How propaganda shapes China’s foreign policy

‘Context and conclusions are often absurd and do not promote an understanding of international relations’

Angela Merkel was the beating heart of German politics for nearly two decades.

The now-retired chancellor also played a leading role in shaping European Union policy when it came to geopolitical challenges, such as China.

But that era is now over. Last year, Olaf Scholz succeeded Merkel as chancellor under the same Social Democrat banner after the German elections in 2021. 

His coalition government, with the Greens and Free Democrats, has been in power for less than 12 months. But the administration’s policies have still come under close scrutiny in China’s state-run media and online news platforms.

“The alleged disunity of the German government is gloated over by many writers, who cite it as proof that the Western democratic system is dysfunctional,” Zhu Yi, of the Institute of China Studies at the Heidelberg University, wrote for Echowall earlier this month.

Below are edited extracts from her essay, How is the China policy of the new German coalition government framed by the Chinese Public?

Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the term information warfare has been on everyone’s lips.

In particular, China’s media campaign has received international attention.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, for instance, accused Beijing of “provid[ing] Russia with political support … by spreading blatant lies and disinformation.” 

Yet what has been overlooked so far is the long tradition of China’s propaganda apparatus actively shaping its own narratives on international affairs.

Furthermore, there is little awareness that internal Chinese logic underlies these narratives. This logic is based on mobilizing the Chinese population by shaping and controlling opinions, which simply strengthens domestic nationalism.

After the new German government presented its coalition agreement on November 24, 2021, the mere mention of China made international headlines. 

Within a few days, thousands of articles speculating on Beijing’s policy toward the new federal German government flooded the Chinese virtual airwaves. 

The Echowall Project analyzed around 1,000 articles from Chinese websites, social networks, and traditional media from November 24, 2021, until January 7, 2022.

In conclusion, considering the several thousand articles in the Chinese digital space, it is worrying that numerous distortions seem to be shaping the picture of bilateral relations. 

A few leading media outlets set the tone of news reports on Germany and Europe. 

They process information from Western sources emphasizing China’s successes, while critical voices are omitted or interpreted as fringe views of a handful of extremists. 

Previously, the so-called trans-editing technique (??) had also attracted criticism within Chinese society.

The portrayal of actors, political structures, and priorities are, at best, highly distorted and one-sided.

When The Economist published an editorial What China wants in 2014, a Shanghai newspaper translated the article and received a gushing response from the Chinese public. But it was quickly revealed that the Chinese version had omitted several critical passages

Compared to English-language media, reports from non-English speaking European countries are even more difficult for fact-checkers in China. 

It is only an exception to the rule that the case of the invented Swiss biologist “Wilson Edward” was successfully debunked. 

Additionally, the “attention economy” of the digital age stimulates countless writers and app operators to create increasingly sensational content – this is the intersection at which propaganda and business interests collide.

Even though not all the media facts were wrong, the portrayal of actors, political structures, and priorities are, at best, highly distorted and one-sided.

Indeed, context and conclusions are often absurd and do not promote an understanding of international or bilateral relations but instead nurture alienation to the point of conspiracy. 

This type of journalism contributes to the fact that the general population has scant opportunities to learn about the political views and inner logic of Germany and Europe. 

In the meantime, one is left wondering to what extent Chinese political actors are still informed about the political logic and reality in Europe. 

In early January, Professor Yan Xuetong, the director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, criticized his students for having a make-believe mindset and assuming that only China was righteous and innocent and that the West was evil.

Classified by many as a Chinese hardliner, Yan blamed the phenomenon on “online influencers.”

Yet his criticism fueled verbal attacks on the internet, including the insult of being a “public intellectual” (??), a term that has gained stigma in recent years.

The online medium Guancha commented that even if Yan had wide experience, “China had developed so fast that the older generation could no longer understand the younger generation.”

Zhu Yi is a researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the Heidelberg University. Her research focuses on political communication, media perceptions, and China’s social changes.

You can read her full essay on Echowall, which was published on May 11, by clicking this link.

Echowall is a collaborative research platform based at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Chinese Studies in Germany.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.