Over the past year, there has been increasing reportage on China’s efforts at influencing public discourse in other countries. The so-called sharp power debate has been most acute in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and parts of western Europe.
A key component of discourse management for Beijing is influencing media coverage in different countries in order to shape favourable attitudes towards China. Two recent reports offer fresh insight into this.
The first is a study led by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, which outlines media coverage concerning China in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary from mid-2010 to 2017.
The study finds that the coverage in each country differs based on interests and domestic political and economic landscape. For instance, while media in the Czech Republic is “often openly critical” of China, this is not the case in Hungary and Slovakia.
Moreover, the sustainability of critical coverage is doubtful, given that cultivation of political elite, expanding economic linkages and Chinese investment in local media coincide with positive coverage. The study also finds that primarily it is economics that dominates the coverage of China, with issues of security, domestic politics in China, social issues and human rights taking a backseat.
Another interesting point to note is that generally the public in Hungary and Slovakia “is relegated to information mostly imported from foreign news agencies or English-speaking media sources.” This is deeply problematic in that it tends to lead to half-baked and potentially prejudiced coverage, which is unlikely to resonate with local concerns or facilitate informed debate.
The other study along similar lines assesses the media discourse around China in Canada over a 16-year period, starting from 2000. The authors find that over the years, print media coverage of China has turned slightly positive.
However, what’s fascinating about this paper is that it reveals the divergence between the Canadian public’s perception of China and media coverage. For instance, it cites polls, which indicate that the Canadian public remains deeply skeptical of the economic and political relationship with China.
Canadians apparently view the political rights situation in China as having deteriorated over the years and have grown more pessimistic about the benefits of deepening economic cooperation. And this, while the media coverage has focussed on economic relations with rights issues being marginalised.