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Huawei’s PR Campaign Comes Straight From the Party’s Playbook
The trade war is showing how deep Beijing’s global influence runs.
The recent announcement that U.S. companies will need licenses to sell to Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei may amount to an economic declaration of war against Beijing’s technological champion. China has already taken its own measures such as the announcement of an “unreliable entities” list. But it will also fight back using a frequently underrated weapon: its growing ability to shape opinion globally.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is applying—with increasing frequency and effectiveness—many of the techniques it uses to manage its domestic information space to the world outside China’s borders. By marrying China’s economic heft and an increasing presence in the world of corporate thought leadership with homegrown information warfare, the CCP has forged a formidable global apparatus for shaping the conversation on China, from the Davos elite to grassroots social media. Nowhere has the growing power and sophistication of this apparatus been more apparent than in the recent trans-Atlantic debate on Huawei.
Despite Huawei’s insistence that it is not a CCP tool, state media outlets have stood solidly behind the company and given its views a global hearing. English-language state media outlets such as China Daily and the Global Times—the undiluted voice of the party-state—have run piece after piece with titles like “US betrays all its ugliness with its attacks on Huawei” and “US urged to ensure lawful rights of firms.” The voice of the CCP’s party-state propaganda apparatus now carries these messages far beyond China’s borders. To cite one of many examples, five of the six most-followed media outlets on Facebook are Chinese state media.
Apart from state media, the CCP and its proxies have also demonstrated a highly developed ability to identify and cultivate foreign intermediaries to speak on Huawei’s behalf, including an extremely well-known World Bank advisor (and would-be World Bank president), a key Italian government minister, and the president of the Czech Republic. This reflects the party’s traditional political warfare doctrine, which stresses “uniting all the forces that can be united.”
Translated from party-speak, this means the CCP seeks to cultivate a wide range of credible intermediaries to speak or act in its stead. This dominance-by-proxy approach is central to the CCP’s domestic hold on power and is now increasingly employed abroad. From the CCP’s point of view, intermediaries—witting or unwitting—can be used to disguise its voice or add credibility to its position by laundering it through ostensibly neutral third parties. Intermediaries can also be used to deliver warnings, to sow confusion in democratic discourse, or to drown out more critical voices.
Another powerful intermediary in the CCP’s information warfare arsenal is Huawei itself. The company’s nominal status as a private, nonstate actor allows it to directly manipulate democratic information spaces using the familiar tools of corporate image-making—lobbying, public relations, and advertising—in ways that no government ever credibly could. Huawei has spent enormous sums hiring former senior officials and business executives to speak on its behalf in key Western markets, including a top Obama administration cybersecurity official, a former head of BP, and the U.K.’s former chief information officer.
The company has even begun to venture into direct political messaging: In the run-up last month’s European Parliament elections, Huawei placed ads across the continent urging Europeans to “vote for 5G,” because Huawei’s 5G can contribute to “European values.” Huawei claims not to be the CCP’s subordinate, but its messaging largely aligns with Beijing’s, emphasizing the benefits of cooperation, painting the United States as an untrustworthy actor, and framing skeptical European governments as lapdogs of the United States.
Apart from a reliance on intermediaries, another key technique is deterring criticism by demonstrating that it will come with a cost. At home, the CCP can simply imprison or silence its most passionate critics. Abroad, it is relying increasingly on its trade muscle to discourage recalcitrant democratic governments. This weapon has been brought fully into play in the Huawei debate. Since Canada, Australia, and New Zealand took action against Huawei, allthree countries have had to cope with what appear to be retaliatory trade actions by Beijing, targeted at key exports sectors. Nor is Huawei the only example: In 2017, after South Korea displeased the CCP by permitting the United States to deploy a missile defense system on its soil, it found itself on the receiving end of an undeclared, hugely damaging economic boycott.
While some of these techniques may appear to bear superficial resemblance to the ways that Western governments and corporations exercise power internationally, the underlying goals and philosophies differ substantially. The CCP’s approach to managing debate is not simply to advocate for a preferred position but to silence the expression of undesirable views through any possible means.
And while there is no doubt that Western governments also seek to cultivate prominent individuals, or that the actions and interests of Western corporations often align, these actions take place within a fundamentally different institutional milieu, one where a free press and civil society can demand transparency, honesty, and accountability of the powerful. The CCP not only opposes such notions, but has also specifically and repeatedly described them as an existential threat. At the most basic level, the CCP’s growing ability to shape the international conversation should concern the democratic world because of the party’s fundamental hostility to the principles meant to check the self-serving, corrupting pas de deux between money and power.
To be sure, there are still limits on the power and reach of Beijing’s sophisticated, multilevel approach to information dominance. Media efforts are often clumsy, party media does far better with animal videos than propaganda messaging, threats sometimes prompt backlash rather than compliance, and even its most sophisticated Western defenders find it hard to answer criticism over issues such as the Uighur concentration camps in China’s far west.
However, democratic countries should be concerned not just with the present state of affairs but also with the direction of travel: In 15 years Huawei has gone from being virtually unknown outside China to being in a position to potentially split the Five Eyes intelligence alliance down the middle, an achievement undreamt of by the Soviet Union. It is a signal example of how Beijing pursues its strategic goals by marrying the patient accumulation of economic leverage with canny manipulation of the international information space. It should also signal that Beijing’s approach to shaping what we can say and know about China, and how we know it, has the potential to threaten longstanding pillars of Western security.
This problem is not going to go away: China’s economy isn’t getting any smaller, and under President Xi Jinping, the CCP has doubled down on virtually everything that makes the party’s dominance-by-proxy approach so concerning. It’s time for democratic governments around the world to seriously take stock of the ways that the CCP’s growing “right to speak” in international affairs—as exemplified by the Huawei debate—may come at the cost of their own.