It has long been common for Chinese diplomats to publish op-eds in major foreign news outlets. Other familiar features of Beijing’s international media influence efforts include articles that promote Huawei telecommunications technology while downplaying the firm’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or invitations to journalists and university leaders for all-expenses-paid trips to China.
But how do the relevant actors in the Chinese system identify and make contact with the appropriate individuals and institutions in each foreign society? Increasingly, this service is performed by local public relations (PR) firms – in exchange for lucrative fees.
Country case studies and other research from a recent Freedom House report, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence,” reveal the extent to which PR firms have been working to get Beijing’s message out and co-opt local voices in countries as diverse as the United States, Panama, Taiwan, and Kenya. In at least some cases, the effort involves covert, coercive, or potentially corrupting activities.
Rare Insight Through a US Law
Uncovering the details of collaboration between Beijing and local PR firms is a major challenge, but public filings under the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) shed some light on the phenomenon.
A case study on Beijing’s media influence efforts in the United States since 2019, published by Freedom House last month, highlights a contract between the Chinese embassy and Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) in which the embassy paid the firm $144,000 in the first half of 2020 to help diplomats with “crafting, editing, and placing op-eds,” as well as maintaining the embassy’s social media accounts. During those six months, then-Ambassador Cui Tiankai had articles published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg, and possibly other outlets. Since the contract ended, Cui’s successors have been much less prolific.
But filings dating back to 2011 show that BLJ also contracted with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a proxy entity that is widely viewed as part of the CCP’s United Front work. The PR firm was paid $20,000 a month to arrange trips to China for journalism students, to enlist former U.S. government officials in writing “positive opinion articles on China” for national media outlets, to analyze “four leading United States high-school textbooks” for their portrayal of Tibet and China, and to develop recommendations for “countering the tide of public discourse” on Tibet. In the first half of 2020, the CUSEF paid BLJ more than $300,000 for services including assistance with funded trips to China for journalists from Vox, Slate, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Huffington Post.
CUSEF has sometimes worked with another PR company, Wilson Global Communications. Freedom House uncovered a CUSEF contract under which Wilson earned more than $300,000 in 2019-20 for “building, enhancing, and retaining positive relationships with key opinion leaders in African American communities, students from underserved communities, and African American media outlets.” Subsequent filings provide details on various delegations of Black university students and presidents of historically Black colleges and universities who were sponsored by CUSEF to visit China.
The China-based company Huawei, known for its close ties to the CCP and its record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, has also been a major client for U.S. PR firms. During the first six months of 2021, Huawei paid nearly $800,000 to Ruder Finn to schedule interviews, set up virtual town halls, organize podcast interviews, and facilitate television appearances for Huawei executives in the United States.
In 2019, Huawei contracted to pay Racepoint Global at least $55,000 per month and Burson Cohn and Wolfe $160,000 for outreach to “targeted media” and “key opinion leaders,” as well as exclusive travel for U.S. journalists to Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen that spring. Official filings and media reports show that Huawei’s PR spending reached as high as $3.5 million in 2021 for Ruder Finn and an extension of the Racepoint Global contract through that year.
The United States is a somewhat unusual case, given its status as a priority target for CCP influence efforts and the rare level of transparency provided by FARA filings (when they are completed). Still, there is ample evidence that Beijing’s recruitment of PR firms extends to other countries.
In 2019, for instance, Huawei hired the London-based company Wavemaker to implement a $350 million global advertising campaign, including to promote products like consumer mobile phones. At the time, the Chinese firm also faced growing concerns among democratic governments about the surveillance risks associated with its participation in building fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks. One government debating the use of Huawei’s technology was Romania. In January 2022, media reports based on asset declarations revealed that the country’s minister of finance had – prior to assuming his post – been paid by a local PR firm to write several pieces for a Huawei advertorial campaign.
In Kenya, the state-owned firm China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), which was building a major railway project as part of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative, adopted a similar approach. When it faced negative news coverage related to transparency, racism, and potential damage to local businesses, it hired at least five local PR companies, including the PMS Group, under annual payment plans. According to research published by Hangwei Li and Yuan Wang in February, “these PR companies helped CRBC with tasks such as writing and circulating press releases to local and international media, crafting media invitations, … and lobbying for positive media coverage.”
In the Chinese-language media space, PR and advertorial content has been more deeply embedded in local news outlets. The France-based company C-Media, for example, which runs a 24-hour bilingual French-Mandarin television station and partners with China’s State Council Information Office and Chinese state outlets, also has a PR and advertising business, which it says is an important area of revenue growth.
In Taiwan, where paid content placements by Chinese government entities are technically illegal, at least one company reportedly runs an advertising agency that serves as an intermediary. It subcontracts paid for advertorial content from Chinese government bodies to be published in Taiwanese media, according to a former senior editor.
Soft Power or Authoritarian Interference?
A wide range of corporations and governments – authoritarian and democratic – make use of PR firms’ services to encourage sympathetic coverage and counter negative reporting. However, there are several factors that arguably make Beijing’s practices both notable and potentially problematic.
The first is the sheer scale of resources devoted to media influence efforts by the CCP and large China-based corporations with close party ties. The potential for enormous and long-term profits entices international PR firms, creates economic dependencies, and discourages work with other clients that might threaten those relationships. It also reflects a significant imbalance when compared with the resources available in many countries to victims of CCP persecution, or to investigative reporters and civil society activists who document and publicize the regime’s or companies’ wrongdoing.
A second factor is Beijing’s layered use of intermediaries and proxies, such as CUSEF in the United States or the various People’s Associations for Friendship with Foreign Countries around the world. These entities are known among experts to be part of the CCP’s United Front work system, but they are unlikely to be familiar to many of the local interlocutors approached by PR firms on their behalf. The individuals on the receiving end of Beijing’s outreach may be completely unaware that the Chinese government is ultimately behind a given article pitch, travel invitation, or event notice.
Third, some actions by PR firms and their Chinese clients have veered from ordinary public relations into censorship, intimidation, or circumvention of local laws, as with the Taiwan example above. In another case in Panama, a mining company with significant investment from the Chinese firm Jiangxi Mining reportedly hired an aggressive PR agency, Corporate Diplomacy, in 2019-20. The agency called up senior media executives to complain about unfavorable coverage and pressed them to discontinue it. Such strong objections carry added weight in Panama, where journalists often face costly defamation suits in reprisal for investigative reporting in the public interest.
Finally, Beijing is known to promote false and misleading content in foreign media ecosystems. Campaigns that simply celebrate the Beijing Olympics, laud China’s modernization, or call for improvements in bilateral relations may fall within the scope of ordinary public diplomacy. But PR firms, their Chinese clients, and local media outlets become more ethically compromised when the messaging entails the whitewashing or denial of crimes against humanity, the deflection of legitimate national security concerns surrounding telecommunications equipment, or the propagation of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 originating in the United States.
Formulating a Response
Despite the scale of Beijing’s influence effort, democratic societies can take steps to mitigate potential risks, protect independent coverage, and promote the diversity of voices in an open media environment.
The PR firms themselves should review the potential harms of the services they provide to CCP-linked entities, notwithstanding the attractive fees, and preferably discontinue them. If a company chooses to retain such problematic clients, it should at least act transparently, even when not required by law, and explain to interlocutors that it is speaking on behalf of entities with Chinese government ties. Governments should enforce and expand transparency and reporting requirements surrounding the provision of PR services to foreign governments, including China’s.
Donors in democratic states should work to close the resource gap by providing civil society groups, investigative reporting projects, and victim communities not only with support for documenting abuses or disinformation, but also with funding to engage in more sophisticated, frequent, and large-scale communications campaigns to publicize their findings.
At the individual level, any editor, journalist, university president, or current or former government official who is approached by a PR firm with an invitation to attend an all-expenses-paid trip to China, to author an op-ed that aligns with Beijing’s talking points, or to undertake any other suspicious project should exercise due diligence in identifying the ultimate source of the invitation. Simple online research, a query to a local expert, or a glance at publicly available FARA registrations in the United States can often yield clear answers and help prevent unwitting co-optation by a brutal authoritarian regime.