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Cities, provinces across China join global propaganda push

The Jinan International Communication Center's Facebook page on June 21, 2024, includes videos such as "Bilingual Health Tips for the 24 Solar Terms" and "City of Book Lovers." The JICC is one of China's new propaganda centers at the local and provincial levels.
The Jinan International Communication Center's Facebook page on June 21, 2024, includes videos such as "Bilingual Health Tips for the 24 Solar Terms" and "City of Book Lovers." The JICC is one of China's new propaganda centers at the local and provincial levels.

Each year, China’s government spends billions on foreign propaganda and until recently those efforts were largely driven by departments in the central government and state media. Now, a growing number of cities are joining that effort, with the China Media Project, an independent research group, recently documenting at least 23 foreign propaganda centers at China's city and provincial levels.

China experts say the move makes sense because it allows Beijing to draw on more resources and create tailored messages at a time when the country’s image is facing serious challenges over concerns that range from trade to human rights as well its handling of the COVID pandemic.

“The battle for discourse power requires all hands on deck,” Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham, told VOA.

“In every sector, China brings its full capacity — institutional, financial and human resources — to the fight, so it is normal” for Beijing to do the same with propaganda, Sullivan said.

Joshua Kurlantzick, author of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, said this is one of the many attempts to spread the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, propaganda.

“If one doesn’t work, China has so many efforts they can try others,” he told VOA in a written response.

The centers are popping up across the country and the most recent was on June 7, when China’s northeastern city of Tianjin established the Tianjin International Communication Center, or TICC.

According to the city’s state-run newspaper, the Tianjin Daily, the new center will “use lenses and pens to demonstrate a lively Tianjin to the outside world” and “serve the country’s overall public diplomacy.”

The establishment of the TICC follows the formation on May 31 of Zhejiang International Communication Center. That provincial-level center, according to the China Public Diplomacy Association, will “showcase China’s governance through the Zhejiang model … and allow the world to truly understand China.”

Since 2023, the spread of global propaganda centers at the local level began expanding rapidly. On July 3, 2023, Shenzhen formed the SZMG International Communication Center. A few days later, eastern Jiangsu province established Jiangsu International Communication Center on July 12.

Shanghai joined in October 2023 with SMG International, a city-level external communication base dubbed as “a video window for Shanghai’s city image.”

On January 6, 2024, the northern province of Hebei announced its own Great Wall International Communication Center. As of this month, China has established 23 provincial-level external communication centers, tasked to remake China’s approach of delivering its message externally.

Gary Rawnsley, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Lincoln, said these provincial-level centers indicate China has begun to realize that it cannot carry out the same propaganda to all foreigners.

“I would say that this is a clever and strategic move because it indicates that China is understanding the need to tailor its messages for particular audiences,” he said. “When we look at the activities of some of these centers, they are very much oriented toward the needs and interests of people in neighboring countries.”

Tailored for its audiences

"Tailored" and "targeted" are key words used by provincial-level international communication centers, or ICCs.

An article by Qiushi Journal, the leading official theoretical journal for the Chinese Communist Party, says the centers are “developed based on local propaganda needs” and will become “a new force” for China’s global propaganda.

The Jiangsu International Communication Center has active accounts in seven languages on major social platforms that are blocked in China, including X, formerly known as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The director of the Hubei Communication Center told a local newspaper that in addition to making full use of social media accounts, the center has adopted a "one place, one policy" approach to tailor the content according to their audiences.

"For example, we focus on football programs to Brazil and Argentina, and culinary shows to Southeast Asia and Italy," said the center’s director, Cao Xiqing.

Not all the centers were established over the past year.

China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, formed the South and Southeast Asian Media Network on May 31, 2022. According to the Information Office of the Yunnan Government, this is "the only international communication center in the country specially designed for audiences in South Asia and Southeast Asia.”

The regional network publishes journals in Burmese, Thai, Cambodian and Lao. In addition to distributing its content on social media, it also has web pages in seven languages — Burmese, Lao, Thai, Khmer, English, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Soft power focus

The local ICCs focus on China’s soft power. Rawnsley from the University of Lincoln said this is deliberate.

“It seems to be that at the central level, they are moving toward a much more political style of programming and letting these regional centers soften their programming for particular audiences and focusing much more on culture, tourism and history,” he told VOA.

VOA examined recent tweets by the Henan International Communication Center and found topics that included night scenes of its capital, Zhengzhou, foreigners learning Chinese medicine, Henan Opera and Shaolin Kung Fu. The Henan ICC also has a promotional video of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s massive global infrastructure project.

The ICCs also host various activities. For example, the Hubei ICC held an event named “The Story of the Communist Party of China” in May 2023, inviting foreigners in China to learn the history of the CCP.

Rawnsley said this highlights how everything the regional centers are doing is not completely autonomous.

“Everything will be following particular guidelines that are laid down in Beijing,” he said.

Limited effect

Despite their rapid formations, these centers have not attracted much traffic. The Henan ICC, which joined X in November 2022, currently has 19,000 followers. The Jinan ICC’s X account has around 55,000 followers since it was established in April 2022.

China has poured enormous resources into its external propaganda, yet people’s attitudes toward China have worsened in recent years, especially since the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.

A poll by the Pew Research Center in May showed that 81% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, including 43% who hold a very unfavorable view of the country.

A 2022 poll by Pew that surveyed people in 19 countries found 68% of the respondents had an unfavorable impression of Beijing. The research organization found these unfavorable opinions are related to concerns about China’s policies on human rights.

China has received heavy criticism for its strict policies in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as its aggression toward self-ruling island Taiwan, which China claims as a breakaway province. The CCP leadership denies all these accusations.

Rawnsley said the problem China faces is much more than just its presentation.

“China keeps adding more and more platforms, but it doesn't change the message. It doesn't change what people know is going on inside China,” he said.

“At the end of the day, policy and behavior determines credibility,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”