Author: Dalia Parete

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 Taiwan.cn, 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 Guangcha.cn (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.”

Stoltezza?

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.