The Chinese propaganda machine: The awakening giant turns to the West


The history of propaganda in China is long and colourful. Teacher Sun Zi already talked about the importance of influencing adversaries in his very famous work on military warfare „ The Art of War“ almost 2500 years ago. Sun Zi said: „The Art of War is overall like that. To totally conquer a nation is the better way, to it, break it apart is worse. To totally take over an army is the better way, to obliterate is worse. 100 victories in 100 battles is not necessarily the best of the best. To force an opposing army to surrender without fighting is the best of the best.“ Moreover, to do it with primarily through smart informational influencing.

The influence of the teachings of Sun Zi in China cannot be overestimated – they have shaped the thoughts of the country and its commanders over the millennia – irrespective of the current state system or ideology. This is why propaganda (in Chinese, xuānchuán, 宣传) aimed at different national and foreign groups has always been an important tool in the arsenal of their authorities.

Structure and Management

According to an expert analysis published in November of last year in the USA, the planning and implementation of China’s international influencing has been shared between different agencies: the State Council Bureau of Information, the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the Central Committees’ joint work section etc. There is no one central organization to lead and coordinate all activities.

Wang Huning, member of the Permanent Committee of the Politburo, is responsible for ideology and propaganda issues as the highest official. Politburo member and head of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department, Huang Kunmig, runs everyday management.

Chinese propaganda messages

China’s goal in Western media is to „tell the story of China“. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has emphasized the need to find new ways to „tell the Chinese story well and make China’s voice heard“. China is to be shown as an innovative, rapidly developing, powerful, but peaceful country.

The main messages of today’s Chinese propaganda machine to the people of Western countries in the last years has been:

– China’s goal is peaceful growth. In other words, China is not dangerous. China’s growing economic and military power is causing anxiety in the world, and China wants to soften this concern with propaganda.

-China’s goal is not hegemony. China is the spokesperson for the multipolar world and wants to work peacefully with all countries in the world. China does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

– The Chinese Communist Party has been much developed and democratized since Mao Zedong, and is no longer an authoritarian regime. The party’s goal is a harmonious socialist society.

_ China does not see the United States as its strategic opponent. Instead, Beijing wants Washington to play a positive role in the region in the economy and in security.

CCTV headquarters in Pekin

Chinese propaganda channels

The most visible tool for spreading Chinese propaganda is China Central Television, CCTV and its international branch, China Global Television Network, CGTN, which transmits six international programs. In addition to two English-language programs, original TV programs are also broadcast in Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian.

The Chinese state is unceasingly financing propaganda publications, which are released as content marketing between several internationally recognized press publications. China Daily, a state-funded English daily, has agreements with at least 30 international publications (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the UK Telegraph) for regularly inserting the four to eight page publication „China Watch“ into their papers.

More conclusively and unhidden, China is spreading its national radio, China Radio International, CRI broadcasts and news through various privately owned media companies. Four years ago, according to Reuters, these broadcasts were released in different languages in at least 33 different radio stations in 14 countries, but according to various sources the number of stations and countries has now almost doubled.

According to plans released last year, China is reorganizing its international propaganda machine. The newly managed and funded propaganda organization, „Voice of China“, VOC, has just been created by uniting national media houses. Using the example of „the Voice of America“ VOA, the purpose of the media giant is to leverage the spread of Chinese messages internationally and to increase central control over propaganda.

The desire to control all of the channels

In recent years, propaganda has also become a business. A good example of this is the 100 year old, Hong Kong, South China Morning Post, SCMP, which was bought in 2015, by the richest man in China, the owner of the Alibaba e-commerce empire, Jack Ma. Under the new ownership and management, the newspaper has become much more friendlier with China’s official policies. In foreign countries with large Chinese communities and their own ethnic language media, similar takeovers and consolidations have become commonplace in recent years, such as in New Zealand.

In order to develop transnational relations, China has established co-operation organizations in several parts of the world (such as China-United States Exchange Foundation, Cusef), which also organizes trips to China for local journalists and opinion leaders with a view of receiving positive media coverage. Over the course of ten years, Cusef has brought 127 USA journalists from 40 different publications, as well as Senators and Congressmen to China.

In order to train journalists in developing countries, China set up a program in 2012 to teach 500 journalists from Latin America and 1000 journalists from African countries by 2020. Independent and critical media from the West see China as a threat, as evidenced by documents leaked in 2013, so it is necessary to train journalists, who can tell the Chinese story that suits the state.

Propaganda is all-inclusive and total in China, and quickly takes advantage of all technological innovations. For example, in March this year, according to Reuters, China’s most popular mobile app is “Xuexi Qiangguo” or „Learn to know the mighty land“ and allows people to learn the messages of China’s leader, Xi Jinping and monitor their progress. The app allows you to read the latest Communist party news, test and write comments. One of the new trends in Chinese propaganda, for example is the countrywide English language rap video.

50 cents party

While Russia is using messaging robots widely in social media to deliver ome messages, China has built its net strategy for real people. Traditionally, the Chinese troll army is known as the 50 cents party (wumao), because that is how much they are paid for each patriotic posting.

In fact, there is no evidence that they are actually paid for postings. Often these are government and party officials who are considered to give public support for government activities as part of their duties. There are also many volunteers and members of the youth movement involved.

About 2 million active members are believed to belong to the Chinese troll army and according to a study published in 2017; the government makes some 488 million social media postings annually.

The 50 cent’ers are organized into smaller groups in social media, where information is shared and activities are coordinated. According to data from the Financial Times, in one of the larger closed Facebook group there are 40,000 members, who had to confirm prior to becoming a member that they are Chinese and support a „one China“ policy. This group coordinated the attack on Lady Gaga’s Instagram account, when the star met with the Tibetan leader, Dalai Lama in 2016.

Chinese propaganda in Estonia

Until the beginning of 2019, China also considered it necessary to maintain an Estonian news portal along with a Facebook account and for some time the predecessor of this portal, from Helsinki even broadcast radio news in Estonian at 963 kHz.

However the most note worthy case of Chinese propaganda in Estonia was in September 2011, when in the Postimees there was a special section, celebrating the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Estonia. One of the articles ordered by China but not correctly labeled as an advertisement was for example, the article entitled „Tibet: 60 years after a peaceful liberation“.

Closure of Estonian language propaganda channels does not mean that China’s interest in spreading its message in Estonia would be lost. It is probably been just a strategic decision that it is more appropriate to use local channels that already are being used by the local people instead of launching their own new channels. Consequently, an opinion article by the Chinese Ambassador, Li Chao was recently published in Äripäev, which emphasized China’s peaceful intentions and the desire to increase transnational economic cooperation.

Estonia may not be in the focus of China’s national interests, but their powerful propaganda machine will not miss anything or anyone. Chinese propaganda can seem to us to be pristine and ineffective at first glance, but like the country’s economic and military power, China’s ability to communicate with Western people and influence them is also developing. The desire and the means in China are indisputably there. Let us be ready.


Home page photo Rob Oo / Flickr / CC.
Photo of CCTV’s headquarters: poeloq / Wikipedia / CC.Screenshots of the videos, websites and articles referenced in the story.