Governments, media outlets, civil society, and technology firms all have an essential role to play in protecting freedom of expression and access to information in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence efforts.
Long-term democratic resilience to Beijing’s media influence will require a coordinated response across a variety of sectors. Governments, media outlets, civil society, and technology firms all have an essential role to play in protecting freedom of expression and access to information in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence efforts, while ensuring adherence to democratic norms and international human rights standards. Here are Freedom House's global policy recommendations from the Beijing's Global Media Influence report.
- Protect and expand independent coverage of China. Media outlets should increase efforts to produce independent coverage and investigative reporting on their countries’ bilateral relations with China, China-linked economic investment, Beijing’s foreign influence, human rights conditions in China, and other topics of concern to the local population. They should ask challenging questions during interviews with Chinese diplomats and offer opportunities for critics of the Chinese government to air their views. Media owners and editors should avoid suppressing unfavorable reports related to China. Media outlets should increase newsroom diversity and ensure coverage of different perspectives within the Chinese diaspora, immigrant, and exile communities.
- Revisit content-sharing agreements. Media outlets and journalists’ unions should discontinue content-sharing partnerships, contracts for paid advertorials, and memorandums of understanding with Chinese state media entities, Chinese embassies, and the government-affiliated All-China Journalists Association. New agreements of this kind should be avoided. Outlets that decide to continue publishing content from Chinese sources should negotiate contracts that allow for editorial review and the discretion to reject any content that is false, misleading, or harmful. Media outlets should clearly label the state-linked origin of content published via paid advertorials or other partnership agreements, including on television and radio.
- Increase transparency regarding pressure tactics and cooperation agreements. Media outlets should publicly expose any pressure or intimidation they receive from Chinese officials, the Hong Kong authorities, or companies with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They should disclose any content-sharing agreements or financial compensation for placement of Chinese state media content, commissioned articles, or diplomats’ commentary.
- Enhance journalistic training and ethical standards. Media outlets and journalists’ unions should provide training for investigative reporting as well as ethical guidelines on best practices for coverage of China and the use of Chinese state-produced content. Journalists, editors, and media executives should avoid the conflicts of interest associated with accepting cash, gifts, or other special favors from Chinese state-linked actors, whether or not there is an explicit request to publish positive articles about the CCP, its policies, or Chinese companies, and should publicly disclose the provision of any good or service that could be deemed a conflict of interest.
- Preemptively expand and maximize safeguards. Even in countries where more aggressive CCP influence tactics have yet to emerge, democratic governments should establish a coordinator or task force that can facilitate interdepartmental responses to potential authoritarian influence campaigns, drawing in state institutions responsible for foreign affairs, electoral integrity, and investment screening, among other areas of work. Officials should also engage in discussions on China’s foreign media influence tactics with civil society, technology firms, media outlets, and other democratic governments.
- Impose penalties for transgressions by Chinese officials. When CCP representatives engage in bullying, intimidation, or other pressure aimed at a country’s journalists and commentators, the government should respond promptly, for instance by issuing public statements of concern or diplomatic rebukes. In especially serious cases involving threats against journalists and their families, the government should consider declaring the perpetrators persona non grata. Governments should publicly condemn assaults on or obstruction of their countries’ media correspondents in China, including the delay or denial of visas, and continue to pursue the matter until a satisfactory resolution is reached.
- End domestic attacks on the media and civil society. Of the 30 countries covered in this report, officials in 19 have increased their own attacks on free expression since 2019, and officials in 12 took measures specifically to suppress coverage that might be disfavored by the Chinese government. To strengthen democratic resilience, governments should end domestic pressure on the media, civil society, and individuals exercising the right to free expression. Governments should also refrain from misusing laws that regulate foreign investment to suppress independent outlets or organizations. They should ensure that any measures taken to restrict or counter malign CCP influence are proportionate, provide for due process, and otherwise adhere to international human rights law and standards.
- Increase transparency surrounding Chinese state media activities. Governments should consider adopting transparency requirements for foreign state-owned propaganda outlets operating in their country. Legislative language and enforcement should improve public access to information about Chinese state media activities without casting suspicion on entire ethnic communities. Relevant laws should incorporate the advice of civil society experts and representatives of diaspora, immigrant, and exile communities to maximize their efficacy and avoid undue restrictions on fundamental rights. Appropriate regulations could include reporting requirements for foreign state media outlets’ spending on paid advertorials, their ownership and editorial structures, and other ties to the political leadership in their home countries.
- Ensure fair enforcement of relevant media laws. Governments should adopt and enforce laws governing media ownership and mergers that enhance transparency, improve competition and diversity, and limit cross-ownership, such as regulations that prevent single entities from controlling both content production and distribution channels. Governments should protect the independence of media regulators and allow them to apply relevant laws impartially, without political or diplomatic interference.
- Improve protections against defamation. Governments should decriminalize defamation and adopt anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) regulations to protect journalists, academics, and civil society activists from frivolous civil defamation suits aimed at silencing criticism of the CCP or other powerful interests.
- Build safeguards against content manipulation by China-based apps and device makers: As mobile applications and devices produced by companies with close CCP ties gain global popularity, governments should take measures to detect and prevent any censorship or surveillance that might be facilitated by such products. Governments should hold hearings, introduce third-party risk assessment audits, and adopt laws that require companies to be more transparent on subjects including their content moderation, recommendation and algorithmic systems, collection and use of personal data, and targeted advertising practices, including for social media applications and browsers on mobile devices. Governments should also adopt strong data privacy laws that limit what information can be collected and how it can be used. Governments should avoid outright or arbitrary bans on China-based apps, as such restrictions run counter to the principles of internet freedom by obstructing the political, religious, and social expression of millions of users.
For Civil Society/Donors
- Document and raise awareness of CCP influence efforts. Academic institutions, think tanks, and other civil society groups should build on existing work to research CCP influence efforts, including in the media sector. In the short term, they should investigate covert and coercive tactics and provide early-warning analysis ahead of elections, especially in countries that have previously faced targeted disinformation campaigns linked to China. Longer-term projects could include surveys of journalists and scholars regarding censorship pressures, detection of disinformation campaigns, tracking and analysis of Chinese diplomatic and state media content, or use of freedom of information laws to obtain details on public broadcasters’ collaboration with Chinese state media. Researchers should also pursue any evidence of collaboration between the local government and CCP officials that could result in violations of press freedom or human rights.
- Use strategic advocacy to inform policymakers and build coalitions. Press freedom groups and think tanks should provide policymakers with advice on laws or regulations that would help address authoritarian media influence efforts without infringing on human rights. Civil society groups can also file complaints with regulators to prompt stronger oversight under existing laws. Civil society has an important role to play in building coordination mechanisms—at the national and international levels—that could develop common responses and share best practices among government entities, technology firms, academic experts, and others working in this field.
- Improve reporting on China through funding, training, and networking opportunities. Professional training programs for journalists and other media workers should include background material on China and its regime as well as case studies on CCP propaganda and censorship tactics around the world. To compete with Beijing-backed junkets and training programs, democratic donors should sponsor journalist travel and networking opportunities, including engagement with Chinese human rights defenders and representatives of ethnic and religious groups that face persecution in China.
- Strengthen media and digital literacy programs. Civil society should work with governments to strengthen media literacy programs and help the public to recognize and fact-check disinformation and propaganda. Programs tailored to improve expertise on China could provide background information on the different Chinese state media outlets and their ties to the CCP, examples of past disinformation campaigns, and China-based apps’ track record of surveillance and censorship within China. Such initiatives should include components that serve Chinese-language news consumers and equip them to identify problematic content on WeChat and other CCP-influenced information sources.
- Increase research and funding to bolster independent Chinese-language media. Civil society groups should conduct further research to understand influence efforts that target the Chinese diaspora, immigrant, and exile communities and their media ecosystem. Support for independent Chinese-language media should include increased funding and training opportunities, digital security assistance to counter cyberattacks and phishing attempts, and exploration of alternative platforms and channels that would allow the Chinese diaspora to communicate outside of censored China-based apps.
- Support investigative journalism and Chinese-language study. Donors should support investigative journalism, including features on newsworthy China-related topics within a given country. To enhance media expertise on China, they should provide opportunities for journalists, scholars, and think tank researchers to study the Chinese language or attend educational or journalism classes. They should also finance research dedicated to tracking self-censorship and other subtle pressures on media outlets. Any projects focused on supporting Chinese-language media should include those serving diaspora, immigrant, and exile communities, or even provide dedicated funding for the latter.
For Tech Companies
- Label state-affiliated accounts. Social media platforms should consistently and comprehensively label accounts controlled by state media outlets and government officials, including Chinese state media and diplomats, to enhance transparency for users. Platforms should consult with civil society and media experts when determining which outlets reach the threshold of being state controlled. Advertising rights and other monetization opportunities should be restricted for accounts that have been labeled as state media.
- Invest resources to counter online disinformation. Technology companies should identify, dismantle, and publicly expose disinformation campaigns, making it clear when such campaigns have links to state actors. Companies should also invest resources to monitor for campaigns in a variety of languages, in addition to English and Chinese. Company representatives should engage in continuous dialogue with local civil society organizations and experts, and communicate openly about any new policies they may be implementing to counter disinformation.
- Ensure fair and transparent content moderation. Technology companies should clearly and concretely define what speech is not permissible, what aims such restrictions serve, and how the platform assesses content. They should ensure that content producers who are critical of the Chinese government do not face improper censorship, including through malicious reporting by pro-Beijing trolls for alleged terms-of-service violations. They should also ensure that automatic systems for flagging and removing content include meaningful human review.
- Publish detailed transparency reports on content takedowns. Media and technology companies based inside or outside of China should publicly document content removals and shadow bans, whether they were initiated by governments or the companies themselves. Platforms should provide an efficient and timely avenue of appeal for users who believe that their rights were unduly restricted. Companies should ensure that content removal requests from governments are in compliance with international human rights standards, using all available channels to push back against problematic requests.
For the United States
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, businesses, 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, including permitting them to use pseudonyms if necessary for security reasons.
- Discontinue content-sharing agreements and public relations services. 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. Public relations and communications firms should discontinue services or refuse new contracts for Chinese diplomats, entities with close CCP-ties like the China-US Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), and CCP-linked firms with problematic records of censorship and surveillance.
- 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.
- Impose penalties for transgressions by Chinese officials. When CCP representatives—including Chinese diplomats in the United States—engage in bullying, intimidation, or other pressure aimed at local journalists and commentators, the US government should respond promptly, for instance by issuing public statements of concern or diplomatic rebukes. In especially serious cases involving threats against journalists and their families, the government should consider declaring the perpetrators persona non grata. US officials—at the highest levels—should publicly condemn assaults on or obstruction of correspondents from US media in China, including the delay or denial of visas, and continue to pursue the matter until a satisfactory resolution is reached.
- 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.
- Increase Congressional scrutiny of WeChat censorship and surveillance in the United States. Tencent’s WeChat application and the company’s politicized moderation and monitoring actions pose a serious threat to the privacy and free expression of millions of U.S. residents and citizens, particularly Chinese speakers. Yet, information available to the public and to U.S. policymakers about the full extent of this phenomenon is lacking. Congress should hold a hearing to shed greater light on the challenges experienced by users in the United States and include among witnesses Chinese activists and ordinary users who have encountered censorship on the platform in the United States, as well as executives from Tencent. Members of Congress should also write formal letters to Tencent asking explicit questions regarding its data protection, moderation, and official account policies as they relate to users in the United States.
- When seeking to reduce the vulnerabilities to manipulation and surveillance posed by some apps, blanket bans on specific applications may do more harm than good: Recognizing both the potential threat posed by PRC-based applications like WeChat or ByteDance’s TikTok, but also the disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression that a blanket ban would entail, the US government should first explore other options for addressing the concerns raised by these applications, including: holding hearings, introducing third-party risk assessment audits, restricting usage on government or military devices, and adopting laws that require more transparency on company policies and practices, including their content moderation, recommendation and algorithmic systems, collection and use of personal data, and targeted advertising practices. Congress should also adopt stronger data privacy laws that limit what information can be collected and how it can be stored, used, and shared. In the current absence of a federal data privacy law, regulatory bodies like the Federal Trade Commission should explore what options exist for improving protections for Americans data under existing authority.
More from BGMI
Learn more about BGMI's authors, researchers, reviewers, advisors, and donors.
Scores and findings from the 30 countries surveyed in the BGMI report.
More on the research, country selection, and scoring for Freedom House’s BGMI report.