collaboration with some gender studies scholars, formed a writing group and established a column in China Women’s News. This column, which ran for about three years, focused on critiquing the prevalent issues within the mass media at the time, specifically how the media discriminated against, demeaned, and ignored women in various aspects. 

My engagement with the issue of domestic violence also began through the media, by raising awareness among media workers and enhancing the media coverage of domestic violence issues. Starting in 2002, I led a program that organized seminars and training sessions for journalists in Beijing and other cities, invited them to cover advocacy activities, and facilitated the creation of a guide for reporting on domestic violence. In 2003, I distributed press releases on proposed legislation for the Law Against Domestic Violence to journalists at the “Two Sessions,” which was finally enacted in 2016 after more than a decade of collaborative efforts.

Lü Pin writing a report on an All-China Women’s Federation event at the Great Hall of the People in 1999. Photo: Lü Pin.

DP: Earlier in your career, you worked as a reporter for China Women’s News, which is a state-affiliated publication. What was that experience like? How was it possible, and maybe not possible, to talk about the issues that concerned you?

LP: I worked for China Women’s News for a total of ten years, from 1994 to 2004. The newspaper is directly controlled by the Party, but it is almost the least important newspaper of the Party’s national propaganda system. The newspaper’s motto was “to publicize women to society, to publicize society to women,” implying that it struggles with the marginalization of the women’s issues it advocated within the dominant ideology. While working at the newspaper, I did a lot of propaganda work that I was instructed to do, much of which I didn’t realize was problematic at the time.

For instance, during the so-called enterprise reform, many women were forcibly dismissed and left without social protection. However, the newspaper portrayed the unemployment issue as a result of women’s “low quality” and promoted the notion that women should “stand on their own feet” as a solution to the problem.

At the same time, the newspapers’ advocacy for gender equality has led to a critical examination of women’s rights issues, including violence against women and gender discrimination in the family, education, and the workplace. This also opened up the newspapers to engage with the activities of women’s organizations and to consider the perspectives of feminist scholars on several issues, fostering a more inclusive and informed discussion on women’s rights. I am most grateful for the exposure to feminism and civil women’s organizations during the ten years I worked for the newspaper.

I did not have many real readers because China Women’s News, like other state-affiliated newspapers, has never been marketed to the broader public.

A fact that might not be known to many is that media directly affiliated with the state at the time allowed journalists considerable autonomy, as they did not strictly regulate the content beyond the bottom line of not overstepping red lines and fulfilling the propaganda tasks entrusted to them by the state. Although I diligently wrote many reports about women’s rights and gender issues, I did not have many real readers because China Women’s News, like other state-affiliated newspapers, has never been marketed to the broader public.

Nor was there any reward for excellence or hard work within the newspaper. My experience has taught me that the rigidity and staleness of content in state-affiliated media outlets are not solely due to censorship and propaganda. A considerable factor is also their lack of competition in the marketplace, although marketization does not necessarily imply an increased interest in gender equality. Ultimately, it was the demoralization and sense of meaninglessness in the work environment that led me to leave China Women’s News after ten years of working for it.

DP: Drawing on your experience in the media sphere and also as an activist, how would you assess reporting in China today on women’s issues? And what would you like to see?

LP: This is a big question. Simply put, we should dynamically assess media coverage of women’s issues in light of changes in both China’s socio-political environment and its media ecology. I’m also viewing it from a feminist activist’s perspective. In the era when marketized traditional media replaced state-affiliated media as the major public agenda setters, the problem continued to be mainly the marginalization of women and gender issues, characterized more by the virtual absence of references to them rather than overt manifestations of discrimination and symbolic exploitation.

When marketized media replaced state-affiliated media as the major public agenda setters, the problem continued to be the marginalization of women and gender issues.

For a period, I did observe a quantitative increase in mass media coverage of women’s rights claims, although it remained limited in overall proportion. The reason for this surge was that the media at the time was drawn to the controversial advocacy approaches adopted by feminists. However, as the feminist movement faced increasing repression in 2015 and the political environment in China tightened, it became difficult for mass media to spotlight feminist advocacy.

The rise of the feminist movement, against the odds of repression, nevertheless introduced a new variable: the opportunity and possibility for the mass media to communicate feminist claims when they become very prominent. In the boom period of the #MeToo movement, which began in 2018, there was a lot of effort by the media to report, with those media reporters consciously viewing their reporting as supportive of the movement and as a form of defiance against censorship. Despite many reports not making it to the presses and others being deleted later, the media coverage significantly fueled the #MeToo movement’s efforts to raise public awareness. Additionally, the media’s shift to the Internet has facilitated more comprehensive coverage of gender issues, allowing for representation in lengthy and multimedia formats. 

As feminism becomes further politically stigmatized and the media faces increasing restrictions against investigating controversial issues, the gender perspective in news coverage is diminishing, appearing only occasionally and subtly in “non-fiction” stories. In the cases of gender-based violence that attracted a great deal of concern since 2022, such as the case of the chained women, the media was powerless to reveal the truth, and to a considerable extent was only able to convey the official narrative frame. In China’s context, media coverage of women’s issues is increasingly becoming a matter of what reporting is permitted — that is, a question of freedom of expression.

In fact, I’m fairly certain that covering women’s issues would be greatly in the media’s interest at this time. Women’s rights are arguably one of the hottest topics in China, and yet both the amount and depth of media coverage in this area are simply not commensurate with the needs of audiences. I’m not suggesting that easing censorship would fully resolve gender inequality in the media, but rather it’s no longer realistic to discuss improving media coverage when heavy censorship has significantly curtailed the autonomy of media reporting.

Lü Pin reporting on the 1995  World Conference on Women’s Non-Governmental Forum. Photo: Lü Pin.

DP: I wonder if we could turn to your work at Feminist Voices. What was the idea behind starting this project?

LP: My motivation for founding Feminist Voices in 2009 was as much about dissatisfaction with the mass media as it was with the feminist movement back then. Rather than negotiating with mass media workers to encourage more focus on women’s issues, I opted for a more efficient strategy: directly disseminating the feminist perspective through alternative media. I also aimed to reorganize the feminist movement by engaging with the general public beyond the confines of feminist circles dominated by the intellectual elite. 

It was a period when civil society was burgeoning in China, and I was driven by a strong desire to ensure that the feminist movement did not become disconnected or marginalized. In the years after having the idea to create an alternative media outlet, I lacked the resources to make it real. All I managed to do was establish a feminist blog on my personal MSN account, which has been discontinued. That blog received up to 2,000 hits per post before being banned before the 2008 Olympics. So, when I finally secured a bit of funding to create Feminist Voices, I had confidence that it was going to work.

For the first two years of Feminist Voices, I was the only part-time employee and handled everything. Almost all weeks, I distributed a Word file containing several original articles through an e-mail group I managed, which had over a thousand members — perhaps almost all the active feminists around the country at that time.

I would also upload some important articles to social media. Weibo had not been launched yet, but there was Kaixin and Douban. The highest number of reads I received on a single post was 20,000, and almost every week I received enthusiastic feedback telling me how my articles inspired them and suggesting topics they would like me to discuss. From such feedback, I recognized that there were already some very passionate young feminists in China who were eager to take action. The alliance between Feminist Voices and these young people contributed to opening up an era of greater popularization and politicization of the feminist movement in China. The main point of recalling this history may be to highlight the great potential that media and communication may contribute to social change. 

Feminist Voices was banned long ago but today numerous other feminist alternative media outlets are currently active in China. Many of them lack a large following and are highly vulnerable to suspension due to exhaustion and censorship, but they collectively form a vast network of feminist communication that tenaciously remains the community base of feminism. There may be only a few at the vanguard of a movement, but the resilience of the movement is something that countless people unite to hold onto.

The table of contents for a 2010 edition of Feminist Voices.

DP:  In 2018, while you were living in America, the #MeToo movement surged in China. How did you see the movement?

LP: The rise and growth of the #MeToo movement demonstrates the adaptive resilience of the feminist movement. The “Feminist Five” case, in which five feminists were arrested and detained for organizing an anti-sexual harassment action, occurred in March-April 2015. It underscored the government’s deterrence against the organizing of high-profile women’s rights advocacy. However, despite the shrinking and going semi-underground nature of core feminist activist groups, the reach of the feminist movement expanded dramatically through the internet, fostering active public debate on various topics. The #MeToo movement represented another phase in the feminist movement’s evolution, led by a generation of young feminists who centered their activism around issues rooted in their own gendered experiences, and a more spontaneous and decentralized approach to mobilization.

Portrait of the Feminist Five (Li Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wang Man) by David Revoy.

#MeToo highlights the remarkable courage and vitality that feminism can ignite, evident in its ability to break through censorship, shaking up society and amplifying women’s voices countless times for the last six years. But #MeToo could not halt the deteriorating political climate in China, resulting in waves of violence against its participants, including activists and survivors who came forward.

As collective action has become almost impossible, and as legal and institutional changes appear increasingly unlikely, the #MeToo movement, and indeed the feminist movement as a whole, increasingly shifts towards engaging in discursive debates surrounding culture, relationships, behavioral norms, and lifestyles as a means of adaptation. Certainly, discursive debates are crucial for effecting far-reaching social change, and the expansive feminist community fostered by the #MeToo movement in China stands as a significant bastion of resistance within the current Chinese landscape.

DP: What strategies do you think the feminist movement in China will employ to maintain its momentum and adapt to the evolving political climate, given the challenges it faces in terms of censorship?

LP: We know that censorship does not block all dissemination of information, but merely draws boundaries or raises the threshold for it. As a result, cases that achieve great emotional or moral mobilization can still be widely disseminated and evoke strong anger, while messages that do not directly resort to resistance may also still circulate. Of course, things have become so unpredictable and unstable that no one can confirm what would survive censorship. I mean, with regard to women’s rights, there’s still space for discussion within the Great Firewall (GWF) at the moment, but when it comes to building momentum for the movement, that’s really impossible to plan and anticipate.

Further, we have been witnessing a strategy become more prominent — namely, information backwash, which is spreading information into GFW from sites outside GFW. Yet there are no examples of the feminist movement being able to forge mobilization in this way, and this strategy is being risked by transnational repression. My own current interest is in the creation of insightful critical and activism-oriented knowledge that aims at the empowerment of the community. Keeping our members from being ignorant is essential to maintaining our movement in the long term and at the forefront.

DP: Finally, I’d like to ask about a term that has garnered significant attention in Western discussions of Chinese feminism — the concept of “leftover women” (剩女). This term, which refers to unmarried women over a certain age, has been widely discussed in Western media. Does it still significantly influence how women are portrayed in China? If so, how does it impact the broader discourse on women’s roles and expectations in Chinese society?

LP: A fundamental aspect of the severe patriarchal constraints faced by Chinese women is the demand for them to conform to gender-specific norms and fulfill gender-specific obligations, such as marrying and bearing children by a certain age. 

I think one of the most prominent conflicts in China is that women have progressed but the state and society have not.

The term “leftover woman” functions as a stigmatizing label, symbolizing society’s denial of the dignity of women who deviate from expected gender behaviors and serving as a cautionary message to other women. On the other hand, the term has emerged precisely because more and more women are postponing marriage or even declaring that they will not marry. This phenomenon is a manifestation of women’s increased level of education and independence of livelihood, and also their increased awareness of women’s autonomy. In fact, I think one of the most prominent conflicts in China is that women have progressed but the state and society have not.

Today, if I am asked whether the term “leftover woman” still wields significant power to harm women demanding lifestyle freedom, my answer is not as much as it did 10 or 15 years ago. This is because more women today are resisting the imposition of patriarchal norms on them.

Indeed, one of the most prominent initiatives remaining in the current feminist movement is “no marriage and no childbearing to protect ourselves.” This radical attitude represents the cutting edge of the feminist debate on lifestyles.

New Frontiers in Foreign Propaganda

In its home market, the Discovery Channel has earned a reputation for never letting reality get in the way of a good story. Once home to respected wildlife documentaries and science specials, the network is better known these days for such colorful titles as Naked and Afraid, Deadliest Catch, American Chopper, and, of course, Shark Week. The network’s volte-face from education to entertainment has even become something of a pop culture punchline.

But what Discovery stands accused of with regards to China is no laughing matter. According to a group of US Congressmen, the channel is “whitewashing genocide” against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in far-western Xinjiang. In an open letter last month to the president and CEO of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, six Republican representatives called World’s Ultimate Frontier — a new co-production between Discovery and CGTN, the international division of state-run broadcaster CCTV — “an obvious work of propaganda on the part of a totalitarian, adversary regime.”

Known in Chinese as “Entering Xinjiang” (走進新疆), the first trailer for the series features a cast of starry-eyed foreigners marveling at the sights, sounds, and tastes of the region, where the UN Human Rights Office says crimes against humanity have been carried out by the Chinese state. As mass detention, torture, cultural persecution, and forced labor go on behind the scenes, the hosts eat snacks and gawk at happy, dancing minorities.

In their letter, the congresspeople urge Discovery to “suspend this partnership with CGTN immediately and to abstain from entering into any similar partnership with any other agent of CCP influence.” In fact, when it comes to co-producing with the CCP, this latest venture is far from Discovery’s first — and likely will not be its last. At CMP, we’ve cataloged a few of these conspicuous collabs, including a documentary series extolling the virtues of Xi Jinping’s leadership, and (in what masquerades as a straightforward survival series) another that traces the route of the Red Army’s Long March in the 1930s.

The difference, this time, is the heights from which support for World’s Ultimate Frontier seems to have come.

Productive Partnerships

In an article published in May last year in the pages of Research on Ideological and Political Work (思想政治工作研究), a journal published by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong (慎海雄) — himself a deputy propaganda minister — highlighted World’s Ultimate Frontier as an essential “external communication brand” for the Party.

The May 2023 edition of the CCP journal Research on Ideological and Political Work includes an article from deputy propaganda minister and China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong mentioning World’s Ultimate Frontier.

“We have worked to build a Chinese discourse and a Chinese narrative system, so as to make the image of a credible, lovable and respected China more vivid and lively,” said Shen, directly referencing remarks on global propaganda Xi Jinping made at a collective study session of the Politburo two years earlier. Shen continued by saying that CMG would “optimize mechanisms of cooperation with international mainstream media, creating such foreign communication brands as Entering Xinjiang and Rooted in China.” This passage by the head of the group overseeing Discovery’s co-production partner, CGTN, clearly indicates that the Entering Xinjiang (World’s Ultimate Frontier) program was conceived on the Chinese side as directly serving the external propaganda goals of the state.

China has made clear in policy-related statements on international communication that what the CCP now calls a “Chinese discourse and narrative system” relies largely on borrowed foreign distribution channels, particularly as efforts to build credible state-run channels overseas have in many ways faltered. For more than a decade, the Singapore-based subsidiary Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific has been one of China’s most reliable avenues of foreign distribution for state-backed television productions, giving them the potential access to a global broadcast network reaching over a billion viewers in more than 230 countries and territories.

China Media Group chief Shen Haixiong — himself a deputy propaganda minister — highlighted World’s Ultimate Frontier as an essential “external communication brand” for the Party.

Starting in at least 2012, according to Chinese media reports, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific launched cooperation with the China International Communication Center (CICC), again directly linked with the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, which yielded a string of co-productions included the 2017 China: Time of Xi, an unctuously positive three-part documentary on Xi Jinping that aired ahead of the Party’s 19th National Congress. The 2022 production Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), the six-episode series retracing the Long March, was released by Discovery along with a several Chinese partners, including the Central Propaganda Department’s Overseas Promotion Office (中宣部对外推广局) and CICC.

These deals seem to have been brokered at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific by vice-president Vikram Channa, who has overseen an extensive China portfolio and regularly taken part in state-led cultural initiatives. Channa is, according to state media reports, a member of the expert committee for the Orchid Awards, which honors individuals and organizations in the cultural arena who have contributed positively to what the CCP calls people-to-people exchanges. The awards are organized by the China International Communications Group (中國外文局), or CICG, which like both the China Media Group and CICC is directly under the Central Propaganda Department.

Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific vice-president Vikram Channa (first from left) attends the May 2023 launch of the Understanding China documentary series. Standing second from the right is Li Zhihui (李智慧) of the Central Propaganda Department’s Overseas Promotion Office.

CICG is one of China’s most prolific producers of official documentaries, many through its China Review Studio (解读中国工作室). Among its recent productions is the 2022 A Long Cherished Dream (柴米油盐之上), directed by the Oscar-winning director Malcolm Clarke, who said he hoped the film could “make China a little bit more sympathetic to the rest of the world.” The documentary, which was distributed by Discovery across Southeast Asia, was held up by state media as a prime example of a domestic documentary achieving maximum effect overseas. “A Long Cherished Dream innovatively employs a multi-participant Sino-foreign co-production and collaborative distribution mechanism, achieving a substantial international dissemination impact,” the propaganda department-run Guangming Daily reported.

In November last year, Discovery’s Channa was credited as a co-director for a series of documentaries called Understanding China (读懂中国), and took part in a related launch ceremony in Guangzhou. The series is a cooperation between Warner Bros. Discovery and the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy (CIIDS), a center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences which states, in clear echo of the external communication strategy outlined by Xi Jinping in 2013, that it is “committed to telling China’s story and spreading China’s voice.”

Telling Whose Story?

In World’s Ultimate Frontier, Xinjiang is presented as a magical holiday destination: a playground for outsiders where you can explore the snowy wilderness on horseback, experience a cultural melting pot in historic Kashgar, or relive the storied Silk Road trading routes. Its version of the restive and long-suffering region is a lot like the typical portrayal for domestic Han audiences in PRC state media. This, we are essentially being told, is what it means to “tell China’s story well.”

Camel trains, dances, motorsports, and desert off-roading — there are many ways to redirect the message in Discovery’s latest co-production with CGTN.

Discovery may indeed be engaged in storytelling as it works directly with the leadership in Beijing to tell China’s story. Audiences might find these stories compelling, at times even exhilarating — like the romping, sand-kicking journey the hosts make through the dunes of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert in episode two of World’s Ultimate Frontier or the daring motorsports of episode 4.

But from China’s standpoint, the ultimate goal of the series is to distract global audiences with spectacle and banter, turning their eyes away from the real and tragic story facing many thousands of Uyghurs that have been incarcerated, displaced, exiled, and painfully separated from their loved ones in the ongoing campaign of repression.

There is nothing entertaining about the reality facing many in Xinjiang, away from the cameras and documentary crews. If Discovery profits by offering a global audience for Beijing’s efforts to obscure and distract from this reality, it at least has a moral obligation to be upfront about who is ultimately footing the bill.

One Election, Two Reactions

When Chinese state media reported on the results of Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this month, they gave nothing away: “Results show that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim were elected as the leader and deputy of the Taiwan region,” a terse official release from Xinhua News Agency reported. This was the first big election in a global year of democracy, unfolding just across the strait, and with far-reaching consequences for Beijing’s foreign policy — but it was summed up in just 75 words.

For observers expecting fire and brimstone in the wake of an election that Beijing has watched closely, the relative quiet of the Xinhua release, which set the tone for “mainstream” coverage, might have come as a surprise. But fiery language could be found elsewhere. In English and other languages, state media were fuming by comparison, condemning President-elect Lai and the DPP.

During Taiwan’s election on January 13, 2024, presidential ballots at a local polling station are called out (唱票) one by one (at left), placed in their respective piles on the table, and then noted for each candidate on strips of white paper using the character “zheng” (正).  Image: David Bandurski.

How do we account for this dichotomy? The stiff poker face in Chinese, and the snarling wolf warrior in English? In fact, these varying reactions, which have played out in the past for international stories China’s leadership regards as highly sensitive, offer a glimpse at how state media handle sharply differing priorities for domestic and international audiences. 

While China insists Taiwan is an internal affair, and that the rest of the world should simply keep its nose out, the bulk of the coverage of the elections in state media was directed externally, at foreign readers. Internally, silence reigned.

Tight Lips for the Domestic Audience

Xinhua, with its three-line official release, or tonggao (通稿), was the first PRC source to break the news. In all likelihood, given the sensitivity of the matter, other media across the country would have been instructed to follow Xinhua’s lead, even if that meant there was little to go on. The release referred to Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) only as the “elected leader and deputy leader of the Taiwan region” (台湾地区正副领导人), emphasizing what China insists is Taiwan’s subordinate position as a Chinese province, and sidestepping any recognition of Lai and Hsiao as the president and vice-president-elect of the country.

Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the release said nothing about the political positions of the DPP, or why the party’s win might be significant. The voting results for Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan (立法院), were also briefly outlined, but what each party stood for and how the body’s composition had changed were not. Had the goal of the Xinhua release been to convey the official position of the Chinese leadership on the elections, this would have been a curious omission. After all, the DPP’s commitment to defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and strengthening ties with democratic allies has been a point of contention for China, and the DPP’s failure to secure a majority in the parliament might be interpreted as favorable to China’s interests.

But these details were left out because revealing them in a domestic media report from the CCP’s official news agency would potentially invite discussion internally of the details of the election outcome — including that the DPP won an unprecedented third term in the Presidential Office. As the Xinhua release was meant to “guide” the tone of domestic coverage, the leadership opted for a cautious approach.

The Xinhua notice was reproduced, unaltered, in the next day’s edition of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily (人民日報), where it appeared on page four, and in scores of other state media, including the China Daily (中國日報), published by the State Council Information Office, China Youth Online, the news website of the Chinese Communist Youth League’s China Youth Daily, and, a website operated directly by the CCP’s Taiwan Work Office.

One notable, but only slight, exception to the clipped Xinhua coverage in official Party media was a report that appeared in Fujian Daily (福建日報), the official mouthpiece of the Fujian Provincial Committee of the CCP. It published additional remarks from Zhang Ming (張明) Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, who repeated official talking points about territorial integrity. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory,” Zhang said.

A small report on page six of the official Fujian Daily on January 15, 2024, adds official talking points from Zhang Ming (張明), secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

It is not uncommon for official Party media in Fujian province, which sits directly across the strait from Taiwan, to offer slightly more coverage of Taiwanese affairs, always with an emphasis on matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity — or playing up the shortcomings of the Taiwanese government in content directed at Taiwanese as well as local populations that often have close social and kinship ties across the straits. Kinship ties also figure prominently in Chinese state propaganda on cross-strait relations.

The same role over election news was played by the Taiwan Affairs Office (國台辦), where spokesperson Chen Binhua (陳斌華) stressed that the election results were irrelevant to the “inevitable” force of unification. The outcome, said Chen, demonstrated that the DPP no longer represented mainstream public opinion in Taiwan, since the party won less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Loose Cannons for the Outside World

In stark contrast to the subdued and largely restrained coverage by state media internally, the reaction to Taiwan’s elections from international-facing, foreign-language state media was considerably more colorful. Leading the charge was the Global Times, a commercial spin-off of the official People’s Daily that generally strikes a more combative tone on international affairs. The newspaper’s online English-language commentary warned that “the initiative on solving the Taiwan question firmly lies with the Chinese mainland” and “the mainland has both the strength and determination to resolve the Taiwan question once and for all.” This thinly veiled threat of military force should Lai “cross the red line” was complemented by another article threatening economic consequences should Taiwan move in the direction of de jure independence.

In a commentary piece for the China Daily, again in English, Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor Lau Siu-kai accused Taiwan, under the DPP, of becoming “increasingly arrogant and overbearing.” In this framing, Taiwan — routinely subject to threats of armed violence and economic coercion like those issued by the Global Times — was portrayed as the true source of cross-strait tensions. Despite the fact that it was the Taiwanese themselves who determined the direction of their government through a democratic election, Lau dismissed the country as a mere “pawn” of the United States, saying that it had “no autonomy and dignity left.”

In fact, threats to Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing have likely been a decisive factor in handing the DPP repeated presidential election victories. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center has shown that 66 percent of Taiwanese view China as a major threat, as opposed to 45 percent who say the same of US influence in the region.

In externally directed coverage like the above, academics and other commentators were often used as channels for more hardline viewpoints that were absent from official state media coverage internally, and this was combined with redirection away from questions of democratic governance and toward major power rivalry and alleged interference.

Two days after the election, the Global Times shared a short interview with Victor Gao (高志凱), a guest professor at China’s Suzhou University who contributes a regular column to the outlet. Gao labeled Taiwan “Washington’s proxy” and said that if Taiwan’s government cared about its people it would acquiesce to China, which has “momentum on [its] side.”

In externally directed coverage, academics and other commentators were often used as channels for more hardline viewpoints that were absent from official state media coverage internally.

Adding to the torrent of externally directed statements on the Taiwan election was China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which remained active on this issue through its array of global social media accounts on platforms like Twitter (X) and Facebook. The ministry issued a clipped release in English on January 13, the day of the election, that was not included in Chinese on the MFA site. It also weighed in at a press conference on January 15, two days after the election, emphasizing what is a sticking point for the Chinese leadership, that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”

But the focus again was away from electoral politics in Taiwan, and squarely on questions of external interference, particularly from the United States. A statement from the US State Department on the election earned a strong rebuttal from the MFA on January 14, which foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (華春瑩) recapitulated through her account on X: “The Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations,” she posted. “We urge the US to stop interactions of an official nature with Taiwan and stop sending any wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence.’”

Nationalist Outliers on the Taiwan Question

Exceptions to the above-mentioned pattern — of state media restraint internally and active amplification of state talking points externally — were exceptionally rare in the wake of the Taiwan elections. However, one of the most prominent examples was Shanghai’s (观察者), a privately-held outlet founded in 2012 by Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li. Guancha, or “Observer,” maintains close ties with influential figures who have the leadership’s ear, including Zhang Weiwei (张维为), the staunchly nationalist and anti-Western intellectual who heads up Fudan University’s China Institute (and who also led a collective study session of the CCP Politburo in May 2021 dealing with external propaganda.)

Guancha, which has built a strong domestic audience among young Chinese around nationalist talking points that often intersect with those of the Global Times, offered internally-directed coverage of the Taiwan elections that mirrored the tone and character of much external propaganda. It also applied the aforementioned two tactics — namely, focusing on sovereignty and Western interference, and citing ostensibly independent experts with close state ties supporting CCP positions.

The day after the election, Guancha posted an interview-based article — the outlet is prevented under its registration from reporting news — that led with the basic Xinhua release content before a play-by-play of an interview by the BBC with Wang Wen (王文), dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. Like Zhang Weiwei, who has claimed him as a “close friend,” Professor Wang is an oft-cited critic of the West and a proponent of nationalist positions. The article quoted Wang Wen’s viewpoints, including those on sovereignty and territorial integrity, as though the scholar was in conflict with the BBC journalist.

At one point, the article read: “During the interview, although the BBC presenter kept falsely relying on so-called ‘democracy’ to lead the conversation, claiming that ‘independence’ sentiment is getting stronger, Wang Wen said this was an ideological gap that would be closed with time, and there is a need to guard against the interference of the US and other external forces.” At several points, the article mentioned the scholar’s “refutation of the other side” (反驳对方) in a way that seemed to mirror China’s “wolf warrior” approach to foreign policy. The headline relayed Wang’s hardline assessment of the situation following the DPP victory, stating outright that “if the DPP authorities dare to declare ‘Taiwan independence,’ then the result can only be unification by force.”

This more directly provocative take on the Taiwan elections and China’s position was not shared across other websites inside China, where such cross-sharing is limited to a sanctioned list of sources, though it was re-posted through the Sina News app. Meanwhile, Guancha‘s Weibo post on the Wang Wen BBC interview received little engagement, a possible sign, given the outlet’s strong following of close to 20 million, that the reach of the post was being limited through technical means in order to avoid a spillover of social media discussion.

For the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan remains an issue of extreme sensitivity, and this is especially true at election time when the free and open nature of the political process across the straits has the potential to reflect on deeper questions of political legitimacy in China. When it comes to domestic Chinese audiences, the less said about Taiwanese democracy the better.

What Does It Mean to Understand China?

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.

Originally meant as a platform for dialogue, the “Understanding China” international conference, which celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month, has become a stage for the one-sided external propaganda of China’s leadership.
Wu Jianmin attends the World Economic Forum in 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Another figure present at the event, and promoted in official media coverage, was Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World, who for years has faithfully jumped on the rhetorical bandwagons of the CCP, most recently, like Ferguson, promoting Xi’s concept of “whole-process democracy.” Jacques has long been identified in the party-state media with the official honorific “old friend of the Chinese people,” a phrase reserved for those who praise the Party or are seen to act on its behalf.

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 launch of the Guangdong International Communication Center, CIIDS, host of the "Understanding China" conference, signs a strategic agreement with the Nanfang Media Group for "international communication work" for the conference.

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."

A graphic illustration for GDToday posted by China Daily lists its various platforms, including websites, an app, a newsletter, and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

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.

As Italy Exits BRI, Radio Silence

Last week, Italy became the first country to pull out of the Belt and Road Initiative, as the Italian foreign ministry delivered a note to Beijing stating its intention not to renew the memorandum signed by the first Conte government in 2019.

China has not taken it well. But this time — unlike the small storm that ensued over the summer when news of the possible withdrawal surfaced — we can only read China’s displeasure in its uncharacteristic silence over Italy’s decision.

On December 7, Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni made the reason for her government’s decision clear. Economically, she said, the agreement had not benefitted Italy in any way. She pointed out that although the only G7 country to sign an MoU with China, Italy’s trade with the economic giant lagged far behind that of non-signatories such as France and Germany.

Officials in the Meloni administration avoided fireworks about the decision to withdraw, responding to media requests with a simple “no comment.”


Gianni Alemanno, the former mayor of Rome, called Italy’s exit from the BRI “stupidity.”

Nouvelles d’Europe (歐洲時報), or Europe Times, a Chinese-language newspaper distributed across the EU and linked to the state-run China News Service under the United Front Work Department (UFWD), featured an interview with Gianni Alemanno, the former mayor of Rome and secretary of the anti-NATO and anti-EU Movimento Indipendenza. Alemanno, who recently has been a big fan of the PRC, stated that Italy would regret the decision to exit Xi Jinping’s initiative‚ calling it “stupidity.” He also pulled the eurocentrism card, stating that the Italian government’s decision to withdraw from the BRI represented the unwillingness of the West to deepen its ties with the BRICS nations.

Meanwhile, in an interview released by FX168 (FX168财经报社), a globally directed Chinese-language outlet based in Hong Kong and focusing on Chinese finance news, former Conte government undersecretary Michele Geraci — for many, the personification of the CCP propaganda machine in Italy — stated that as a consequence of leaving the BRI, Italy will suffer great economic loss, implicitly voicing his view that following the West will only hurt Rome.

An Angry Silence

Perhaps revealingly, comments available on the popular social media platform Weibo about Italy’s exit from the BRI all seemed to date back to July and August, when news surfaced that the decision was imminent. Were social media censors also trying to save face?

Economically, said Meloni, the agreement had not benefitted Italy in any way. 

The reaction online at the time is best characterized as grumpy. “Italy is a fake developed country,” wrote one user. “We don’t care about them,” wrote another. “Just wait until they see all the other countries develop, and then they will regret it!”

This time? Crickets.

As news came of Italy’s formal withdrawal from the BRI, there was also no comment from China’s state-run media. State-run media outlets, both in Chinese and English, have been notably silent over the past week, a stark contrast with the burst of related coverage in July and August, as Italy’s intention became clear — and as China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and state media sought to play up BRI cooperation as “the right choice.”

Headlines at that time read:

Don’t let quitting BRI become Italy’s regret

Italy’s BRI dilemma worsens as ‘pressure from US, EU mounts

BRI helps to boost Italian exports to China

Melancholic reflections on Italy’s potential decision to leave BRI

This week, foreign language state media channels such as China Daily, CGTN and the Global Times have grown quiet about what is surely a sore subject. Searches for news about “Italy” + “Belt and Road” in Chinese turn up coverage from a wide range of overseas outlets, including the BBC, Radio Canada International, Japan’s NHK, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, and Initium Media.

But from China’s state media? Radio silence.