Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
45 85
Local Resilience and Response
45 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by Hernán Alberro, Ellie Young, and Shiany Pérez-Cheng

  • Steady influence: Beijing’s media influence in Spain remained strong during the coverage period of 2019–21, following a significant effort to strengthen relations in the wake of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s 2017 visit. Chinese state media have maintained long-standing relationships with their local mainstream counterparts while developing new ties to regional and digital outlets. Chinese diplomats were increasingly active on social media, engaging directly with news audiences and critics online.
  • Varied avenues for content dissemination: Major public and private mainstream outlets republish Chinese state media content. Notably, El País regularly disseminated China Daily’s China Watch supplement and China Hoy inserts. China Global Television Network (CGTN) and China FM are available on national television and radio networks. The national news agency EFE, which is widely used by Spanish-speaking news consumers worldwide, shares content from the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency.
  • Limited impact and declining public opinion: Spanish media generally offer robust and critical reporting on China, and several local outlets maintain correspondents in China who provide journalistic expertise on the country. Beijing’s influence on Spanish public opinion is low. Long-standing concerns about the impact of Chinese economic activity on small local businesses, combined with pandemic-related fears, contributed to an apparent decline in Spaniards’ opinions of China.
  • Media narratives focus on bilateral ties, sovereignty: Chinese state media narratives largely focus on boosting bilateral ties, specifically in investment, trade, and technological cooperation, all of which are attractive to Spanish elites. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is actively promoted, although Madrid does not formally participate in the framework. Both state media and diplomatic actors have repeatedly linked the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan to the separatist movement in Catalonia, calling for solidarity against foreign interference in internal affairs.
  • Successful engagement with local elites: Spanish media executives and journalists have participated in Chinese-led media cooperation initiatives such as the Belt and Road News Network and the World Media Summit. Former political leaders have praised Beijing’s COVID-19 response and contributions to global public health while offering open support for its One China principle. Influential think tanks and academic experts focus their commentary on promoting trade and engagement while apparently avoiding subjects Beijing considers sensitive, such as its repressive domestic policies or human rights violations. The local embassy has actively used press statements and social media to respond to or berate journalists, media commentators, politicians, and human rights activists who published content that Beijing deemed offensive.
  • No disinformation campaigns: There was no evidence of China-linked disinformation campaigns targeting or reaching audiences in Spain. However, Chinese state media and diplomats promoted false and misleading narratives on topics like forced labor in the Xinjiang region. They also repeatedly tied Beijing’s position on Hong Kong and Taiwan to the issue of Catalan independence. Some of this content was picked up by local commentators. An Associated Press and Oxford Internet Institute study in 2021 found that potentially inauthentic social media activity accounted for 12 percent of all engagement with Chinese diplomatic accounts in Spain.
  • Strong influence in diaspora media: Spain’s Chinese expatriate and diaspora population is sizeable, numbering around 230,000. Chinese-language news outlets republish content from both Chinese and Spanish sources. Pro-Beijing editorial lines are dominant in the diaspora-facing media, which provide little critical coverage of the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese state policy. Many print and digital groups have close relationships with the local Chinese embassy, and several are members of the state-run Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union.
  • Strong media and legal safeguards: The Spanish constitution has strong protections for freedoms of expression and the press. In addition, Madrid has begun to implement procedures and guidelines to combat foreign disinformation, in line with broader efforts promoted by the European Union. While no authority is specifically responsible for overseeing nonbroadcast media, foreign ownership is restricted in media and other sectors that are deemed strategic.
  • Gaps and vulnerabilities: Transparency in advertising and media ownership is poor, and there are no regulations governing cross-ownership. Access to information has been increasingly challenged in recent years, and public officials have targeted journalists with criminal prosecution and abusive civil lawsuits. Other ongoing challenges to Spain’s media ecosystem include low public trust and widespread vulnerability to disinformation. Unlike some of their European counterparts, Spanish politicians have remained skeptical about the threat of coercive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence, instead privileging the need to maintain friendly ties. Some opposition politicians have leveraged concerns about Chinese Communist Party influence to attack the ruling party.

header2 Background

Spain is a member state of the European Union and is a parliamentary democracy rated Free in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties1 . Freedom of expression in Spain is a constitutional right and press freedom is largely respected. In its 2023 ranking of freedom of the press worldwide, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed Spain 36th out of 180 countries evaluated.2 However, there are concerns about deteriorating media pluralism, worsening conditions for journalists, and polarization restricting access to information.3

In 2023, Spain and China marked the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations. Over those years, the relations went through different stages. In 1973, Spain adopted Beijing’s “one China” principle explicitly recognizing both the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the only legal government of China, and the Chinese government holding that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.4 In 2005, the Spanish and the Chinese governments signed an extradition treaty,5 which Spain ratified the following year, making it the first European Union country to have such an agreement with the PRC.6 Of all the countries that have extradited or deported Taiwanese nationals to China between 2016 and 2019, Spain has sent the most—a total of 219.7 Spain continued this practice even after several United Nations human rights special rapporteurs spoke against it.8

After the high-water mark of Spanish-Chinese relations in the first decade of the 21st century, however, they began to deteriorate, and Spain aligned more with the EU’s increasingly critical overall position on China.9 In 2018, the government of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez refused to sign a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative during Xi Jinping’s visit to Madrid. The refusal reflected a reappraisal of relations between the two countries, in consultation with Spain’s main European and transatlantic partners, and “resulted in a more nuanced and selective approach to ties with China.”10

Bilateral trade in goods between Spain and China is characterized by a chronic deficit in favor of China. The volume of Chinese imports is in line with Chinese goods imported by neighboring countries, but the volume of exports to China is relatively smaller. However, China is Spain’s main trading partner in Asia and the leading destination for Spanish exports in the region.11

Though Spain did not receive Chinese-manufactured vaccines during the pandemic, it did accept masks and other health materials donated by Chinese companies and local governments,12 and bought other Chinese products like tests, many of which ultimately proved to be ineffective or of low quality.13

Technology-wise, in 2018, Spain’s primary telecommunications company Telefonica reached an agreement with Chinese telecom company Huawei to use its equipment.14 This changed in 2021 when Telefonica began to prefer European providers, amid debates over the risks of using Huawei’s 5G infrastructure.15 However, Chinese-made technology is being used for surveillance and safety purposes,16 in particular in cities like Tres Cantos and other municipalities implementing “smart city” projects.17 Even the military used Chinese drones to spray disinfectant during the COVID-19 pandemic.18

Though Spain has a long history of anti-Americanism,19 public opinion surveys show that the US has a better image than China. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that when people ages 18 to 29 were surveyed on their attitudes toward China and the US, Spanish people ages 18 to 29 young adults showed the most positive view towards China in Europe.20

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

Key narratives

Although Spain did not sign the Belt and Road Initiative, participation and cooperation is widely promoted by China in Spain. In almost every speech1 made by the Chinese ambassador to Madrid and in every piece published in newspapers,2 there is a reference to the economic opportunities presented by Chinese cooperation with Spain, the Belt and Road Initiative,3 and the 8,000-mile railway line that connects the coastal Chinese city of Yiwu and Madrid as a cornerstone of cooperation. Even at cultural events like the anniversary of an Instituto Confucio (Confucius Institute, a Chinese government–sponsored organization promoting Chinese language and culture), speakers make a point of emphasizing the economic importance of this bilateral cooperation.4

In this same vein, the Chinese government and companies are deeply engaged in spreading the narrative of Chinese green and technological investments in Spain. One of the leading think tanks in the country, the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Strategic Studies, published a report calling for the the development of a “Strategy for Scientific and Technological Cooperation” with China, similar to the one Spain has with Germany.5 Most Chinese investments in Spain are related to energy, specifically renewable energy, and China is becoming a key partner of the country’s decarbonization plan.6

As demonstrations and claims of independence in Catalonia and Hong Kong began taking place almost at the same time between 2015 and 2020, the Chinese government emphasized the “understanding and support [between Spain and China] on the issues of Gibraltar, Catalonia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.”7 With the Hong Kong hashtag, China Daily published a video8 of Catalonian pro-independence protests in Barcelona and riot police responding to demonstrators and clashes, in a clear threatening message aimed at demonstrators in Hong Kong. Though some Spanish media outlets like El Confidencial9 understood this video for what it was—a clear threat to Hong Kong activists—other local media outlets followed China’s lead: El Mundo Financiero presented a special series of articles under the section “Incitando el Caos” (Inciting chaos) showing the negative impacts of separatist movements10 and the violent consequences.11

Another major narrative pushed by China in Spanish media was the handling of the pandemic and Chinese efforts to assist countries in their responses. At the beginning of the health crisis in China, the PRC narrative focused on preventing the stigmatization of Chinese people, rejecting narratives that painted COVID as linked to the sale of wildlife in China, and demonstrating control over the situation.12 s

When COVID-19 started spreading in Wuhan, the Spanish government and media repeated the official Chinese narrative that the CCP was handling the crisis the right way, and emphasized the dangers of stigmatizing the Chinese community.13 The Chinese embassy in Spain was very active in trying to spread this narrative through op-eds14 and social media.15

Prime Minister Sánchez’s trip to China in March 2023 was the first by a Western leader since the end of the COVID controls in China. While Madrid still seeks to keep good economic relations and understanding with Beijing, the war in Ukraine, and the dual roles the PRC has attempted to play of both a friend of Russia and an impartial peacemaker, have clearly changed the situation. Since Xi’s visit to Spain in 2018, the relationship between the EU and China has shifted substantially due to a freeze on a mutual investment treaty, reciprocal sanctions between Chinese political leaders and members of the European Parliament (MEPs), resistance to Huawei’s 5G expansion, and the pandemic.16 All these contributed to a very carefully managed meeting between the two leaders in spring 2023.17

Key avenues of content dissemination

  • Chinese state media direct broadcasts and social media presence: Chinese state media have a significant presence in Spain but a very limited impact on the local population—many Spaniards don’t even know about their existence. Television channels such as China Central Television (CCTV) and China Global Television Network (CGTN), both controlled by the CCP, are widely distributed by paid cable TV providers, but their viewer ratings are low, and sometimes the channels are hard to find within the channels menu.18 On the other hand, Xinhua has established a bureau in Madrid and expanded its newsroom.19 The most important news agency in Spain, EFE, uses Xinhua as a source, as does Europa Press, both of which in turn are widely used by Spanish media outlets.

China and the Chinese language are also present on the radio. Dawei Ding, a former PRC official state media correspondent and a prominent member of the diaspora in Spain who has close relations with the PRC embassy is key in this space. In 2014, he launched Spain Radio Internacional to promote Chinese culture in Spain.20 China FM is another Chinese-language station, established in 2017 as the first Mandarin radio station in Europe with the aim to promote Chinese-Spanish integration and facilitate exchanges. This radio station was then acquired by Spain Radio Internacional in 2019, and Ding has continued to serve on its board since.21

Social media follow only TV as the country’s preferred mode of accessing information, and the Chinese diplomatic mission maintains an active presence.22 By number of users, the top social networks in Spain are: 1) YouTube, 2) Instagram, 3) Facebook, 4) TikTok, 5) LinkedIn and 6) Twitter. Despite its relatively low ranking, Twitter has over 4 million users in Spain and is the preferred platform to stay up-to-date on current events.23 The Chinese embassy’s Twitter account has over 27,000 followers, and has sent an average of 200 tweets per month since 2019 when the account opened.24

  • Content sharing agreements and long-standing ties with local mainstream media: Chinese media like Xinhua, CCTV, and CGTN provide content to media outlets in Spain that frequently use it as part of their news coverage, mostly for video footage or photos. Some Spanish media outlets have content sharing agreements with Chinese media entities. El Mundo Financiero,25 EFE,26 and Europa Press27 have officially signed agreements, while there are other media outlets with no known formal agreement but close links to the PRC, like Prensa Ibérica, a regional newspaper and television group that organizes joint events with the Chinese embassy and disseminates information on the BRI. It is also worth mentioning that Spain’s most important newspaper, El País, occasionally distributes a China Daily insert and disseminates content from China Hoy, a magazine produced by the state-owned China International Publishing Group (CIPG).28
  • Op-eds and television interviews by Chinese diplomats: Both the current ambassador representing China in Madrid, Wu Haitao, and his predecessor Lyu Fan, who served from 2014 to 2019, maintained a significant presence in Spanish media, mainly through interviews and occasional statements during events but also with op-eds published in print media to address specific issues. Wu has published 3 op-eds in El Periódico, a Prensa Ibérica newspaper,29 with one of them condemning US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan as an infringement of Chinese sovereignty30 . Lyu was more inclined to interviews, including giving some to newspaper La Razón.31

In any case, it is clear that when the Chinese embassy in Spain has something to say, it finds space in local media, even when an official other than the ambassador speaking. For instance, during the first months of the pandemic, Yao Fei, a high-ranking officer in the Madrid embassy, appeared at least in five interviews in different media outlets in less than a month, portraying the way China dealt with the virus as an example to be followed.32

  • Press trips for journalists and executives: In 2021, the Chinese government invited 10 journalists from different media outlets from around the world to Xinjiang, among them Javier García, head of the China office of Spanish national news agency EFE. García published a series of articles echoing Beijing’s talking points on that province and questioning more critical reports in other international outlets.33 Several months later, his announcement on social media that he was quitting journalism because of the “information war against China” was picked up and exploited by Chinese state media.34 García is still living in Beijing, and teaches journalism at Renmin University.35 In another demonstration of EFE’s ties with China, the agency’s president, Gabriela Cañas, was invited to make a virtual presentation in 2021 at the World Media Summit, an annual summit of news agencies from around the world that is supported by Xinhua.36
  • Cultivating local elites who repeat Beijing’s preferred narratives: Probably the most vocal and prominent Spanish supporter of PRC narratives is former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), who led Spain’s government from 2004 until 2011. During a 2020 TV interview, Rodríguez Zapatero praised the Chinese COVID policy and stated that “China is producing the decisive medical material to save lives, which is being acquired by all the countries of the world.”37 A year later, he authored an op-ed in China Daily filled with praise for China.38

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the intentional dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—such as the use of fake accounts—on global social media platforms.

Although experts noted that Spain has not been targeted by tailored disinformation campaigns, it has been affected by broader campaigns organized by the Russian and Chinese governments seeking to influence public opinion regarding COVID, democracy, and attitudes toward China. According to Mira Milosevich-Juaristi of the Elcano Royal Institute, it is difficult to measure the impact of disinformation, especially when referring to the narratives promoted by China and disseminated by Russia arguing that authoritarian systems have been more effective at dealing with the pandemic than liberal democratic governments.39

A report published in 2020 by EUvsDisinfo, a project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force, shows CGTN YouTube accounts disseminating videos in Spanish and other languages that promote false conspiracy theories regarding the origin of coronavirus in US labs.40 Even the Chinese embassy in Spain shared a tweet by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson calling for investigations into the purported US origin of the virus.41 Though the impact of these kinds of fake information in Spain seems to be low,, a fact checker based in Spain, has detected a large amount of fake news circulating among Spanish social media users related to COVID, the role of China in vaccine production, and the efficacy of Western-made vaccines.42

One of the most successful disinformation campaigns pushed by China worldwide, claiming that the Chinese government built a hospital in 48 hours as an effective response to the COVID pandemic, gained wide purchase in Spanish media.43

The Chinese embassy has promoted the narrative that the PRC is a democracy and a supporter of democratic values, though with low impact on Spain’s population and media. The embassy shared five articles on this subject on its website and social media accounts around the Summit for Democracies hosted virtually by the US in December 2021, which was attended by Taiwan. In these articles, China is presented as a popular democracy, with all the plurality, diversity and popular participation a country needs to qualify as such. The articles make no mention of freedom of expression or the press, freedom of association, or the situation of minorities such as the Uyghurs.44

Other false narratives that have been widely disseminated involve China’s high-tech capabilities,45 as well as a misleading piece showing 26 Chinese people being executed allegedly due to corruption.46 It is sometimes difficult to identify when disinformation has its roots in the PRC’s political considerations, versus when it is the work of individuals trying to protect their homeland’s image.47

Censorship and intimidation

Spain’s most important newspaper, El País, is blocked online in China. So are the news portal El Confidencial and the newspapers ABC and La Razón.48 ABC was blocked in November 202149 after it published one article on the disappearance of people in China50 and another one portraying Xi Jinping as an emperor.51 .

This censorship not only affects Chinese and foreign individuals living in China who are forced to use VPNs to read these news outlets, but also foreign correspondents trying to report in China. Spain has at least seven foreign correspondents working in China, and, according to some of their own testimonies, they are all under permanent surveillance. Pablo Díez, of ABC, has expressed that he sometimes feels like a criminal just for doing his work as a journalist.52 In 2020, Mavi Doñate, of Spanish public radio and television broadcaster Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE), said on social media she was fed up with working under conditions that amounted to harassment, including being prevented from recording video footage or being forced to delete whatever she films, and being surrounded by 10 police officers as soon as she takes out a camera and mic. “It is impossible to work like this,” she posted on Twitter.53

In China, Spanish foreign correspondents are not only censored and prevented from talking to sources, but are also threatened and intimidated. ABC Beijing correspondent Jaime Santirso revealed in a 2022 tweet thread that three police officers had gone to his house looking for him, and, when he was not there, they told his wife to “ask him to provide balanced coverage, showing not only bad but also good news.” Santirso said he considered this to be a “veiled threat.”54

Even Chinese government representatives based in Spain criticize the work of Spanish journalists in Beijing. Díez, the ABC correspondent, denounced the Chinese consul in Barcelona, Zhu Jingyang, for spreading fake news about former Chinese President Hu Jintao returning to his seat to vote during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2022, after Hu had previously been escorted out.55 Zhu replied that Díez was abusing the hospitality of the Chinese people and government, and accused Díez of following “nonexistent and absurd conspiracy theories.”56

Díez is a frequent victim of online harassment in social media due to his reporting about China, but he is not the only target of the attacks from Zhu, who frequently comments on critical Spanish media coverage of China. Newspaper La Vanguardia,57 El País,58 and El Mundo59 have all been accused by Zhu of disseminating disinformation.

Though the Barcelona consul is one of the most confrontational Chinese public officers in Spain, the Chinese embassy in Madrid has also criticized the work of Díez, saying that a profile he wrote of Xi Jinping was “full of ignorance, partiality and lies.”60 Before that, in 2019, the embassy attacked the work of ABC regarding the situation of Hong Kong.61

Control over content distribution infrastructure

China-based companies are not involved in Spain’s digital or cable television infrastructure. However, many China-related tech companies have a sizable market share in Spain that might, under certain conditions, have an impact on content distribution.

Spain is one of 17 countries where studies have detected code used to track and block content62 running on middleboxes—a type of networking device—belonging to Huawei, a Chinese tech company with ties to the CCP.63

In 2020–21, 18.6 percent of all mobile phones sold in Spain were made by Huawei, and sales of Chinese-origin smartphones as a whole (Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and BQ) represent 42 percent of the market.64 Except for the case of Xiaomi, however, the Chinese companies saw a decline in their global sales from 2020 to 2021.65 It remains unclear if the use of Chinese-produced smartphones affect content distribution.66 However, the PRC’s efforts to expand in the tech industry clearly seem to be aimed at bolstering its state security and surveillance capacity.67

In January 2022, Huawei España named Therese Jamaa as vice president,68 just months before Spain’s Congress of Deputies passed a law establishing cybersecurity requirements for 5G networks.69 When she was appointed to this senior position, Jamaa was dating Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, José Manuel Albares. News outlets raised questions about the implications the minister’s connection to Jamaa as Albares took part in the cabinet meetings to discuss the cybersecurity law. In September, nine months after Huawei hired Jamaa, he was forced to recuse himself from meetings involving Huawei’s interests.70 One such issue before the cabinet was the compilation of a list of companies to be banned under the cybersecurity law from providing 5G services was the case of the list of banned companies—a list that would assumedly include Huawei. However, this list has not been published yet, and it seems that it will never be released.71 In any case, less than two years after joining Huawei, Jamaa announced she was leaving the company to pursue other professional projects.72

Other concerns have been raised regarding the social media service TikTok, a shortform video platform owned by the PRC-based tech company ByteDance. TikTok was the most downloaded app in Spain during 202073 and 2021,74 showing a fast user growth that turned the app into the fourth-most-used social media platform in the country in 2023.75 Political leaders and political parties were no exception to this trend, increasingly using the platform to communicate with the public.76

In February 2023, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Council—the three top EU bodies—all banned TikTok on staff devices, citing cybersecurity concerns due to the link between TikTok and the Chinese government.77 However, Spain has not adopted a similar policy, and Prime Minister Sánchez did not mention the issue to Xi Jinping during a state visit to China the following month.78

In 2020, the Zoom Cloud Meetings teleconferencing service was among the most used mobile apps in Spain.79 Although Zoom was based in the United States, researchers had found that it owned Chinese subsidiaries and operated some of its servers in China, potentially leaving it vulnerable if Chinese officials requested access to encryption keys.80 Meanwhile, 2021 and 2022 saw Chinese e-commerce apps Shein and AliExpress expanded in the Spanish market to become among the country’s top ten most downloaded apps.81

Though the presence of Chinese-origin tech companies in Spain is sizable and in some cases growing, there have been no reports of censorship, manipulated content or surveillance.

The most important communications app in China, WeChat, has low penetration in the Spanish market, mainly focused on the Chinese community and Chinese tourists visiting the country.82 This app, owned by China-based Tencent, is also seen as a channel for Spanish businesses to reach Chinese audiences. In 2022, Ni Hao Conecta, a business platform that tries to strengthen the links between China and Spain, opened the first official Spanish account on WeChat.83 The launch event of this new channel featured the presence of a local political leader from the conservative People’s Party (PP), Ángel Niño.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

No known CCP trainings, adoption of journalistic norms, filtering technology, or broadcasting equipment were found in Spain during the coverage period. No Spanish political leader was reported to have been invited to trainings or other meetings during this period, though it is worth mentioning that the two main political parties, the PSOE84 and the PP,85 as well as Podemos and the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) on the left,86 have signed memorandums of understanding and cooperation agreements with the CCP and seem to have friendly relations with the Chinese ruling party.87 Before Sánchez visited China in 2023, political leaders from Podemos and the PCE were invited to have meetings with the Chinese Communist Party.88

Chinese diaspora media

The Chinese migrant community in Spain increased significantly after the 1970s from about 5,000 people to approximately 230,000 Chinese nationals living currently in Spain, according to official data;89 . the true number is probably higher, taking into account the number of undocumented immigrants.90 The Chinese population in Spain has grown especially quickly since 1998. There are more than 600 Taiwanese registered in the country.91 No data was found about the Uyghur or Tibetans diasporas or Falun Gong practitioners, although this might be due to those group’s fears of persecution by the Chinese government.92

The Chinese diaspora community is Spain’s biggest Asian migrant group. A growing number of associations and organizations—more than 450 at the local, state, and national levels—mainly focus on economic and business issues, as well as cultural matters.93 Together with the Chinese consulates and embassy, this thriving network of voluntary groups takes part in different cultural events like the celebration of the Chinese New Year. However, they also try to exercise political influence by meeting with Spanish government officials and even ministers to discuss issues related to racism and discrimination94 or to express their opposition to demonstrations taking place against Chinese repression in Tibet.95 These associations were also connected to the nine Chinese police stations identified by Safeguard Defenders in Spain, with the one in Madrid “actively working with Chinese police to engage in covert and illegal policing operations.”96

The Chinese diaspora in Spain operates a number of media outlets—some of them only available in Chinese—that members use to stay connected to their homeland as well as their new home. Not all of them have websites or are digitally available at the time of this research, but diaspora outlets reviewed frequently use information provided by Xinhua and other official sources of information and are in open dialogue with the Chinese embassy and consulates.

Diaspora outlets focus mostly on local issues related to business and cultural affairs, but also touch on more sensitive matters, always following the PRC’s preferred narrative. The frequently run articles and speeches by the ambassador and consuls and republish pieces that originally appeared in Chinese media outlets.

These diaspora media outlets do not reach a wider audience beyond the Chinese community in Spain, and even then their readership is unclear. One such outlet, has over 30,000 followers on the popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.97

Radio China FM, owned by Dawei Ding, the former Spanish correspondent for the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper, serves as a meeting point for the Chinese diaspora on the radio waves.98 It was on this station that Laura González Escallada started connecting Chinese and Spanish businesspeople in what turned into Ni Hao Connecta,99 probably the most important hub for connecting these worlds (and now including Latin America) and also a platform for disseminating CCP narratives.100

Diaspora media outlets in Spain are members of the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union.101 Although this research did not find any reports of journalists working at these outlets being overtly censored, it is safe to assume that self-censorship abounds.

header4 Resilience + Response

Underlying media resilience

  • Press freedom: Spain still maintains a robust freedom of the press. The country ranks 36th globally according to Reporters Without Borders, though its standing has been in decline since 2019, when it was ranked 29th.1 This is mainly explained by the deteriorating labor situation of journalists.2 The media environment is pluralistic, constitutional protections of freedom of expression and the right to public communication are strong, and there are a good number of civil society organizations both at the national and local levels that work to monitor, defend, and promote freedom of the press and expression.
  • Fact-checking: Four Spanish fact-checkers are signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) Code of Principles.3 All four are respected sources of information and very active on social media, monitoring information that circulates on the World Wide Web, as well as on Whatsapp and other messaging apps. In 2021, work by the independent nonprofit EU DisinfoLab called attention to attempts by certain social media channels to appropriate the names and logos of some of these fact-checkers to undermine their credibility and spread fake news.4

China-specific resilience

  • The importance of foreign correspondents: Many Spanish media outlets have their own foreign correspondents in China. This contributes to a better understanding of the actual situation in China. During COVID lockdowns, these correspondents were very vocal in questioning not only the restrictive policy towards Chinese citizens, but also the limits imposed by Chinese authorities on journalists’ work. Many media outlets still use the cheap information provided by Xinhua and other PRC official news outlets. However, China-related information is still presented critically and sometimes with a level of sarcasm on TV and in the digital space, not hesitating to call the Chinese regime an autocracy.

There are some media outlets or multimedia groups like Prensa Ibérica that report on China only when it is related to business issues and always with a positive tilt, but their reach is limited.

  • The political impact of international organizations: Spain is still considered one of China’s best friends in Europe, although its long-standing and fruitful diplomatic relationship has deteriorated since the 2010s. Recently, Spain has preferred to stand by EU decisions regarding China. Spain has also stood with its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in expressing concern about China’s growing influence, and the alliance addressed those worries at a summit hosted in 2022 in Madrid.5 EU, NATO and US concerns about China’s geopolitical role have motivated interest from Spanish civil society to better understand China’s impact in Spain. Spanish leaders, on the other hand, prefer to avoid any kind of confrontation with China, preferring to focus on economic and trade issues.
  • Civil society concern about China: Over the last several years, many think tanks have started focusing more on the “China issue” in Spain. From the Elcano Royal Institute to the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (FAES) to Fundación Alternativas, they have dedicated resources to shedding light on Spain’s relationship with China. These institutes express diverse points of view on China, but do not directly replicate the PRC’s narrative on sensitive issues.

The prestigious Safeguard Defenders, one of the most active organizations in the world researching and informing society about the human rights situation in China and China’s influence abroad, is based in Madrid, and likely is better able to communicate with the Spanish audience than if it were located elsewhere.

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Weakening media environment: Lack of ownership transparency represents a risk to the political independence of media outlets, in turn contributing to increasing polarization in society. Market concentration, especially in TV and digital media, and concerns over economic viability also posed threats to Spain’s media.1
  • Legal framework: Though the constitution recognizes the rights to public communication and freedom of expression, several legislative reforms have made international organizations worry about the state of these freedoms in Spain. These organizations include the UN Human Rights Council2 and the European Commission,3 which in 2020 both raised concerns about some restrictions to freedom of expression regarding defamation (a crime that could be punished with imprisonment), especially regarding information about the royal family.
  • Increasingly distrustful and news-wary users: Although some brands are seeing an increase in trust from their audiences, a study released by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in 2023 showed a record high of 40 percent of Spanish people surveyed said they distrusted the news.4 Only 22 percent of those surveyed said they trusted the internet as a source of information, according to a different Eurobarometer survey, and more than 80 percent considered disinformation to be a problem.5
  • Questionable official efforts to combat disinformation: In response to a request from the European Union for member states to step up their fight against disinformation, Spain established a Permanent Commission to Fight against Disinformation.6 However, the commission was harshly criticized for being too tightly controlled by the government and influenced by official bias, and for its opaque membership.7

In 2022, a Barcelona court convicted someone for dissemination of fake news through social media for the first time, after the defendant published a video on Twitter that supposedly depicted a Moroccan youth attacking a lady in the streets of Canet de Mar in order to defame immigrants. (The defendant was also convicted of committing a hate crime.) The video actually showed an attack that took place in China, and had been released by Chinese police to try to find the aggressor.8

  • Political actors keen on dealing with PRC: Spain is still considered to be one of China’s best friends in Europe. Though this relationship has deteriorated over the last few years, political leaders across the spectrum still see China as a country of opportunities,9 a potential partner,10 and a legitimate voice to be listened to.11 In one demonstration of the possible impact of this relationship, in 2014, the Spanish government adopted reforms limiting the country’s universal jurisdiction policy—which gave Spanish courts jurisdiction over human rights violations, even if they were committed outside of Spanish territory or by non-Spanish perpetrators—that resulted in a case against Chinese leaders for the genocide in Tibet being dropped. At the time, Spain was in dire straits economically and China was seen as being able to provide assistance.12 The two main political parties have both maintained consistent dialogue and good relations with the CCP, and in the past the Chinese government has invited Spanish political leaders on trips to China.13 Journalists have been invited on similar trips. Still, the impact on society is low.
  • Universities as a soft power tool: Spanish political leaders’ interest in and openness to China is mirrored in the country’s universities. Almost every university in Spain has some kind of agreement with at least one Chinese university, often facilitating student exchanges, scholarships, and joint research and development. Universities also have agreements with private Chinese companies such as Huawei14 to establish labs or do research.15 As with Spanish political leaders, universities have not expressed significant concern about the security implications of these deals, not even within the framework of the European Union’s dispute with China.16

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

At the beginning of the 2000s, the Spanish population wary about the Chinese mainly due its generally protectionist attitudes. People in Spain saw Chinese competition with Spanish products as a threat, but there was no animus toward the Chinese people in particular.1

According to a BBC World Service Country Ratings Poll in 2006, 45 percent of the Spanish population considered China’s influence on the world to be mainly positive, while 32 percent considered that was mainly negative (13 points difference). However, since the international economic crisis of 2009, Spanish attitudes toward China worsened dramatically. By 2013, attitudes had flip-flopped, with 68 percent of respondents now holding a negative view of China versus only 13 percent holding a positive view. Mario Esteban, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute and the Autonomous University of Madrid’s Centre for East Asian Studies, concluded that “the main reason to explain this abrupt reversal is a widespread view in Spain that Chinese competition is to blame for the loss of a significant number of jobs by Spanish nationals. On the contrary, economic and political elites in Spain tend to focus more on the opportunities presented by the economic development of China.”2

The growing right-wing political party Vox, which despite losses in July 2023 parliamentary elections still controls the third-largest number of seats in the Congress, has criticized China.3 So has the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV),4 which as a representative of Spain’s Basque minority is sensitive to the human rights situation of minorities in China.

While there have been some fluctuations, Spanish attitudes towards China have continued on average at about the same unfavorable levels since 2013.5 This even stayed true during the worst stages of COVID infections in Spain, when China deployed what was called mask diplomacy, sending masks, tests and other health-related materials to Spain and other European countries. This aid could have improved the image the Spanish people had of China, but it was overshadowed by defective medical equipment from China that began to emerge in Spain at the same time. Though the PRC tried to explain that defective materials came from black-market sellers rather than official sources, Chinese-produced health products all blurred together in the public perception, and there was no significant improvement in Spanish opinions of China.6

According to an opinion survey carried out by the Elcano Royal Institute in March 2020 during the pandemic’s early days, Spanish people increasingly saw a threat from China of not only economic competition but the spread of disease, compared to two years earlier. All the same, the Spanish people still considered China as their second-most preferred ally outside the European Union, behind only the United States.7 In any case, Spain still held one of the most positive views about China in Europe in 2020,8 though in 2022 Spanish sentiment about China’s influence on global affairs fell to the average for countries in the transatlantic community.9

header7 Future Trajectory

The following are key areas researchers, media experts, and officials and journalists should watch related to Beijing’s media influence in Spain in the coming years.

  • Chinese investments in the energy sector: As Spain intensifies its effort to convert its energy production and consumption to green energy, Chinese companies have become instrumental in providing equipment and investing in the sector. The EU and Spain are considering imposing limits on those investments thus deteriorating the relations with China. It will be important to pay attention to the reaction of Beijing if that is the case.
  • The EU sets the mood: Spain will probably abide by the EU decisions on China, while still trying to appear a good friend to China. As the geopolitical order is shaken by the war in Ukraine, it is expected that Spain will have to take a harder stance towards Russia’s allies.
  • China’s efforts to control the information space: Be it through existing social media channels or new ones, new 5G developments or strong diplomatic stances, China is expected to continue trying to control the information space in Spain with regards to sensitive issues like human rights, the Uyghurs, Taiwan, and Tibet. China’s tactics will also likely include media acquisitions and investments in multimedia companies like Prensa Ibérica that focus on local affairs and might escape the national political spotlight.
  • Soft power initiatives: China will continue investing in cultural events, media conferences, and educational programs in Spain, initiatives that contribute to its soft power and influence over the Spanish media, social, and political landscape.

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