Report by: Sarah Cook and Yuichiro Kakutani
- Increased use of covert and coercive tactics: The methods deployed by Chinese state actors to influence the US media space have evolved since 2019. Disinformation campaigns, the use of paid social media influencers, cyberattacks on news outlets, and cyberbullying of journalists occurred with greater frequency as Chinese state media outlets struggled to gain a mainstream audience in the United States and public opinion toward Beijing became more negative.
- Limited public-opinion impact: Mainstream media coverage in the United States is broadly independent and critical of the Chinese Communist Party, featuring reporting on rights abuses, giving voice to alternative perspectives from China and accounts by victims of persecution, and carrying investigations of Chinese companies and Chinese Communist Party political or media influence in the country. Narratives preferred by Beijing have gained some traction and repetition on the extremes of the political spectrum (both left and right) and among some state or local political and business leaders. For the most part, however, public opinion across the political spectrum is broadly unfavorable toward the Chinese regime, and aggressive messaging from Chinese officials tends to backfire.
- Problematic paid inserts and local radio programming: Chinese state media content reaches news consumers in the United States directly through offline and online paid inserts from China Daily or the Xinhua news agency in national and regional news outlets, such as Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, and Foreign Policy. Filings with the Department of Justice indicate that from January 2019 to October 2021, China Daily paid print and online publications at least $7 million to carry such material. At least two radio stations in the Washington, DC, and New York City areas broadcast China Radio International programming. The clarity and frequency of labeling attached to the Chinese state content for US news consumers is inconsistent. During the coverage period, several major news outlets—notably the New York Times and the Washington Post—discontinued previous agreements on paid inserts.
- Broad influence efforts, including subsidized press trips: Beijing maintains an arsenal of tactics and channels to influence the US information landscape. Diplomats publish op-eds and appear in interviews in mainstream news outlets; Chinese state media are listed as “featured partners” with newswires to share images and footage; vloggers are approached with payment and travel opportunities; and Chinese Communist Party–friendly entities and companies like Huawei subsidize trips for reporters to China. Even as regulators have restricted the presence of Chinese state-owned firms in the US telecommunications infrastructure, social media applications owned by China-based companies with track records of censorship and surveillance within China, notably Tencent’s WeChat and ByteDance’s TikTok, have gained a large following among US users.
- Emerging disinformation campaigns: Multiple disinformation campaigns targeting US audiences were documented during the coverage period. Thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were detected and shuttered for inauthentic behavior, including manipulation of the discourse about events within China (such as prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong and rights abuses in Xinjiang), US relations with Taiwan, the reputation of US-based critics of the Chinese Communist Party, and domestic issues like COVID-19 or US political divisions. Genuine user engagement with the accounts and their impact on public debate appeared limited, but no such campaigns were documented prior to 2019.
- Wide-ranging censorship efforts: State-linked actors have deployed a relatively wide range of tactics in an attempt to restrict coverage opportunities for US correspondents in China, inhibit the operations of news outlets, and induce self-censorship. These include obstructing the movement of foreign correspondents, restricting their visas and expelling them from the country, blocking websites and apps in China, retaliating against the families of US-based journalists in China, and engaging in cyberattacks against major news outlets. Increasingly, online actors have verbally attacked or trolled ethnic Chinese journalists working for US media, especially women. These activities have inhibited certain reporting and had a notable economic impact on US news outlets, though they continue to carry critical coverage.
- Control over diaspora media: Chinese Communist Party–linked media—especially state broadcaster Chinese Central Television and the pro-Beijing Phoenix TV—retain a strong foothold among Chinese-speaking communities in the United States, as do several pro-Beijing newspapers. WeChat is widely used among the diaspora, and some Chinese Americans—political dissidents, journalists, and average users—have reportedly faced censorship on the platform for sharing content that is critical of the party. Nevertheless, several mainstream outlets have Chinese-language editions online, while other US-based outlets founded by Chinese Americans continue to publish news on the internet, on television and radio, and in print that is critical of the Chinese Communist Party and often host political debates and cultural activities.
- Robust civil society and government response: A high level of expertise on China in academic and national media circles, bipartisan public skepticism about the Chinese regime, and a strong legal infrastructure contribute to a high degree of resilience in the face of Chinese Communist Party influence efforts. Laws governing foreign agent registration and investment screening have been applied to Chinese media influence efforts, and strong legal protections against defamation suits support investigative journalism. Political leaders and government agencies have shown increasing awareness of the potential security challenges posed by Chinese Communist Party media influence, holding congressional hearings and creating new bureaucratic initiatives and government policies to address the problem. For example, since February 2020, the US government has treated Chinese state media operations as extensions of China’s diplomatic missions in the country. News reporters, civil society groups, and technology firms have taken steps to monitor media influence and disinformation, uncovering networks of fake accounts and amplifying filings on paid inserts.
- Vulnerabilities and problematic pushback: Enforcement of laws like the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which enhance transparency surrounding Chinese state media activities, remains incomplete, and interagency coordination on how to respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to influence US politics is nascent. Political polarization and growing distrust in news outlets that are seen as aligned with specific political parties create a fertile environment for disinformation campaigns aimed at enhancing societal divisions, and for domestic actors to repeat talking points from Beijing, even if inaccurate, in pursuit of perceived political gain over their rivals. Growing anti-China sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have contributed to verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans, while public opinion polling of these communities on relevant topics is lacking.
In addition to the specific recommendations below, Freedom House urges governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders in the United States to implement the global policy recommendations included in this report.
For media, civil society, and donors
- Increase efforts to investigate CCP media influence in the United States. US media outlets should allocate additional resources for investigations into the scope and impact of CCP political and media influence efforts in the United States, including detection of emergent disinformation campaigns, transnational repression against exile and diaspora communities, and pressure from Chinese officials on policymakers at the state and local levels. Major outlets should also work to increase newsroom diversity and hire Chinese-speaking journalists and editors.
- Discontinue content-sharing agreements. Mainstream media outlets in the United States should discontinue content-sharing partnerships and contracts for paid advertorials with Chinese state media entities and companies like Huawei. Outlets that continue publishing such content should screen for false or misleading narratives and clearly label it to indicate its Chinese government origin or the company’s links to the state.
- Support advocacy and capacity building. Philanthropists should expand support for civil society research, advocacy, training, and media literacy programs that enhance US resilience in the face of CCP influence efforts, including among Chinese speakers. Private resources for these activities are especially important given the limited availability of public funding.
For the federal government
- Enhance interagency and multistakeholder coordination. The federal government should expand recent efforts to improve interagency coordination related to China’s foreign media influence and targeted disinformation campaigns, particularly in advance of national and local elections. Civil society, technology firms, and media outlets should be routinely consulted on emerging trends and to coordinate effective responses.
- Align US government designations of Chinese state media. The Department of Justice should examine each of the Chinese state media outlets that have been designated as foreign missions by the Department of State since 2020 to determine whether those outlets should also be registered under FARA. For newly registered Chinese state outlets such as China Global Television Network and Xinhua, the Department of Justice should enforce FARA filing requirements, including submission of details on content partnerships with US media, to the extent possible under current law.
- Increase Chinese-language capacity. The federal government, with new funding from Congress, if necessary, should employ additional Chinese speakers at key US agencies that deal with CCP media influence.
The full United States country report will be posted as soon as it becomes available.
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