The Chinese government has been taking new steps to crush dissent and spread pro-China propaganda ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which begin Friday, February 4, in Beijing. Chinese authorities are already detaining activists and shutting down critical voices on social media. Meanwhile, the state is paying western social media influencers to post positive content about China during the games, as the United States and other countries stage diplomatic boycotts over China’s human-rights abuses. Beijing’s latest tactics are part of an evolving strategy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to infiltrate and manipulate media around the world—including by propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and the flow of information itself, through digital television networks, mobile devices, and messaging apps. How does this global influence operation work—and what effects is it having?

Sarah Cook is the research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, where she directs its China Media Bulletin. Cook sees the CCP’s push to shape media narratives as being consistent with the increasingly repressive governance of President Xi Jinping, who understands the power of social media better than his predecessors and hopes to extend the reach of CCP messaging to new vistas. “Wherever the readers are,” he once said, “wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles.” In Cook’s telling, the CCP has capitalized on China’s rise to become the world’s second-largest economy—with all the clout that comes along with that—as well on as limited transparency and media literacy about their influence, including in democratic countries. Yet she also sees a reason for democracy supporters to be hopeful, even optimistic: As awareness of what the CCP is up to spreads, it’s harming China’s reputation—and mobilizing resistance—internationally.


Graham Vyse: How’s the Chinese government controlling what the world sees and hears about the Beijing Olympics?

Sarah Cook: The Chinese government was repressive and authoritarian back when China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, but it’s more repressive and authoritarian today—and not only with regard to the treatment of minorities like the Uyghurs. The pervasiveness of surveillance, censorship, and limits on how reporters in Beijing are going to be able to report on the Olympics all demonstrate that. The government’s grip on information is tightest within China, whether on what Chinese people can see and hear or on what journalists—including foreign correspondents—can see and hear. And there’s concern Beijing will use Covid protocols as an excuse to restrict and punish foreign correspondents trying to do reporting, including on the broader political context of the games.

A lot depends on who's able to get a visa, who's able to get into this "closed loop” [the Olympics area sealed off from the rest of the city], which facilities they’re able to access, who they’re able to interview, or whether they’ll get approval to attend particular events. The Chinese government can cut broadcast feeds in China. Many international news websites are blocked. Surveillance is another factor. If you look at the Committee to Protect Journalists tips for reporters covering the Olympics, they’re quite revealing: Assume your devices are all being monitored. Assume your hotel is being surveilled.

We’re now seeing revelations about an app, required as part of athletes’ health protocols, which has features to monitor content and can be used to censor content. Any reporter has to assume that anything they do there is going to be monitored and risk reprisals, including against their Chinese assistants, translators, or sources they might interview, especially on a controversial topic.

Kilian Seiler

Vyse: What is it the Chinese government doesn’t want the world to see or hear?

Cook: The Chinese government doesn’t want anything off-script. They’re control freaks. They don’t want any kind of protest, especially on the medals podium, by any athlete, especially on topics related to the mass incarceration and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims or the situation with Tibet, people who do the Falun Gong meditation practice, and Hong Kong. Beijing would also prefer not to have athletes complaining about their apps malfunctioning or commenting on the number of surveillance cameras, for instance.

Vyse: Beyond the Olympics, how does the Chinese government tend to manipulate media and control information?

Cook: It has very tight control over the domestic media ecosystem. They have all sorts of levers the government can pull—from blocking websites to putting people in jail—which, for the most part, they aren’t able to pull in other countries. The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are also able to manipulate news and information received by people in other countries in several different ways.

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