The Yomiuri ShimbunBy manipulating public opinion in a foreign country through Chinese state-run media, China would go so far as to sway the outcome of an election in that country. Concern over such a situation is spreading in the United States. Japan, for its part, has no option but to pay attention to such moves.
Saying that China is interfering in November’s midterm elections, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Beijing of trying to sway the election by targeting farmers who support him.
Called into question were China’s propaganda activities in the Midwestern states, where there are many supporters of Trump. An article saying that trade friction with China is harming U.S. farmers was carried in an English-language insert linked to the Chinese government in local papers.
It seems to be difficult for readers to distinguish that article from ordinary news. Worried about its impact on the election, Trump sounded an alarm bell, describing the insert as propaganda made to pretend to be news.
There has also been a move within the United States to regulate the Xinhua News Agency, China’s largest state-run media outlet. It is said that the U.S. Justice Department has ordered the Xinhua News Agency to register as a foreign agent that conducts propaganda for the Chinese government.
When registered, the agent, unlike a news organization, will be required to make a detailed report on its activities. There is no mistake that the move is aimed at putting the brakes on interference in domestic affairs in the guise of news media.
No exception for Japan
The United States had previously been tolerant of the activities of foreign media. The course of things changed following the U.S. presidential election in 2016, when the true state of Russia’s interference in the election — with news in its government-affiliated media and through cyber-attacks — came to light.
The Russian government-backed television station RT repeatedly featured coverage unfavorable to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the election, in keeping with the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration. Recognizing RT as a Russian agent in the United States, the U.S. Justice Department made it register as such last year.
It cannot be overlooked that authoritarian states such as China and Russia wield influence on other nations’ domestic politics and society, by taking advantage of the open system of a democratic state.
The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has given instructions to make efforts to conduct external propaganda so as to mold international opinion in a way that benefits China. Such efforts are totally different from public diplomacy, activities that directly work on public opinion in a partner country through public relations activities and cultural exchange.
Consider the Confucius Institute, branches of which the Chinese government has established in various countries as bases for promoting Chinese language and culture. They have been closed one after another in the United States on the grounds that there is a danger of intellectual property being stolen from their affiliated U.S. universities.
Even in Japan, many Chinese media outlets are operating, and there are a number of Confucius Institutes. It is important to rationally discern their real situation, so they cannot be used to expand China’s political influence in Japan.