China’s Media Mapping in the South Asian States

 By Namita Barthwal

The expansion of the internet and the globalisation of media have created an ecology of communication that has opened space for significant contestation over narratives which has made state actors more aware of the Soft Power, which essentially highlights the importance of the power of narratives in international politics. In his book Bound to Lead, Joseph Nye explained Soft Power, the concept that many agree has aided the US in maintaining its hegemony in the world order that emerged after the collapse of the USSR, as “getting others to do what you want them to do”[1] without relying on coercion; but, by expanding international broadcasting, hosting the sports events like Olympics and proliferation of cultural institutes, partnerships and exchanges.[2] The concept has steadily gained prominence in the discipline of International Relations and amongst policymakers in many other countries – most enthusiastically by China.

Chinese Quest to Win Hearts and Minds

Since 2007, Chinese leadership, officials, and scholars, including the recruited international students and researchers in Chinese universities, have effectively incorporated Soft Power into their speeches and publications. The country has made massive investments vis-à-vis Soft Power, including – the global expansion of state-owned media outlets such as China Daily and CGTN to emphasise the “Rise of China” by highlighting its economic breakthroughs; and the cultural and language centres known as Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, which it has established in 162 countries[3] [4].

Apart from massive investments, China has significantly increased its media influence globally, regardless of its quality, appeal, mixed results and general distrust[5]  [6], to enhance its discourse power which includes overlooking human rights aberrations, downplaying its responsibility for COVID-19, and boosting accomplishments such as poverty alleviation and vaccine development.[7] China’s most straightforward media outreach method is “directly broadcasting and publishing” and sharing its state media, such as Xinhua, CCTV-4, CGTN and  China Radio International, which airs in multiple languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Nepali, Bengali, Sinhalese, Burmese and Tamil [8], content in target countries to inject the preferred narrative.[9] China has also been grooming relationships with journalists via media exchanges and cooperation under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in countries of interest.[10] Since 2014, China Public Diplomacy Association has regularly organised a training program for foreign journalists, including lectures on Chinese society and polity, internships at state media outlets, and controlled field trips to Xinjiang to promote what state policy guidance calls – “tell China’s story well”[11].

China’s Influence in South Asia

China’s economic and political footprints have expanded so quickly in South Asia that the tools and tactics of its activism and influence activities to shape public opinion, which include the use of coercion and incentives such as buying advertisements to influence media to evoke compliance, especially in countries that lack freedom of the press[12], remain poorly understood among local experts.

China monitors political developments in Nepal through the latter’s think tanks and media. Scholars and Journalists from both countries regularly visit each other for knowledge sharing and consultation. In 2020, training in the Chinese language and culture for Nepali journalists was organised by the Nepal-China Media Forum and the Confucius Institute of Kathmandu University[13]. Apart from such engagements, Nepal’s news agencies have also been the target of Chinese ire, especially the state-owned media that now refrain from reporting on issues related to China-funded projects, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.[14]

In Bangladesh, despite China’s efforts which include: providing Bangladeshi journalists one-year, all-expenses-paid fellowships to Chinese institutions; organising workshops on BRI engagement in partnership with local newspapers; regularly visiting local newspapers’ offices; and, hiring local journalists for Chinese state media, Bangladeshis view China as a blank slate and the media often report on issues related to BRI.[15] To resolve this, China prioritises outreach via friendship centres, cultural programs, and engagements with think tanks, business houses, and newspapers instead of trying to coerce it with criticism of editors and stories. The efforts made by China are slightly effective as officials periodically pass on requests and unofficial advice to avoid criticising BRI, and, on occasion, they suggest carrying reports that would be positive for China’s image. [16]

China has also invested in Sri Lankan local media organisations. In some cases, publications acknowledge their partnership with China, for example, Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and China Radio International, which has been running its most popular Tamil service (1963) from Colombo and Sinhala language service (1975), which jointly publishes the quarterly magazine ‘Subhasara’. Moreover, China persistently invites Sri Lankan journalists and coordinates with them through platforms such as the Sri Lanka-China Journalists’ Forum.[17] According to Deep Pal, in Sri Lanka and Maldives, the degree of media’s pro- or anti-China leanings has depended on the outlook of the government. In Sri Lanka, the leanings are reported on far more tactfully— for instance, the Sirisena government’s decision to continue with Chinese infrastructure projects and loans was mostly framed as a nonalignment policy.[18]In Maldives, the government’s guidance of the media is more direct. Therefore, Chinese or other foreign actors close to the government have used pressure for compliance to influence the narrative. The rhetoric of the all-weather friendship between the two countries and the mutual benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has facilitated China’s unhindered control over Pakistan’s domestic media through an initiative which disguises itself as a joint effort to counter a “western smear campaign”.

So far, both India and Bhutan are quite out of the ambit of China’s media influence, but the latter is effectively operating through proxies. In the last few years, Bhutan’s polity has changed its approach towards China, where it is looking forward to negotiating without clubbing India into the equation. Therefore, the influence of China on Bhutanese media needs assessment before making any remark. India is primarily repulsive of China’s aforementioned working initiatives. But through funding, China often gets slots in India’s most widely read newspapers and websites modelled after traditional mainstream news websites to disseminate news and opinions that focus on creating a benign image of China[19].

India’s Approach and Way Forward to Counter China’s Intense Media Mapping in South Asia

India is well-aware of China’s influence in South Asia but is reluctant to pursue it on the same scale for three reasons: (1) India sees its larger role in the world and aspires beyond South Asia; (2) the massive monetary investment that China has made vis-à-vis Soft Power, especially in media, is unfathomable which India is not at the position to replicate at the same scale; and, (3) India by default is a ‘defensive’ [20] soft power and mainly uses its democratic and Ahimsa (non-violence) tradition along with the influence of Hindi Films and South Indian Films in South Asia for image building rather than as an instrument to exert influence. Considering these three reasons, the effective way to deal with this issue may be to strengthen: (1) the country’s economy that eventually will accelerate India’s capabilities to enhance its soft power in South Asia and beyond; (2) civil society and democratic capacity in South Asia; and (3) regionalism by refurbishing the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation. India must prove that an economically successful pluralistic democracy is a better option than a country known for its authoritarian tendencies. [21]

The views expressed by Author is personal.

Notes and References

[1] Maria Repnikova. “The Balance of Soft Power: The American and Chinese Quests to Win Hearts and Minds”. Foreign Affairs. July/August 2022.   

[2] Roselle et al.  Strategic narrative: A new means to understand soft power. Media, War & Conflict, April 2014, Vol 7, No 1 (April 2014). Pp. 70-84.

[3] Maria Repnikova. “The Balance of Soft Power: The American and Chinese Quests to Win Hearts and Minds”. Foreign Affairs. July/August 2022.   

[4] Global Network. Confucius Institute.

[5] Daniel Shats and Peter W Singer. Four Ways China Is Growing Its Media Influence in Southeast Asia. Defense One.

[6] N 3

[7]  N5

[8] China International Radio.

[9] N5

[10] N5

[11] N5

[12] Deep Pal. China’s Influence in South Asia: Vulnerabilities and Resilience in Four Countries. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. October 2021.

[13] Chinese language training to Nepali journalists begins in Kathmandu. Myrepublica.

[14] N12

[15] N12

[16] N12

[17] About. Sirlanka-China Journalists’ Forum.

[18] N12

[19] “Ban China-funded news platforms in India, online publishers group DNPA to Centre”. Hindustan Times.  1 July 2020.

[20] Wagner, Christian. “India’s Soft Power: Prospects and Limitations.” India Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December 2010): 333–42.

[21] Harsh V Pant. “India’s Soft Power Strategy”. Outlook. 28 June 2022.