Myanmar Regime Learning From China’s Expertise at Media Manipulation

By Bertil Lintner 5 January 2023

There is no doubt that China in just a couple of decades has transformed itself from a poor Asian country into an economic, political and even military superpower. But little attention has been paid to the way in which China has also established a media and information imperium with tentacles spreading all over the world.

That would not be especially remarkable, had it not been for the way in which China’s ruling communist party is using its own media outlets, and the influence those exercise over newspaper, internet sites and blogs in some other countries, to promote its own undemocratic system as an alternative to “liberal democracy”, as well as peddling misinformation about, for instance, the situation in its ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

China’s propaganda apparatus even tries to influence other countries domestic policies by planting false news and manipulating public figures. In Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), examines China’s global media offensive and how the leaders in Beijing are increasingly cooperating with their comrades in Moscow in their efforts to become global media influencers.

China has, as Kurlantzick points out, often failed to reap gains from its efforts, but it has been successful in exporting “its political and internet control models” to some like-minded regimes in Asia — among them Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. These campaigns, Kurlantzick argues, may “not only help protect the ruling Party [in China]; they may also help China build alliances with autocracies and undermine press freedoms, human rights, and democracy across the globe.” CFR may be a United States (US)-based think-tank but it is independent and non-partisan, and often publishes reports critical of Washington and its policies.

Although Kurlanzick’s study focuses on the media, it should also be mentioned in this context that Reuters, on July 11 last year, identified three Chinese companies that have supplied Myanmar with cameras with facial recognition capabilities which now are in place in cities all over the country, enabling the junta to track down and identify opponents to the dictatorship. Two of the three companies – the Shenzhen-based technology giant Huawei Technologies and Zhejiang Dahua Technology in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province – did not respond to Reuters request for comment. The third company, Hikvision, another partly state-owned company also based in Hangzhou, issued a vague and ambiguous statement saying that the company had never sold any equipment “directly to Myanmar government authorities.”

Hikvision claimed also that it had not provided Myanmar with facial recognition technology. But The Irrawaddy has learned from industry sources that Hikvision has used local Chinese and Myanmar middlemen to transfer such equipment to the junta, and that such indirect sales to Myanmar have increased dramatically over the past year. Chinese companies have also supplied the military regime with technology that makes it possible to monitor the internet, hack into independent websites, and control the flow of news from Myanmar to the outside world.

Kurlantzick quotes a speech at the United Nations (UN) by China’s then president Hu Jintao in 2005 as an early example of how Beijing has for years been trying to sell its version of authoritarianism to the outside world by stating that all states should have “respect for countries’ right to choose independently their own social systems and paths of development.” Needless to say, that is impossible in Myanmar and other dictatorships because the people in those countries have no right to elect their own governments. No one has “chosen” to be oppressed and ruled by a small group of ruthless villains who have usurped power. But the leaders in Beijing probably don’t care what ordinary people think. China’s model is fairly straight-forward: authoritarian rule, not democracy, leads to economic development. And, to some extent, that notion has been accepted by rulers and politicians in some Asian, African and South American countries.

China’s charm offensive, which began in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has, in some ways, not been that different from the so-called “soft power” efforts pursued for years by many Western countries, among them the US, France and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union. China has established Confucius Institutes in a host of foreign countries and, on the surface, they don’t seem to be that different from the United States Information Service, the British Council or Alliance Française.

But the Confucius Institutes go much further then its Western equivalents. According to Kurlantzick, the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found in a report issued on February 19, 2019, that many American universities had allowed Confucius Institutes to be set up on their campuses “with minimal oversight and little knowledge of the Chinese governance of the Confucius Institute program, even though the institutes can come with strings that compromise academic freedom.”

The decision to name its institutes after the Chinese philosopher Confucius (actually a Latinized form of Kong Fuzi, or ‘Master Kong’), who is believed to have lived from 551 to 479 BCE, could not have been an easy one to make. During the last three years of his life, 1973-76, the old Chinese dictator Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing launched a campaign called “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius”. Lin was of course Lin Piao, Mao’s former heir who allegedly planned to stage a coup and then tried to escape to the Soviet Union. But the plane crashed under mysterious circumstances in Mongolia in September 1971 and, as a possible opponent to Mao, he was branded “an enemy of the people”.

Confucius, Mao and Jiang claimed, had stood for feudalism, slavery and the denigration of women. Traces of Confucian thought which still remained in the consciousness of the Chinese people in the 1970s thus hindered the country’s development, Mao and Jiang argued.

In today’s ‘reformed’ China, the Confucius Institutes are overseen by China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), a department that is directly controlled by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It is known to be gathering intelligence and managing relations with individuals and organizations inside and outside China.

UFWD operatives and local informants working for the outfit are, among other things, suspected of monitoring overseas popular protests against Beijing and its policies. That happened in Hong Kong during the pro-democracy demonstrations there in 2019-2020. Further away from China’s immediate periphery, there were demonstrations outside China’s embassy in Yangon, which must have shattered the powerholders in Beijing. China, a longtime supporter of the Myanmar military, was and has never been popular among the public at large. Hence, China’s support for the junta’s efforts to identify opponents to military rule, whether they are spotted by surveillance cameras in public, or identified through policing of the internet.

Apart from the Confucius Institutes, another major way in which the Chinese leadership is trying to influencing public opinion in foreign countries, Kurlantzick states, is “contents-sharing deals” with media in selected countries. They are offered free dispatches from the official, government-controlled news agency Xinhua and programs aired by Chinese national television in return for having some of their material appear in Chinese media. In Thailand, the Matichon Group, of which the well-respected website Khaosod is a part, announced a content-sharing deal with Xinhua in 2019.

Khaosod began running Xinhua articles for free and among the first pieces were articles on the 2019 Hong Kong protests that portrayed the demonstrators as “tools of Western agitators” and Xinjiang as a place where “equality, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups and religions have prevailed.” People in the region were also supposed to be “enjoying peace and stability.” According to human rights groups, the Chinese authorities have detained as many as a million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and have perpetrated widespread sexual violence against local women.

A report from the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, released in August last year, concluded that “serious human rights violations have been committed,” including “arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups” which, it asserted, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” When the Matichon Group was criticized by, for instance Tyler Roney writing for Foreign Policy, for striking a deal with Xinhua, the response from a Khaosod editor was that “there are two sides to a story” and “we believe in the judgment of our readers.”

Elsewhere in the region, government-controlled TV stations in Laos, Cambodia and Timor Leste have links with Chinese media firms. In Cambodia, the government has also created a new set of rules governing its domestic internet which copies China’s internet laws. In Vietnam, whose relations with China have not, to say the least, always been smooth, the authorities have emulated not only China’s model of state power but also implemented new cyberspace legislation akin to that in China.

Kurlantzick also points out that in Myanmar, “the junta government, which seized power in February 2021, quickly tried to implement new cyberspace laws and regulations similar to China’s internet laws.” Xinhua frequently quotes news material from junta mouthpieces such as The Global New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror. Chinese state media has also signed content-sharing deals with Chinese-language outlets in Myanmar, at least at some stage, while in 2012, China Radio International signed an agreement with Myanmar state TV to broadcast Chinese shows.

More controversially, in 2018 the Dehong Group in Yunnan that publishes Pauk Phaw entered into a content-sharing agreement with the Myitkyina News Journal, which before the coup was one of Kachin State’s most respected newspapers. Myitkyina News Journal’s editors stated after the deal was struck that they had hoped to get sources in China. The paper is still being published, but as a website and on Facebook. Several of its editors had to flee after the 2021 coup.

Naturally, since it examines a global media effort, Kurlantzick’s book deals with not only Southeast Asia’s media, but also the rest of the world and especially Africa, where China’s often not-so-subtle charm offensive has been easier to observe and discern. The book is a brilliant account of how Beijing’s multi-pronged campaign is unfolding, and it should be read by anyone interested in press freedom and what China’s leaders are doing to manipulate the media throughout the world, so as to control democratic forces at home and in other countries.

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World by Joshua Kurlantzick is published by Oxford University Press.