In the wake of its drowning international image due to coronavirus spread, China has been found investing billions every year in European media firms to present its own narrative through tactics like funding paid-for advertorials and sponsored journalistic coverage. During 2008-2018, China made an investment of Euro 2.8 billion focusing on acquisition of shares in European media firms accounting for about 1% of its total European investments.
In its efforts to reshape the global information environment with massive infusions of money, China has resorted to tactics like mergers and acquisitions of media organizations, commercial cooperation with media outlets, hiring PR companies to project Chinese views in mainstream media, cooperation by Chinese agencies with local news agencies, increasing sponsorship of journalists visits to China and setting up of think tank networks favoring Chinese views.
Interestingly, China has also made investments in Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain, heavily impacting neutral and critical reporting on China.
Under the garb of promoting “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), China has also entered into partnerships with European Union media houses and promoted a worldwide network of about 40 think tanks only for focusing on BRI.
Chinese Economic Information Service, a subsidiary of Xinhua News Agency in December 2017 has also signed an agreement with approximately 20 think tanks and media firms in Europe to facilitate promotion of “specialized financial information flow on BRI” to potential investors.
The participants in the initiative include Germany’s Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Italy’s Class Editori, Polish Press Agency, Belgium’s LeSoir, Britain’s Metro, Financial World and Open Communication in Spain, Tajung News Agency in Serbia, Greece’s Athens News Agency, European Institute for Asian Studies in Belgium, Institute of International Relations in Greece, France’s Thomas More Institute, Silk Road Connectivity Research Center in Serbia, Center for Poland-Asia Studies, and Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Greece. For mobilizing high caliber intellectual support for BRI, China has also roped in prestigious think tanks Elcano Royal Institute, German Development Institute and Chatham House.
Funded by China’s Department of International Cooperation, ‘The Silk Road Think Tank Network’ coordinates, funds research and organizes BRI conferences to seek support for the initiative.
The network functioning highlights China’s initiative in attempting to shape research agendas.
Chinese investments in European media networks is clearly meant for setting and shaping agendas in its favour. Their efforts to exert influence in European media and think tanks are becoming more sophisticated. While within China the press is increasingly tightly controlled, abroad Beijing has sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the free press to its advantage.
China has successfully planted its narratives on topics like Hong Kong protests into major news outlets across Central and Eastern Europe.
A prime example of China’s strategy to dominate the discourse in European media has been its attempts to change the narrative on Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. China specialists in Europe discovered that during the protests in Hong Kong, Chinese embassies in Central and Eastern Europe approached local media for publishing an interview with head of embassy promoting official “real account” on the protests. The common reference in all these articles was the bright and better future of Hong Kong once protests stop. Most of the articles were published in commercial sections pointing to the lack of credibility.
Despite numerous well documented cases, policy makers in Europe still do not consider media as strategic assets. The cases of China’s narratives on Hong Kong being placed in European media outlets should serve as a wakeup call to policy makers in the European Union.