U.S. ADVISORY COMMISSION ON PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
Minutes and transcript from the quarterly public meeting focused on “Innovative public diplomacy responses to China’s influence strategies.”
U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Quarterly Meeting
Thursday, June 17, 2021 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT
Virtual Public Meeting via Videoconference
COMMISSION MEMBERS PRESENT:
TH Sim Farar, Chair
TH William Hybl, Vice-Chair
TH Anne Terman Wedner
COMMISSION STAFF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Dr. Vivian S. Walker, Executive Director
Mr. Shawn Baxter, Senior Advisor
Ms. Kristy Zamary, Program Assistant
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) met in an open virtual session from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021, to discuss innovative public diplomacy responses to China’s influence strategies. A distinguished group of independent experts on China’s information and public diplomacy initiatives addressed challenges and opportunities for PD practitioners in responding to China’s state-sponsored influence operations. Panelists included Min Mitchell, Managing Director for East Asia, Radio Free Asia; Naima Green-Riley, Raymond Vernon Fellow, Harvard University; and Evanna Hu, CEO and Partner, Omelas.
ACPD Executive Director Vivian Walker opened the session, and Chairman Sim Farar provided introductory remarks. Senior Advisor Shawn Baxter moderated the Q&A, Commissioner Anne Wedner provided a discussion wrap-up, and Vice-Chairman Bill Hybl closed the meeting. The speakers took questions from the Commissioners and the online audience, as detailed in the transcript below.
Approximately 530 participants registered and 170 attended the ACPD’s virtual public meeting, including:
- PD practitioners and PD leadership from the Department of State, USAGM, and other agencies;
- Members of the foreign affairs and PD think tank communities,
- Academics in communications, foreign affairs, and other fields,
- Congressional staff members,
- Retired USIA and State PD officers,
- Members of the international diplomatic corps, and
- Members of the general public.
Vivian Walker: Hello everyone and welcome. My name is Vivian Walker, and I’m the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Today, I’m joined by Commission Chair Sim Farar, Commission Vice Chair Bill Hybl, and Commissioner Anne Wedner. We’re all delighted to welcome you to this quarterly meeting, which is part of the Commission’s mandate to keep the American public informed about U.S. government public diplomacy practices.
The current policy focus on geostrategic competition with China raises important questions about the U.S. government’s ability to maintain its competitive edge in the global information space. While acknowledging that a lot of good work has already been done, we also think it’s important to consider fresh public diplomacy approaches to China’s influence strategies. With today’s panelists we’re going to do just that. We are fortunate to have a group of experts with significant experience in the realms of media and international broadcasting, technology, and the academic and practitioner sectors.
Min Mitchell, currently Managing Director for East Asia and soon to be the Executive Editor for Radio Free Asia, has an enormously distinguished background in the realm of international broadcasting and journalism with a focus on China.
Evanna Hu is CEO and partner for Omelas, which is an artificial intelligence and machine learning company working on mapping the online information environment, and she brings a tremendous amount of experience from the private sector.
And finally, Naima Green-Riley, currently a Raymond Vernon Fellow at Harvard University, is completing her doctoral dissertation on a comparative study of China and U.S. government public diplomacy strategies, and she’s about to join the faculty at Princeton University’s School for Public and International Affairs. So, as you can see, we have a very distinguished group today.
Before we begin, let me just say a few words about process. We’ll begin with introductory remarks by our Chair, Sim Farar. I’ll return for a very brief scenesetter for the panel itself. Then, we’ll go straight to our panelists, each of whom will speak consecutively. There will be no break between their presentations. In the meantime, we encourage you to submit your questions via the Q&A function that you should see to the bottom right of your screen. Our moderator, ACPD Senior Advisor Shawn Baxter, will be taking your questions and directing them to the panelists once we begin the Q&A session.
Now, it’s my pleasure to introduce the chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Mr. Sim Farar.
Sim Farar: Thank you, Vivian, very much and all of you who have joined us today from across the United States and around the world. With me today, are my distinguished colleagues from the Commission: Vice Chairman Bill Hybl who hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Anne Wedner from Miami, Florida.
We sincerely appreciate your continued interest and commitment to the practice of public diplomacy. Thanks to our panelists who agreed to share their insights into public diplomacy’s role in maintaining the U.S. government’s competitive edge in the global information space. The focus of today’s quarterly meeting, “Innovative public diplomacy responses to China’s influence strategies,” falls squarely within the ACPD’s mandate.
Our bipartisan Commission was created by Congress in 1948 to appraise U.S. government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of, and support for, these same activities. For more than 70 years, the Commission has represented the public interest through regular reviews of the U.S. government’s global information, media, cultural, and educational exchange programs. The Commission also assesses the effectiveness of these public diplomacy activities, recommends changes when needed, and reports its findings and recommendations to the President of United States, Congress, the Secretary of State, and of course, the American people.
Which brings us to today’s event, which we hope will serve as a platform for assessment and change. Please join me in welcoming our guest speakers who will bring their diverse backgrounds and experience to bear on the perennial challenge of state sponsored influence management, focusing specifically on China’s influence strategies.
Now, back to you, Vivian. Thank you.
Vivian Walker: Thanks, Sim. As I suggested just a few minutes ago, the intent of this panel is to shift away from an exclusive focus on great power competition in the global information space – what some have described essentially as a zero-sum battle for influence between China and the United States – and begin a different conversation, a fresh way of thinking about the nature of influence and how to maximize soft power attributes, to include values, policies, relationships, and practices, through public diplomacy.
This panel is well timed. I’m sure most of you have seen the recent reports suggesting that Xi Jinping is trying to improve China’s global reputation, to scale back on its aggressive influence tactics, the so-called Wolf War diplomacy, to create a trustworthy, loveable, and respectable image of China. Indeed, China’s reputation and its influence capacity has suffered of late with issues like the repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority; aggressive rhetoric and actions against Taiwan, India, and Hong Kong; and issues with its management of information surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
At the same time, a recent Pew global research report indicates that America’s image is on the upswing globally with respect to climate change, refugee policies, coronavirus management, and recovery of democratic values. But beyond the ebb and flow of global perceptions, what are some innovative and more enduring ways of thinking about influence management from media, technology, and scholarly perspectives?
Today, Min Mitchell will tell us about creating new outlets and opportunities for expression for China’s successor generation, and perhaps new ways of penetrating China’s information space to reach these new and younger audiences. Evanna Hu will address, in part, the reevaluation of information operation content and its influence potential. And Naima, among other things, will talk to us about exploring and understanding China’s soft power appeal – the attractiveness of its image — and how to use that as a basis to manage future public diplomacy responses.
With that, it’s time to turn to our panelists to hear from them directly, starting with Min. Over to you, Min, and thank you again for joining us.
Min Mitchell: Thank you very much, Vivian and Chairman Farar. Good afternoon everyone. I’m thrilled to be on the panel today to discuss one of the most important public diplomacy challenges we face today from a journalist’s point of view. Radio Free Asia (RFA) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The U.S. Congress funded RFA to be a surrogate media for closed-off countries in Asia. RFA started as a radio network broadcasting through shortwave radio to our target audiences in 1996. We have gone through a major transformation in the past ten years to become a fully digitalized media that provides our audience our content through all kinds of online platforms, mobile devices, and satellite television.
Our current weekly estimated audience is 59.8 million, with 44 million in China. As we witnessed China investing resources into establishing a media juggernaut that aggressively advances and spreads its false narrative and disinformation, both internally and globally, we also reexamined our strategy and developed a three-pronged approach to not just counter disinformation but to shape the information space with solid, credible, and creative content for new audiences.
Our three-pronged strategy includes, first, expanding RFA’s domestic efforts to reach audiences inside China. Second, we are developing third language media brands focusing on providing factual China related news and information in the third countries. Third, we are establishing a global digital Mandarin platform to provide alternative views to young Chinese Mandarin-speaking audiences, Global Mandarin.
Because today, we’re talking about innovative responses to China’s influence strategies, I’ll focus on our latest digital initiative, Wainao. RFA soft launched this new brand last September. It is a digital news magazine that provides accurate and appealing news information to young Mandarin language speakers inside and outside China. This is for the post-1990 generations. Tiananmen never existed in their world. They grew up with internet, social media, and lots of entertainment media content. Most of them are comfortable and content within their WeChat and Weibo circles.
There are, on average, 700,000 Chinese students studying abroad every year, according to Chinese government data. These young people live overseas without the Great Firewall. They have the freedom to access any information they want. But, from our studies, we see most of them still consuming information from Weibo and WeChat. So, how do we reach them?
We started brainstorming the project back in 2019, and we did focus groups with young Chinese students in this area. Wainao is what we developed. It’s a brand that uses appealing visual presentation to do storytelling and to encourage independent thinking. It focuses on social and cultural issues that are underreported in China, and it has built-in technology to allow audiences to share the content safely. We wanted to create an online platform where young Chinese Mandarin speakers all over the world can feel safe and comfortable to consume information, to engage with each other, and to have conversations about things they can’t talk about otherwise.
I would like to share a show reel with all of you here today of Wainao to give you a feel of what I’m talking about. Let me share the screen:
Thank you. I hope you liked the video. In using the name Why Not/Wainao, we want to encourage our audience to always ask the question, Why not? to the establishment. In Chinese the name Wainao is phonetically similar to Wainao which means “slanted brain.” We want to encourage our audience to look at things from a different angle, and we have received great feedback since the soft launch. We saw a student forum discussing Wainao – a Tsinghua University student forum. There were some comments wondering who is behind this new Mandarin news brand, and one student said, “We think it’s USAGM and Radio Free Asia.” In response to that comment, a person said, “There’s no way.” He did not believe government funded media could do something creative like this, and he said, if true, the U.S. government is doing so much better than the Chinese and Russian governments.
I believe this is a powerful testament to our work and, ultimately, the most powerful form of demonstrating the U.S. values of free speech and free media. We don’t have to do propaganda. All we need to do is to provide factual, unbiased information to our audience. I will stop here, and I look forward to listening to my fellow distinguished panelists’ presentations. I’ll turn the floor over to Evanna.
Evanna Hu: Thank you so much. I’m not sure if I can add entertainment value after your presentation, which was great. I really liked the video. It’s a great honor to be here today. I want to talk to you a little bit more about the effectiveness of influence operations and how public diplomacy can actually play a role in helping America maintain its competitive edge.
China’s investment in information operations has increased exponentially since 2015. They’ve spent a total of ten billion dollars on IO in 2016. In 2020, China spent about 2.6 billion dollars on the United Work Front, alone. The United Work Front is a domestic and international foreign influence department that reports directly to the Central Planning Committee. Pertaining to Chinese IO efforts, much has been written about their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and the themes of their coordinated IO campaigns, whether covert or overt. But little has been written on how effective the more than 10 billion dollars that China has spent on IO every year has been.
So, for the next eight minutes, I’m going to tackle that question by looking primarily at machine learning-driven, audience resident scores and to a lesser extent, raw engagement rates. Then, I will discuss gaps which the State Department can fill through public diplomacy efforts and interagency coordination and influence operations.
The dramatic increase in the Chinese government’s budget for influence operations, including propaganda, has been fruitful in terms of metrics and performance. In terms of measuring the prolificacy of the volume, the content has actually increased more than twice as much since the before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, China published over 614,000 posts, which garnered around 53 million engagements with an average of 90 engagement rates for each post. Half of the Chinese content is published in English while the other 50% is split between Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Spanish, French, and Japanese, in descending order.
China’s main angle is fear, and the target audience is clear. But the total volume is still only a small fraction of what Russia, and on some days, what the United States and other state actors are publishing. From a TTP perspective, China has grown a lot more sophisticated, with an increasing number of languages and distribution channels including social media platforms in the past two years alone.
During this same time period as a comparison, the U.S. government, including USAGM, published over 1.5 million posts, or 2.6 times of what China published. That generated more than 270 million engagements. U.S. content is highly varied in its languages with English accounting for 30% of all posts, followed by Russian at 12%, Arabic at 7%, Spanish at 7%, Farsi at 6%, and Chinese at 5%. Roughly 30% of content appears in more of the uncommon languages ranging from Urdu to Albanian. U.S. content is also more diversified on platform. While 60% of content is posted to Twitter, between 5-10% appear on Facebook, YouTube, and VK. China, by contrast, has focused 92% of its content on Twitter, Weibo, and YouTube. One of the audience segments is almost exclusively domestic for China – Weibo.
Chinese IO is highly selective and consistent in the topics or themes it addresses, and 2020 was dominated by conversations about COVID-19, the degradation of American democracy, and the preeminent rise of Chinese international leadership. The last topic is the most significant because it is the locus that all Chinese IO orbit and aim to legitimize. Early in the pandemic, China enjoyed the advantage regarding global discussions about the virus to positively frame its role in fighting the disease. That advantage quickly evaporated, and China failed to counter the negative coverage that followed months later as the virus spread internationally.
Much harder to engage are the metrics of effectiveness. So, for instance, how effective are Chinese IOs targeting key audience segments? And how does the United States actually stack up against China in capturing the same target audience? Chinese narratives that negatively portray the United States are among the most successful IO based on engagement rate and audience resonance. But attempts to induce favorable perceptions of China are among their greatest failures. The political turmoil around the 2020 U.S. Presidential election showed China’s adaptability to quickly parlay critiques about U.S. democracy into an effective repudiation of American leadership and stability.
By and large, Chinese IO have found limited success, but its narrative focuses demonstrate an intimate understanding of the role that digital media plays in facilitating China’s rise. A key Area of Responsibility of contention between the United States and China is the Indo-Pacific. In the Indo-Pacific in 2020, China published half as many posts as the United States, 26,000 to 56,000, respectively. The United States garnered over 4.5 million engagements from Radio Free Asia alone, while China received only 62,000 engagements. However, neither actor managed to consistently induce audience responses in line with the published content. Indo-Pacific audiences tended to tilt towards a usual sentiment with both actors.
In 2020, as a comparison, the United States published around 80,000 posts targeting Chinese audiences and garnered four million engagements. Content focused on issues like the Hong Kong protests, China’s persecution of the Uyghurs, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins. This content, however, did not resonate with the Chinese audience, who generally responded neutrally.
China content targeting the United States reflected only 30,000 posts, which is about 37% of the amount that the United States had published. But China’s content garnered over seven million engagements, which is almost double the U.S. engagement rates in 2020. Much of this content focused on the failed U.S. pandemic response, the civil protests around the country, and the turmoil surrounding the presidential election.
American audiences were moderately perceptive to these negative portrayals and responded in kind. One area that China is weakest at, which the United States can take advantage of, is that, for any target segment, China cannot convince anyone that it is a positive force for change and a mutually beneficial partner, despite multiple campaigns that try to persuade people otherwise. This is a theme that public diplomacy efforts can take advantage of.
Simultaneously, the United States needs to improve its response to the Chinese narratives of domestic unrest and policy hypocrisy. China has consistently seized these opportunities to criticize the United States and respond to events such as the storming of the Capitol. The U.S. image degraded significantly in the past year and must be improved to prevent China’s negative portrayal from gaining further traction.
In conclusion, there are really three major takeaways. One, China is still behind on IO as compared to the United States and Russia, but its learning curve has been steep in the past two years. Second, while Russia and the United States have launched strategic campaigns, China tends to be a lot more opportunistic and reactive in its approach, responding to current events and what others are saying about China rather than proactively and consistently attacking other actors.
Finally, China is still very limited in its language and cultural capabilities in places like central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. However, it is taking advantage of the narrative gaps left behind especially by the United States in the past four years. China is also doing it through two non-digital ways. The first is by offering free tuition for one-to-three-year fellowships or journalism courses. They’re doing this in a lot of strategic countries around the world, such as in Nairobi, Kenya and in South Africa. China is also constructing and outfitting broadcast stations and physical newsrooms, such CCTV. As developing countries become a more vital proxy space of competition between the United States and China, IO and these non-digital soft power campaigns will play a major role in shaping the perception of not only the government, but the population as well.
I know I talked about a lot of different points with a lot of numbers. I’m going to stop here, and I’d be happy to take your questions. I’m going to turn it over to Naima.
Naima Green-Riley: Thanks very much. I’m going to talk to you about how Chinese leaders and Chinese intellectuals in Beijing and other places in China are thinking about building China’s image internationally. Then, we’re going to speak about some of China’s main goals, what some decision makers are talking and writing about for the Chinese public about Chinese soft power and China’s global image, and then how those goals playing out. I’ll end by talking about the implications for U.S. public diplomacy.
Like any good academic, I have slides. I’m going to share those now so you can see them. What you’ll see from my first slide is actually a flashback to a couple months ago, March 2021. You’ll remember that it was in March that the Biden administration first met with Chinese leadership. What I have here are two quotes from the remarks from the Chinese side and from the U.S. side.
Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi said, “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States could represent international public opinion.” In response to that, Secretary of State Blinken said, “I have to tell you, what I’m hearing is very different from what you described. I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back and also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government has taken.”
I’m not a huge fan of the take that the United States and China are deadlocked in some zero-sum competition. At the same time, this snapshot illustrates that there really is a narrative contest that’s happening between the United States and China. And in recent years, we’ve seen China’s rhetoric becoming increasingly at odds with U.S. rhetoric. It’s been a slow trend over decades, really. Many point to Deng Xaioping, who was leader of China in the late 1970s, as being famous for the phrase that China should hide its strength, bide its time, never take the lead. And this is really as China was starting to open up to the world and so there is a saying [speaking Chinese] that means hide your strength and bide your time that was really motivating Chinese leadership in the world or Chinese engagement in the world from the late 1970s into the early 2000s.
But, increasingly we’ve seen in recent years China take on a much more active, much more vocal role in international politics. When I was in Beijing in 2018-2019, you would start to hear representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Chinese leaders say things like: “We’re tired of the post-Cold War system of politics in which the United States is the global leader. We want to see other countries start to take a more active role in international politics.” There was a call to those who might be jaded by or disenchanted by the United States. Recently, in the past couple of years, we have started to hear more and more that China is really trying to advocate for greater Chinese leadership. So, not only should the United States have less of a dominant role in international politics, but the country that should really start to fill in, according to Chinese leadership, appears to be China, specifically.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the principles that guide Chinese leaders as they are thinking about Chinese image building in the world, and I focus on this because I think it’s actually something we don’t talk about enough. We often talk about China’s rise, we talk about China’s actions in other countries, actions in the United States. Luckily, as a doctoral student I’ve had the chance to really soak and poke, to read the source documents in Mandarin, to talk to intellectuals, to read books that are written by Chinese intellectuals about this topic. I think it can really help us understand what’s going on specifically within China and within Chinese leadership.
I’m going to talk about three different things. The first is the Chinese narrative for its domestic public, but also for its leadership goals over the coming decades. Many Chinese experts or many of us who focus on China point to this narrative that leader Xi Jinping has of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese state. At the foundation of much of Chinese politics is this idea that China should be rejuvenated, and sometimes when we hear political slogans that come from China, they can seem a little opaque. What does that mean? I will tell you that this is a very animating concept for Chinese leadership and really it points back to a rich, 5,000-year history that Chinese leadership says that Chinese citizens should remember. It also points back to things like the Qing dynasty, in which China had a broad range of trade relationships and an international voice. So, there’s a harkening back to this idea of China as an international leader. When Xi Jinping and other leaders point to this image, they really want to imply not only that the Chinese leadership will consolidate power and will continue to build economic growth for the country, but also that the country will take on a greater international role.
Secondly, there’s a term, soft power, that we often use in the United States. It was originally coined by a U.S. academic, Joe Nye. But this is a term, soft power, that Chinese leaders are quite enamored with. I have heard that there are many conferences that have happened in China about soft power, how to build soft power. The idea that a country can attract masses, can attract people all over the world just by being itself, by spreading its values internationally, is attractive and seductive to Chinese leaders. It’s definitely an animating concept for Chinese image building, as well.
Thirdly, I’ll point to a concept that I’ve heard increasingly in the United States when I’m referring to China but that I actually was hearing in China for a while longer. That is the idea of discourse power, international discourse power. In China, there’s a term, [speaking Chinese], and it means the ability to speak, the power to speak. You can use it in a way that doesn’t really refer to international politics at all. You can say something like, ‘In recent years, young people have gained greater discourse power in society.’ They’re able to have more impact. They’re able to speak with more authority. They’re able to use their voices in society alongside elders and leaders, things like that.
But in the international context, it has a pretty similar meaning. The idea is that for a long time, China has looked at the United States and the United States’ ability to, for example, make declarations, to walk into international organizations and persuade people. To have its private institutions like news institutions, CNN, proliferate around the world and have people really seek information from the United States. That’s something that’s very attractive to China as a country. China would really like to build its ability to have authority on the international stage when it speaks, to be looked to as a source of information, and to be able to persuade people internationally, as well. This is a concept that you see written about in Chinese documents, that you see books written about in China – this idea of discourse power.
I have a couple of examples of where we see these concepts actually showing up in Chinese documents. This is a readout that was on Xinhua after the 19th Party Congress in 2017. It shows that in 2017, the Chinese leadership actually added the concept of soft power into the party constitution. Another example is a readout from a meeting that happened in May 2021. The readout came out in early June. The point is that the communist party is sitting and discussing how it can strengthen its international communications. So, here we see the use of the term discourse power, but we see it as a concept that motivates what China will do. Xi Jinping has said that China should be telling its stories abroad. It should be spreading its voice. It should be presenting a comprehensive view of China internationally. The idea is that if China had greater discourse power, if it were able to be more authoritative and more persuasive, then it would be able to tell its stories more effectively.
So, with these concepts at hand, we can start to understand what’s motivating Chinese leaders as they implement public diplomacy on the ground. Some of the key public diplomacy programs that we see China engaged in are Confucius Institutes. Over 500 Confucius Institutes have been opened in countries around the globe. These are language learning centers where people can come and learn Mandarin, but they also can engage in lots of Chinese cultural activities. We see a huge proliferation of China’s diplomats and leaders on social media sites in the West. Interestingly, you cannot access Twitter or Facebook or Instagram from mainland China and yet, Chinese leadership has started to adopt Twitter and other social media tools from the West in order to reach people who are international.
The Belt and Road Initiative has a huge people-to-people component. Not only is China building infrastructure for developing countries all over the world but also trying to promote its global image through this huge infrastructure project. Chinese state-controlled media, such as the China Global Television Network, China Radio International, and other outlets are used by the Chinese government in order to try to elevate that voice, to spread those Chinese stories.
We also see, more recently, some use of discourse that’s done in a way that’s not as overt. It’s hidden, basically. This is an example of an SMS misinformation campaign/disinformation campaign that was happening about a year ago as the coronavirus was just starting to spread in the United States, in which people were being told, “America is going to go into lockdown; we should be really worried about this.” There was a large amount of false information in the SMS text chain. The whole point of the campaign was that once a person received this SMS, they were encouraged to spread it to their friends, to send it to other people. A lot of fact checkers were trying to debunk this information because it was false. At the end of the day there were a number of U.S. sources that identified this as a set of messages that was being amplified by Chinese agents.
It’s always difficult to directly pinpoint the sources of information operations. Those who reported the source of these campaigns were probably privy to some kind of classified information. At the end of the day, social media companies and U.S. government sources have been able to announce to the public when they see patterns, when they see trends that seem to line up with Chinese behavior in the past and therefore can say, this looks like it’s a PRC campaign.
What are the implications for U.S. public diplomacy in all of this? These are just a few, and I want to close by saying that I’m not a fan of the zero-sum competition argument, and I’m also not a fan of completely responsive public diplomacy. Affirmative agendas are always the way to go. You want to be leading with your own values and yet, still, we can have in the back of our minds some information about ways that the United States can differentiate itself from other actors in the system in its public diplomacy.
I have a few suggestions. One is that one way the United States is very different from not only China but several other authoritarian countries around the world is that we really do try to promote openness and transparency. Some of China’s other global leadership initiatives, things like the Belt and Road Initiative and the way that it engages with local actors on the ground and the requirements that it has for building in those nations, or projects that are funded by the AIIB, a China-led development bank, have not put transparency at the fore. So, if the United States can really promote transparency in its leadership, that is an important thing for it to do.
There are other values that the United States has heralded for years. We should continue to promote those values: democracy, human rights, rule of law.
Third, and it’s something that Evanna spoke to, we will always have complaints lobbed at us and sometimes we’ll have folks who want to poke at areas where we are not doing well or we have not done well in the past. America has struggled with a number of things throughout its history. We don’t need to shy away from those. It’s very important for us to be open not only in our communication, but also in our admission that we sometimes do the wrong thing, that we are on a continual path towards a better future, but sometimes that involves making mistakes. We need to be really open about that because that’s something that other leaders, that the Chinese leadership does not do and cannot really do with the setup of the politics of that regime.
It’s important to be able to lift up the voices of those who are disempowered – to celebrate the idea in the United States that everyone is able to participate in politics, that someone who has no money and no historical ties to power in the United States can have a direct line to talk to elected leaders. It is something that we can demonstrate abroad, and we can also replicate abroad, for example, through forums with U.S. leaders for members of the public in other countries.
And finally, we need to continue to demonstrate the usefulness, what’s cool, what’s exciting about the United States abroad. A lot of people have gotten worked up for example about when Chinese ideas have caught fire. Chinese platforms like TikTok have actually gained some traction around the world. The United States is very innovative, we’ve got a lot of things on our side when it comes to exciting new technologies, entertainment, and sports that we can export around the world. We’ve got to focus on our own innovation to make sure we’re still appealing to folks around the world.
I’m going to stop there, but those are some of my ideas for how we might move forward.
Vivian Walker: Thanks to all our panelists for some truly compelling insights. We’ve got some questions to answer here, so I’ll turn this portion over to our Senior Advisor, Shawn Baxter, who is going to take us through the question-and-answer session. Shawn, over to you.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you, Vivian. As is our tradition with these events, we are going to give the first question to one of our commissioners, and today, Anne is going to kick us off.
Anne Wedner: Thanks, Shawn. Before I ask a question, I want to thank the panelists, Naima, Min, and Evanna. The content here is excellent, and I’m grateful that you to put together such thoughtful presentations. This conversation could actually last a lot longer, so I’ll try not to take too much time, but I have one point and one question that I wanted to make in response to some of the work that you presented.
First, Naima, your work is excellent, thank you. There’s one thing though, based on a presentation I happened to hear yesterday. The Eurasia Group released some data on how citizens of ten other countries, both allies and competitors, see the United States. The resonating theme of the data was that we need to find a way to anchor the value of our principles in economic opportunity so what people really see is the ability to change your life circumstances through the American way. The reason that works is because of our democratic values, and I think that we don’t connect the economics and the human rights often enough, and we even lose track of it here ourselves.
Similarly, from that presentation, for Min, how much of an effect do the diaspora communities have on what happens back in their own countries, especially with China, because they’re beyond the firewall? Could you talk about programming and consideration of diaspora communities and whether or not the Chinese diaspora is off limits for RFA, questions like that? We could spend hours on that question alone but maybe there’s some more color you could add there. Thank you.
Min Mitchell: Thank you Anne. Yes, the Chinese diaspora is a huge group, and they are very active on social media, and they consume a lot of the content either from VOA or Radio Free Asia. For RFA, we do stories about inside China, so the diaspora audience for us is important, and in recent years we have tried to expand our content to engage the diaspora group. As we see it, whether they are a young generation or not, the diaspora – because of the firewall – they serve as the seats, as the vehicles to bring this content back inside China to their networks, friends, and family. A lot of our content is being shared by the diaspora back to China because we are officially blocked and banned. So, in our programming and our content, we interview a lot of diaspora people, and we don’t focus as much on U.S. news or international news. We do a lot of TV and social media posts that engage the diaspora group to expand our impact. And with this new project that I just spoke about, Global Mandarin, the idea is to target these young Chinese students, who get one to three years studying abroad, to open their minds to different content and different ways of thinking. So, the diaspora is a very important group, and we should keep engaging them.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you, Min. I want to turn to some of the questions coming in on the Q&A feature. Please keep those coming in, and we’ll get to as many as we can. One question is directed to Naima: “With respect to the PRC’s discourse power to shape global narratives, do you have any thoughts on how to strike the right balance between countering discursive efforts to promote its authoritarian style of rule with people-to-people dialogues that are an important part of soft diplomacy and fostering understanding on both the U.S. and the Chinese sides?”
Naima Green-Riley: That’s a good question. First, the United States has always managed a number of different ways of doing public diplomacy. We do people-to-people programming and we also make press statements, engage local press, make statements through our social media and such. So, it’s always a bit of a tradeoff, and the U.S. system is well placed to be able to continue to do both at the same time effectively. I will say this: we have to decide, and this is something for those who are in office, how much we push against, directly. That is, specifically trying to counter things that are being said by governments that we disagree with, like when we disagree with the Chinese government.
Between doing that and taking an affirmative stance of making our case and stating it in a way that shows what is important to us, it will be important in seeking that balance not to trend too defensive. So, my own personal opinion is that while it may make us feel good to be able to push back when we hear something that we totally disagree with, what has gotten America to this point is not being defensive against a bunch of other people and what they were saying about the United States but rather being able to promote our own vision of the world, our own vision of global leadership. It’s important for us to continue to do that.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you. I want to offer this next one to Evanna. Our colleague, Sherry Mueller, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, wrote, “Evanna, would you kindly share more details about the scholarships that China is offering to journalists in various African countries? Didn’t China just open an overseas campus, and isn’t this part of an ongoing effort to be a major destination for international students in general?”
Evanna Hu: In a lot of developing countries being a journalist isn’t exactly the most profitable career. A lot of times many of these students struggle to have the tuition and the money to pay for it when they’re not getting any parental support. China has stepped in. They first started with scholarships that you can apply for to become a journalist. Then, they realized that journalistic standards in a lot of those countries are quite low. So, they would walk into universities and offer to help revamp the curriculum on journalism. That is a yellow flag for Americans because if you look at how, for example, Russia looks at journalism, the way they look at what is the truth, what are the ethical obligations of a journalist, are very different from our definition of what constitutes a good journalist or good journalism.
So, China started essentially creating its own curriculum, and this is accredited. So, you can get a job at CCTV, local stations, and local newspapers with that accreditation. There are private NGOs that are trying to combat this, such as the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which is doing a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. But when you look at the amount of money they spend versus what CGTN Africa, for example, spends on fellowships, not even including CGTN donations of equipment to broadcast newsrooms, etc., it is a very miniscule percentage.
Shawn Baxter: This one is from Joshua Rosen: “Does China’s social credit system incorporate the consumption of U.S. political and diplomatic content negatively and how might the United States respond to such a deterrent message proliferation throughout mainland China?”
Naima Green-Riley: I can comment on this, although I’m going to say off the bat that I don’t know, particularly, if there are any rules about consumption of U.S. media. I will talk a bit about the social credit system. This is a controversial system that’s been in place for the past couple years in China in which individuals receive credit for the way that they engage in society. For example, riding on a train from one city to another, you might hear someone come over the intercom system and say please behave yourself on the train. If anyone engages in violent behavior, if anyone does anything untoward, your social credit may be affected. So, this is a score that everyone has, and it will be affected if you act in a way that is criminal or in a way that is negatively perceived by those in power. There are also ways to improve your social credit by doing things that are perceived as good in the communist system. For example, people are encouraged to study Xi Jinping’s thoughts. There’s an app in which you can study “Xi Jinping Thought,” and some sources indicate that this app has impact on social credit scores. On the app you can study anything that the party deems important to know about politics in the country.
So, many people are concerned about this system. Some have alluded to science fiction novels written in the past, 1984, things like that. It is astonishing that the Chinese government has the technological capacity to create social credit scores for a population of over a billion people. It has implications for the way that we think about Chinese technological influence in the global system because if this is a country that can keep track of its citizens internally, then as it continues to innovate on the international stage, as it continues to export products to the international community, what are those products going to be capable of for the international population?
So, I’ll go there with that question. As to whether or not people are penalized for consuming information from outside, I have not heard of that being the case, but they are certainly encouraged to consume a certain type of information, and that also has its own implications.
Evanna Hu: I can also jump in really quickly on that. The Chinese authorities are not tracking whether or not you’re looking at American media because the big problem is then, do we count Hollywood as American media? Those movies are really popular. A proxy that they use instead is looking at whether or not people are using VPNs to get around the Great Firewall.
Shawn Baxter: Let’s turn to COVID-19 as a case study or an example of how some of this has played out over the last year. A question from Greta Morris asks specifically about China’s provision of COVID-19 vaccines to countries in Africa and Asia as a soft power effort. It’s since emerged that those vaccines have not proven overly effective. On balance, does this kind of soft power effort turn out to be more of a negative than a positive? You can expand on that a bit and talk about China’s other activities regarding COVID-19.
Evanna Hu: I think the reason why their IO campaigns and a lot of the framing they did around their vaccine diplomacy has failed is because it simply does not match with what’s actually happening on the ground in reality. Sinovac is extremely ineffective, and we’ve heard stories of people having to get five shots of Sinovac for it to actually be effective. Secondly, a lot of the stuff that they distributed, not just vaccines but personal protective equipment (PPE), they’re technically not free. For a lot of it, China has secret loan agreements with many of the countries that are accepting it. These were established when the United States was not distributing any PPE, so these countries had no other choice but to accept what was offered to them.
That’s a lesson, generally, with public diplomacy, including information operations, that it doesn’t really matter what you are messaging; if it does not match the reality that the audience is living in, it’s not going to work, and you can send a million Facebook posts to them, it’s still not going to change the reality and the experiences that they have on the ground.
Shawn Baxter: Naima or Min, would you like to add anything on China’s efforts regarding COVID-19?
Min Mitchell: I just want to say that we reported on everything Evanna just said. We get comments from inside China or from the diaspora debating whether these vaccines are effective or not. From a news media point of view, especially the U.S. media, our job is to provide each side of the story and provide information for people to compare and see. As Evanna said, if it doesn’t match the truth, if it doesn’t match the facts, it’s ineffective.
Shawn Baxter: Let’s move on to the next question. This one centers on the domestic dimensions of public diplomacy. In the last few months, there’s been a renewed focus in the U.S. foreign policy community regarding the interconnectedness of foreign and domestic policy. The Biden administration has articulated the idea of a foreign policy for the middle class or the working class. When we look at China, how do the PRC government’s domestic policies and concerns affect the country’s public diplomacy and vice versa? Perhaps you could point out some potential opportunities that might exist for U.S. public diplomacy when thinking about this domestic-foreign policy relationship in China. Naima can start us off on that one.
Naima Green-Riley: There are a couple of elements here. I study public diplomacy, and one aspect of this that I often am looking at are what are the implications for public diplomacy as performed abroad for domestic politics? What I mean by that is, if China is increasing its global footprint, if China is increasing its influence abroad, if China has 500 Confucius Institutes where people are leaning Mandarin all around the world and can put up a billboard in New York’s Times Square about the charms of China and things like that, then that has implications for how the Chinese government can express how popular it is internationally to its own public, which then has implications for domestic politics in China. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about what’s happening domestically and internationally with public diplomacy.
To flip it on its head and really get at what the question is asking, the United States has to pay attention to what’s happening within our borders and how that reflects on how we represent ourselves abroad. There’s a lot that’s going on and that has gone on in the past year in the United States, and it’s been a tumultuous time politically. This is really where this shows up – we’ve got a lot happening.
Now, the benefits to the U.S. system are that people are able to express themselves freely, we’re able to engage in debate, people are able to go into the streets and protest when they disagree with something. Many people have exercised many of those rights as of late. I think we would be well served in our public diplomacy if we could give people insight into that process, into even the ugliness of that process, such as why it is important that people are able to say whatever they want in the United States even when it can be uncomfortable or it can be ugly, and why that is something that we uphold even when we know that it’s not fun for people who have to deal with it, such as our leaders. It’s also not fun for people who are engaged in it sometimes. That’s one way that that could have implications for public diplomacy – deconstructing and deconflicting what’s happening on the ground in the United States.
Then, the flipside of that is that Americans can be participants in public diplomacy, and this is something that we’ve done for many years: bring people together to have a debate in an international setting and feature people who disagree with each other from the United States in our programs. There are many people who disagree within the United States. We can show how the democratic process works by actually showcasing it abroad. That’s another way that what’s happening domestically can have implications for our public diplomacy.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you. We’re going to continue for another five minutes. We’ll try to get to a couple more questions before we wrap up. The next one is for Evanna: You’ve done extensive work mapping the online information environment with a focus on countering extremist messaging and propaganda. Are there lessons learned for us in terms of countering or mitigating Chinese influence strategies? In addition, how might some of the AI and machine learning tools you work with be adapted for use by public diplomacy practitioners?
Evanna Hu: Those two are great questions. For the first question, CVE or CT messaging is, at the end of the day, advertising in one way or another. ISIS is trying to advertise to people to go and join this amazing caliphate and consume their amazing product that they have. That’s basically the same thing that China is trying to say, which is that they are trying to strengthen their reputation from the “made in China” shoddy quality idea to something that’s different and more positive. Those two [ISIS and China] are similar in the tactics that are being used. What ISIS was especially good at that China thankfully has not gotten really good at, is being more targeted in their approach. ISIS was able to use what we now know as psychometrics to drive home their messaging, so instead of pushing a blanket message such as “this is the reason why you should think that China is better than the United States.” ISIS was targeting psychological pressures and stressors, and China is not doing that right now.
In terms of a response to it, one thing that is different when you’re dealing with a state actor is that they do have legitimacy. You have to take that into consideration, that it is a legitimate sovereign state. There are certain tactics that we used against ISIS messaging that we just can’t use in this global order in which we’re also trying to say there are international values that we abide by. You can’t do that without escalation. We don’t want to become Russia, for example.
Did that also answer the second question?
Shawn Baxter: Are there possibilities for U.S. public diplomacy practitioners to use some of these new tools? Can they be adapted for use by U.S. public diplomacy, or are we just not there yet?
Evanna Hu: We’re definitely there when it comes to the digital stuff, the stuff that I was focused on, which is digital influence operations. But when it comes to other offline public diplomacy efforts like cultural exchanges, content creation, and trying to empower and grow a strong civil society sector, that is much harder to measure. That’s something that technology can be really helpful with – measuring effectiveness – because oftentimes, especially with State and USAID work, monitoring and evaluation is a lot more on performance. It’s saying, “26 people showed up to my training.” That’s great, but they could have just showed up and slept through the entire thing. So, what is the actual effectiveness? We don’t really get to those metrics.
Shawn Baxter: We have time for one more. I want to make sure that Min gets a chance to answer another question, so Min, this is for you. You were at the helm of the Uyghur Service when the story broke, and I think you were the person who broke the story, about the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims by Chinese authorities, which led to extensive reporting on this. In addition to telling the story and giving voice to the oppressed, how can public diplomacy practitioners overseas mitigate the impact of authoritarian influence strategies?
Min Mitchell: Thank you, Shawn. For our Uyghur coverage, of course, our audience was focused on the Uyghurs. But our Uyghur stories have a very powerful indirect impact in serving as tips and leads for western media, for them to further expand on the coverage. That, of course, you’ve seen over the past three years lead to international attention on the Uyghur situation, and then the international community designating the Uyghur human rights abuses, genocide.
For public diplomacy, I would first say that we translate our Uyghur stories into English, as well. I hope these stories are being shared and published on all kinds of platforms. I personally think the situation is so dire in the Uyghur region. A lot of [what we are doing] is to encourage reporters and journalists to get more stories out of Xinxiang to tell people what’s really going on there and for outsiders to amplify the impact of these stories to help us help Uyghur journalists to have more of a voice on all kinds of platforms as much as we can.
Shawn Baxter: I want to thank each of you. I know some of those were tough questions. We really appreciate your insights and input, and I’m going to turn it back over to Vivian.
Vivian Walker: Great, thank you. Now, I’d like to turn to Anne to give us a wrap up of the discussion and some of the salient points. Anne, do you want to give us your views?
Anne Wedner: Sure. I want to thank Vivian, Kristy, and Shawn on the Commission staff for putting this together. Also, our panelists, Naima, Evanna, and Min. What you have done today is point out exactly what the growing Chinese threat looks like for us and where China is placing its resources, and what we should be thinking about in terms of preparing and beefing up our own resources. In fact, Lynne Weil submitted a great question at the end, which was her observation that Biden many years ago was a driving force behind setting up Radio Free Asia, and this week he offered more support for USAGM, calling on a Current Time reporter during his press conference [after the meeting with Russian President Putin]. We owe everyone on this call an in depth look at what the U.S. budget should be to counteract and to deal with this growing threat from China and its increasing creativity and sophistication.
So, I think that we’ll probably focus on that. I know that the ACPD is going to travel, hopefully, when the world opens up, and we’re going to go to Asia and look at Chinese efforts on the ground there. We appreciate today’s event as a scene setting event for us, as well. I can’t thank Naima, Evanna, and Min enough for their clarity and their expertise and for being willing to share that with us and finding a way to distill it into pieces. Thank you.
Vivian Walker: Thanks, Anne. To close us out, I’d like to ask Commission Vice Chairman Bill Hybl for a few words.
Bill Hybl: Thank you, Vivian, for an excellent presentation. I want to thank the panelists and certainly the audience for your thoughtful questions. We appreciate the ongoing and sustained interest that you all have in public diplomacy and USG public diplomacy activities. I hope, like us, you look forward to our next quarterly public meeting, and with that, thanks again, and we conclude our event. See you all soon. Thank you.