Report No. 62/2022
What’s the problem?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using technology to enforce transnational digital repression and influence unwitting audiences beyond China’s territory. This includes using increasingly sophisticated online tactics to deny, distract from and deter revelations or claims of human rights abuses, including the arbitrary detention, mass sterilisation and cultural degradation of minorities in Xinjiang. Instead of improving its treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities, the CCP is responding to critiques of its current actions against human rights by coordinating its state propaganda apparatus, security agencies and public relations industry to silence and shape Xinjiang narratives at home and abroad.
Central to the CCP’s efforts is the exploitation of US-based social media and content platforms. CCP online public diplomacy is bolstered by covert and coercive campaigns that impose costs and seek to constrain international entities—be they states, corporations or individuals—from offering evidence-based critiques of the party-state’s record on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and other sensitive issues. This asymmetric access to US-based social media platforms allows the CCP to continue testing online tactics, measuring responses and improving its influence and interference capabilities, in both overt and covert ways, across a spectrum of topics.
The impact of these operations isn’t widely understood, and the international community has failed to adequately respond to the global challenges posed by the CCP’s rapidly evolving propaganda and disinformation operations. This report seeks to increase awareness about this problem based on publicly available information.
What’s the solution?
The exploitation of information operations and propaganda by Russia and China during Putin’s war on Ukraine demonstrates the importance of taking measures to reduce the power and impact of such activities before a crisis or military conflict is underway.1 This is a viable option, given both the success of the West in countering Russia’s false pretexts for instigating an invasion of Ukraine by revealing Russian plans,2 and the outstanding success of the Ukrainian Government’s communication efforts globally. This has undercut attempts by Putin to establish legitimacy in the conflict and has also pressured Beijing into moderating its international and material support for Moscow during the conflict. However, collective action was largely taken only after Russia’s invasion. The CCP has a different modus operandi and seeks to achieve its objectives without military force. It relies on other countries having high tolerance levels before those countries take action, which often means that the harmful impacts of information operations are occurring before any countermeasures are taken.
CCP information operations targeting Xinjiang narratives and human rights abuses should be countered now to mitigate the party’s global campaign of transnational repression and information warfare. Achieving that requires governments and civil society to work more closely with social media platforms and broadcasters to deter and expose propaganda organisations and operatives.
Governments must lead this policymaking process in coordination with allies and partners with shared interests. Economic sanctions regimes that target the perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses should be expanded to include the distributors of disinformation and foreign propaganda who silence, intimidate and continue the abuse of survivors and victims of human rights violations. Sanctions targeting propagandists and state media have already been used as an effective tool of statecraft. For example, the Australian Government,3 in coordination with other governments in the US, UK and Europe,4 has sanctioned Russian propagandists and state media for spreading disinformation and propaganda during Putin’s war. Sanctioning Chinese propagandists and state media for their repression of global free speech will curb the CCP’s disinformation and foreign propaganda prior to a conflict, undermine its capabilities during conflicts and deter future information campaigns.
CCP information operations are also evolving and changing. Governments should disrupt Chinese propaganda assets and identify strategic data sources—such as public opinion mining of US-based social media—that are being exploited to improve the party’s influence and interference capabilities. In addition, governments, civil society actors, think tanks and social media operators should create countermeasures and responses to CCP information operations and propaganda activities focusing on the discourse on human rights to blunt and deter malign CCP activity. This should include funding research exposing the Chinese foreign propaganda system, including public relations firms, cultural corporations and public opinion monitoring companies based inside and outside China.
You can download the full report here.
20 Jul 2022