Sarah Cook on China’s Expanding Global Media Influence

Sarah Cook

Sarah Cook is the Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House. She also directs their China Media Bulletin and authored the executive summary of this latest report, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience.”

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google Listen on Stitcher

Become a Patron!

Preorder the new book Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty by Aynne Kokas here. 

Make a one-time Donation to Democracy Paradox.

In country after country – we’ve counted over 130 news outlets of 30 countries that were republishing content that was produced by Chinese state media outlets or the Chinese embassy. So, these state media outlets are actually formally under the control of the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:38
  • China and its Media Influence – 2:58
  • Chinese Influence Tactics – 12:48
  • The Effectiveness of Chinese Influence – 18:30
  • Resiliency of Democracies – 27:47

Podcast Transcript

For years Americans thought closer ties with China would bring new ideas and movements into a previously closed authoritarian system. We believed we could make China more like the United States. Instead, China has flipped the script. They have leveraged their economic importance to control media narratives in other countries. They have suppressed unfavorable coverage, intimidated journalists, and retaliated against those who speak out against them. Moreover, their tactics lead many to self-censor their criticisms of China. So, their efforts become self-reinforcing over time. 

Freedom House’s latest report “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience” details many of China’s strategies and tactics to influence media outside their country. It examines China’s influence efforts in 30 different countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan. 

I reached out to Sarah Cook to learn more about the findings in this new report. Sarah is the Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House. She also directs their China Media Bulletin and authored the executive summary of this latest report. We talk about some of the tactics China uses to influence the media around the world, but also the resiliency of many democracies to resist those efforts. 

If you like this conversation, I talk more with Sarah in a brief bonus episode available at Patreon or with an Apple Subscription. You can also hear this episode ad-free. If you’re not looking for more content, consider making a one-time donation at Feel free to send me an email to if you’d like to help in other ways. But for now this is my conversation with Sarah Cook….


Sarah Cook, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Sarah Cook

Pleasure to be here.


So, Sarah, what amazes me about this latest report, Beijing’s Global Media Influence: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience, is just the amount of detail that you put into it including the number of countries that you examine and the amount of emphasis on just individual examples. So, why don’t we start there with an example. Can you provide an example that surprised you as you were putting together the research where China clearly overstepped its bounds or did something new to influence media abroad?

Sarah Cook

So, there’s one individual example I can give, but I think part of what really surprised me was the constellation of certain things. So, one example that is new and would not have happened before and stood out and I think connects to the shock of what’s happened in Hong Kong is the fact that Hong Kong authorities are also getting into the business now of threatening news outlets and website servers in other countries. So, for example, one of the reports I actually worked on was the Israel report.

So, a Hong Kong government official wrote to a local web service provider in Israel, because they were hosting a website of Hong Kong democracy activists and asked them to take down the website. Part of what they did was they said, ‘The hosting of this website violates the National Security Law in Hong Kong and your employees could be at risk.’ Because the national security law actually includes an extraterritorially broad provision. So, the company did initially take down the website. Then there was a brouhaha and a lot of public backlash and they put it back up. Which I think epitomizes the overall findings of the report in some ways of these more aggressive influence efforts but also the corresponding backlash in different countries.

Then I think that company actually said, ‘We’re going to institute better screening of these requests.’ So, then it actually built up a deeper, longer-term form of resilience. But I think that’s just one example of how what’s happening in China and what’s changing in China and Hong Kong does have ripple effects globally. I think the other thing that just surprised me in terms of overall findings is the sheer scale of content placements in mainstream media in country after country. we’ve counted over 130 news outlets of 30 countries that were republishing content that was produced by Chinese state media outlets or the Chinese embassy. So, these state media outlets are actually formally under the control of the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

So, basically, they’re producing content that’s then being inserted, sometimes labeled, sometimes kind of labeled, sometimes not labeled or deliberately disguised into newspapers, television programs, radio to a lesser extent, because it’s just not as widely used around the world, in country after country in multiple mainstream media outlets. Just the sheer scale of that is really breathtaking. I think there’s other questions about how impactful it is, but that’s just something that a few years ago wasn’t happening on that scale. They’ve really put a lot of effort into it. In sixteen countries we found upgraded or new agreements that were what were facilitating that kind of injection of content. Just the sheer scale of readership and viewership of that is kind of mind boggling to be honest.


When did China really start to expand its media footprint? I mean, it feels like it’s been in recent years, but some of these media outlets like Xinhua have existed for a long time. So, when did it really kind of take its media operations global?

Sarah Cook

So, all of these media outlets for the most part existed within China for a long time. So, Xinhua is a core element of the domestic propaganda apparatus. The foreign influence really started in the Chinese language media space after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, because there was so much support for the protestors among the Chinese diaspora. That really caught the Communist Party by surprise. So, they felt like, ‘Wow, we really need to do something about this.’

That’s when some of these techniques like the inserting of content which they call ‘Borrowing a Boat to Reach the Sea’ where Chinese state sources piggyback onto local media to reach their audiences. That first emerges in the Chinese language space. Getting friendly business people to buy out media outlets started happening in the mid-nineties with some outlets in Malaysia and in Hong Kong. In the 2000s, you saw it in Taiwan. So, I think you definitely see this element of tactics and experimentation happening in the Chinese language. Then I think what’s newer is that over the last 5-10 years there has been an uptick in trying to expand this globally. Some of this precedes Xi Jinping. Hu Jintao, his predecessor, was actually the first one to really invest some serious money in expanding the Chinese state media outlets in telling them to quote, “Go global.”

Because of some of the filings from the Foreign Agents Registration Act, we know how much money an outlet like the state-run China Daily was spending on inserting content into local US media. There was a huge jump around 2009. It more than doubled in like a couple of years and then it stayed at a very high level of at least a million dollars a year, more than that, even $2 million a year since then. So, it started before Xi Jinping, but Xi Jinping has definitely emphasized it more. I think in general Xi Jinping is much more aggressive. So, under Hu Jintao there was some of this kind of censorship pressure happening, especially in Chinese language media and major international media and pressure on foreign correspondents.

But now we found in 24 out of the 30 countries local journalists facing some kind of intimidation or pressure or cyber-attacks or cyber bullying related to coverage of China. When I did my first report 10 years ago that just wasn’t happening. So, that kind of evolution into the local mainstream media expansion into so many different languages with a more aggressive approach is something that’s much more recent, maybe in the last five years.


Has Xi Jinping changed tactics that they’ve used in terms of China’s media influence campaign throughout his tenure? I mean, how have you seen things change as Xi Jinping has been in power over the course of his 10 years?

Sarah Cook

So, I would say, I think some of what happens outside China actually mirrors some of what’s happened inside China in that Xi Jinping actually gets the internet. He understands social media. He’s much savvier than his predecessors and he understands how to control it. So, one of the first things he did when he first came to power was there was actually a fairly vibrant social media space and conversation. There were heavily censored topics, but you still had breaking news that was getting ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus back in 2011-2012. And these are all on domestic platforms, so like Weibo, which is kind of a Chinese version of Twitter, because Twitter is blocked. So, it was already pretty censored, but it was pretty freewheeling. There were some real political and social conversations and sharing of information critical of the government.

So, Xi just squashed that. He came in and basically issued new rules. He arrested and detained some really influential social media people, even people like businessmen, people who weren’t necessarily political dissidents or anything like that. So, some of these platforms are just a shadow of what they were before in terms of the space for some of the public conversations outside of the control of the Communist Party. And I think that savviness does translate internationally. There’s been a much greater emphasis in investment on local languages, like I said. We’re not just talking about Spanish or Arabic. We’re talking about Hebrew, Romanian, Sinhala, and Swahili. They have accounts and in the 30 countries we looked at, we found at least one account or local diplomatic outreach that was in the local language and in many countries more than one local language.

So, I think that’s one element of savviness and engagement. Now some of that is very genuine about Chinese culture and Chinese food, but then you get some form of falsehood or disinformation or misleading content related to conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 denials and mudding the waters about what’s happening in Xinjiang or other kinds of anti-American narratives based on not quite full truths. So, I think it’s that there’s engagement, but it’s also more aggressive and covert. So, what we’re seeing overall is we find that the tactics are becoming more sophisticated, more covert, and more coercive. That just really came through as we were going across the sets of different countries and some of the sophistication is in how covert it is.

Some of it is, again, how do you tap into local influencers and get them to repost content? So, there’s often some trickery involved. Some of it is co-opting the local political elites and media owners to suppress coverage of the local outlets. That we found in 17 countries. So, that was actually relatively common where it’s not just the Chinese embassy picking up the phone and telling a journalist not to cover this, but a local official, a ministry representative, or a media owner who either themselves got a call from the Chinese embassy or have their own business or other interests related to China and find that it’s not a good idea to be publishing this or that report at a particular moment.


Why don’t we break down some of the tactics that they actually use?

Sarah Cook

So, what we did for this report is we broke down the tactics into five buckets. So, one was propaganda. How are they getting their narrative out including through various local media partnerships and things like that? Two is disinformation campaigns. Some of that is the promotion of falsehoods, but it’s also the real use of fake accounts to kind of muddy the waters. So, this is an example of somebody else doing good forensic research that then we were able to use. I think it was the Oxford Institute and, I think, maybe the associated press who did this really in-depth investigation and found that a bunch of Chinese diplomat accounts on Twitter and on Facebook were being artificially boosted by fake accounts.

In some cases, like the UK ambassador, in a tremendous percentage of his actual posts, if you looked at them, they looked like they were being shared and liked and super popular. But was almost half of them were actually by fake accounts. In 15 of the 30 countries that we looked at, including the US, including South Africa, including India, there was at least one diplomatic account that was in that list of those that had some notable proportion of tweets being boosted artificially. Then you’ve got more aggressive campaigns that are maybe more Kremlin-like where they’re trying to combine those. Where they’ve got false information from some fake account or persona and they’re trying to get that into the main public debate on social media.

In some cases, we found it wasn’t just about China. It was also maybe about sowing confusion, about influencing opinions about political candidates and things like that. So, that’s disinformation too. You’ve got propaganda. You’ve got disinformation. Then you have the censorship, intimidation. That’s the attempt to suppress certain types of news and coverage or to punish outlets that engage in that kind of coverage that is disfavored by the Chinese Communist Party. Then you’ve got control by companies that have very, very close ties to the Communist Party. So, that might be like digital television in parts of Africa, social media apps like WeChat, to lesser extent TikTok, and even some of the devices, like Xiaomi phones, for example. Moreover, there has been sporadic evidence at least in investigations of some form of content manipulation happening on those platforms.

Then the last was actually trainings for officials and journalists not just to try to get them to think kindly about China or the Chinese governing regime, but to adopt certain practices and norms related to quote ‘Marxist Journalism.’ So, to be not as critical of the government, support the government or how do you quote ‘guide media and public opinion.’ That was in fewer countries and there wasn’t a lot of evidence of it being adopted. But in some places like in Nigeria, for example, the government did use Huawei middleboxes to block some political and social websites.


How pervasive is China’s disinformation campaign? If we compare it to the things that we’ve heard about Russia, is China just as aggressive, is China doing more? How should we compare it to something like Russia’s disinformation campaign?

Sarah Cook

So, I would say, I think, in some ways the China linked disinformation campaigns are less sophisticated than what the Kremlin has done. Part of it is that actually this is a fairly new tactic in the toolbox. Up until 2017 they weren’t doing it. Only like late 2018 did we discover they were even doing it after a campaign in Taiwan and then some takedowns that happened in 2019 on Twitter. It turned out they’d been doing it since 2017, mostly in the Chinese language space up until then, to try to smear the reputation of certain dissidents and people like that. But this transition into more languages, having fake personas in Spanish to try to get them retweeted or to try to have the type of impact be to sew confusion about domestic political issues. That’s a relatively new phenomenon.

That’s really only emerged, I would say, since 2019 or 2020. Russia’s been doing that for a lot longer. I think in the Chinese government’s case, they do want to try to prop up their image. They actually care what people think about. That’s what a lot of this investment is about. I think they do shoot themselves in the foot because then when these disinformation campaigns get exposed, everybody’s like how can you talk about win-win and non-interference in local domestic affairs and then do this stuff. In Russia’s case, they’re much more offensive in the sense that they don’t really care what anybody thinks about them. They just want to mess things up for other democracies.

I think in the Chinese context, again, this is still a relatively new tactic but that being said having looked at several years of some of these takedowns and investigative reports, they are getting more sophisticated. They’re using more persona accounts. They’re expanding their languages. They’re actually getting picked up and having some local users, influencers, with large followings occasionally retweet local media outlets in some of the countries. I think in Panama and Argentina, influencers had actually retweeted a post that actually turned out it was not from a real person. It was from a fake account that was somehow tied to China. So, I think they are getting better at it. But it’s also a different part of the Communist Party apparatus than some of the other tactics that we were talking about in the report.


You mentioned how China’s public opinion has actually taken a hit due to a lot of these tactics. Do you feel like this approach has actually been effective for China? Do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Sarah Cook

I think the impact is mixed. On the one hand, I think that it’s very clear because in 23 out of the 30 countries, the level of favorability of public opinion towards China and Xi Jinping has declined since 2018. I think that is due to the Chinese government’s own actions in China like what’s happened in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the aggressiveness outside of China. But public opinion doesn’t tell the whole story. So, I think there’s a few spaces in which there is some real impact. One is in the Chinese language space.

So, we did have nine countries where there was some independent Chinese language media and with YouTube commentators and some other opportunities there’s been some progress there. But still pro-Beijing outlets really dominate a lot of the Chinese language space. A lot of people in the diaspora use WeChat and just the way WeChat is set up there’s just a lot of censorship especially for news sources that are operating on that platform. So, that’s one. Two, this element of working through the local political elite. You see a real intersection between other forms of political influence by the Chinese Communist Party and elite capture efforts and economic leverage translating into the media space.

That happens through local officials who, as I mentioned, will suppress a story or tell an outlet not to rerun something that they aired. That happened in Mozambique. In Malaysia, the whole ministry rejected an application by a local Chinese media outlet, a newspaper, that was critical of the Chinese government. They literally said in an email that this was because ‘We don’t want to disrupt bilateral relations.’ They’re very explicit. Then in Taiwan that’s actually a big issue because you have a good number of media owners with close ties to the Chinese government. But also in other places, we saw situations of local media owners favoring closer ties and saying, ‘We don’t want to lose advertising. Go easy on Huawei and go easy on the Chinese government and stuff like that for this sensitive period of time.’

That’s exactly the type of instructions that media gives journalists inside China. So, I think that some of that is really striking and I think that’s where they’re investing a lot and I think that’s actually an area to really watch. Then I think another space is on infrastructure control, because right now there is a stronger footprint for these Chinese companies like Huawei or Xiaomi, even ByteDance, in the information ecosystem globally. It’s not just that these are China-based companies. It’s that they are really clearly tied to the Communist Party. The founders of Tencent are actually party members. They are actually party branches in these companies. There have been moments where they’ve been caught in one way or another. ByteDance has corrected itself. In Tencent and WeChat, it continues unabated.

So, I think that hasn’t fully been activated yet. That control over the medium really and so, I think that’s where thinking about how do you put in safeguards especially transparency requirements. Not to block these out of the market, because they do provide real benefits to users and to consumers in terms of affordability, sometimes technology. But to really make sure there’s the right appropriate oversight to ensure that people’s rights aren’t being suppressed. So, I think that’s where the future is. That’s laying the foundation for the future and we’re not seeing it operationalized yet, but it could be fairly easily if Beijing wanted to.


So, I remember a few years back, China was really trying to influence the Taiwanese elections and it definitely backfired on them. Are you seeing efforts from China to continue to influence elections in democracies through these media influence campaigns?

Sarah Cook

So, I would say Taiwan is an unusual case in that sense. There’s just a constant barrage of political interference and disinformation campaigns. Part of it is related to elections. Once Taiwan fended off the attack and a president who the Chinese Communist Party didn’t want to win emerged victorious and quite popular, there’s been a lot of effort to undermine the credibility of the Taiwanese government including related to rumors related to COVID and related to the president’s education. Now there’s a lot of threat mongering after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to try to undermine fears and make people feel like the Taiwanese government can’t protect Taiwan or isn’t taking appropriate measures.

I think what’s really incredible is that Taiwan, as we ranked countries and gave them scores, faced both the highest level of influence efforts, but also the highest level of response and resilience. That’s not just to the credit of the government. It’s really civil society. That’s been taking the lead. So, I would say Taiwan is interesting in the sense that it is representative of what we found elsewhere, because we really did find pushback especially by civil society and journalists around the world. That is a change from just a few years ago and I would say kind of a good news story.

I think the side of trying to mettle in local elections is much less common. There was a tiny bit in the us around 2020, but not very impactful. They dabbled in it. There was this one, two-week Facebook campaign, and then it was caught and taken down in the Philippines. It was trying to promote Duterte a bit, but I think it’s really only Taiwan where it’s really been used in the electoral context. I think in many other cases it’s more related to more immediate interests of China such as Chinese investments and Chinese companies. Huawei has been actually a very aggressive player in also trying to influence media, including in ways that are more covert or aggressive.

So, I think it’s usually more on that topic where you really do see pushback. Even with these media content placements in 27 of the countries, outlets that had Chinese state media content also had critical coverage, especially from international newswires, because that’s quote safer than doing their own original reporting on these topics. Plus, they don’t have correspondents always in China. So, I think that’s how you see this diversity of coverage that news consumers thankfully are still receiving. That’s why public opinion, you know, is still maybe not turning as favorably towards the Chinese government as they might like. But that was just one example.

One other thing that came out a lot in terms of the pushback was coverage of how the CCP influences media or politics in the local environment. In 28 countries that emerged and those investigations had a really important impact on public conversations. That’s in places like Italy and places like Israel and places like Peru that are sometimes investigations tied to local corruption scandals, sometimes behind the scenes funding to a public broadcaster, Twitter disinformation campaigns related to COVID. So, things like that and that was really important. So, you really do see civil society and media at the forefront. That is an echo of what we’ve seen happening in Taiwan, too.


I want to touch on the idea of self-censorship, because I think that that plays possibly an even larger role. The fact that China doesn’t even have to lift a finger in some ways for people to either kill stories or prevent things from happening. Tell me a little bit about the role of self-censorship in China’s influence campaign.

Sarah Cook

That’s actually a good point. I think that is one form of impact that I forgot to mention earlier. I think even in a situation where, let’s say, a Chinese diplomat picks up the phone and asks for a story to be suppressed in some places like in Kuwait… That happened. There was an interview with the Taiwanese minister of Foreign Affairs and they got the website to take it down and replace it with the statement from the Chinese Embassy itself. But a lot of the time that kind of direct pressure is rebuffed. There’s a little bit of an indignant response on the part of journalists and editors.

But there’s often a bit more of an effective outcome perhaps if the request is made to upper management or as you said, if upper management preemptively decides it’s not worth the risk for this or that reason to run certain types of information. Then you have at the personal level in 16 countries, journalists or commentators reporting self-censorship either because they were concerned and if you look at the Chinese space, it’s actually concerned over the real safety of family members in China especially for exiled journalists. In other cases, it’s not being allowed access to the embassy or it’s not being allowed to be able to travel to China or it might be withdrawal of advertising and things like that.

But you know, in a kind of humorous example of the upper management thing, in the UK, GQ magazine listed Xi Jinping among the top 10 worst dressed leaders. After they published it, upper management asked them to remove him from the online version because they were worried. They’re like, ‘You know how these things spread on the internet and we don’t want to offend.’


Now you mentioned Taiwan as being, not just one of the biggest targets, the largest targets of China, but also being one of the most resilient of all the democracies. I noticed that a lot of the countries that are targets of Chinese propaganda are also very resilient like the United States, the United Kingdom. What are some of the sources of this democratic resilience?

Sara Cook

That’s a really good question. So, I think there’s two elements to it and this is how we arranged the methodology as the project was evolving, because this became very clear. One, are elements that are a direct response. If a Chinese official or diplomat intimidates a journalist, you call them into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and you tell them that is unacceptable behavior. So, France did that twice. I think the other is, like I was saying, reporting and investigative reporting about what’s happening in terms of Chinese investments and things like that. I think then there’s more this element of underlying media regulations and democratic resilience. That really does play an important role.

So, the fact is that a lot of democracies have freedom of information laws and we found a number of countries such as Peru, Nigeria, and Israel where those laws were used to uncover information related to some kind of questionable dealings involving a China linked actor. So, regarding rules regulating foreign ownership in the broadcasting, we actually didn’t see that many examples of Chinese state linked entities buying actual media. And maybe one reason is that a lot of these countries require some level of review or limits on how much you can purchase. It’s typically less than a 50% stake. That’s why it’s more productive to go through these partnerships with existing media and just get your content piggybacked on them than even trying to buyout an outlet.

Defamation protections can also be really important. That was an emerging tactic, not so much by Chinese officials, but by companies like Huawei or by Chinese individuals with close ties to the CCP using defamation as a way to try to suppress reporting on some of these influence ties and things like that. So, I would say those are some of the ways that you have underlying media resilience. That is just good practice in terms of having a robust media freedom environment and then that being triggered in a China related incident to enhance transparency or accountability. Now the flip side is also true because one of the real vulnerabilities we’ve found is that in 19 of the 30 countries, local media are facing increased attacks since 2019 mostly from government officials in some countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States.

It’s also from non-state actors. But that’s actually really a problem, because if you’re concerned about media freedom in and of itself, you’re also concerned about how this kind of authoritarian foreign influence can infiltrate our societies and have an impact. If those local editors don’t have the ability to say no, if they’re being put under pressure not to write something, or if they don’t have protections from defamation or they’re just in jail, because they’ve been punished for writing something critical of their own government, then that really does also weaken the resilience vis-a-vis authoritarian influence as well.


So, we’ve already stated that many of the countries that are the most targeted are also the most resilient. Are they the most resilient because they’ve had to deal with the Chinese threats or is it something just in their democratic DNA that was there already?

Sarah Cook

Yes, I think they’ve been facing it longer. I think one thing I would note is when you actually look at the data and the next level down…. So, you look at the top three, like the US, the UK and Taiwan, they have faced very high levels of influence efforts, but are also very resilient. But I think one of the things that’s really striking in this report in terms of how global the influence effort is, is that the next countries down the line are ones like Nigeria, Argentina, the Philippines, Kenya, Spain, Italy. Actually, a number of those, and I don’t remember exactly off the top of my head, but we found that they were actually vulnerable to CCP influence efforts. So, their level of response and resilience is not nearly as high. They’re in a much more precarious situation.

So, I think it’s not necessarily always that the countries that face the most influence efforts are also the most resilient. I think what we see is this element where it is a newer phenomenon, so there’s some catch up happening. Then I think certain things related to that underlying degree of broader media freedom and regulation that is weaker say in the Philippines or Nigeria and then even in some cases, Spain and Italy, compared to say other more resilient counter. But that’s where you really see how global this is. This isn’t just something that’s happening in a few countries we see in the headlines.

Even in countries like Israel that was, I think, one that we rated as a low level of media influence effort. You still very much see a lot of this happening. Diplomats calling up journalists who then rebuff and say, ‘This is such chutzpah’ and stuff like that. Even in the ones where it’s relatively low, you still see a few things where you’re just like, ‘Wow, they really are influencing the media here.’

So, anyway, just to note that in terms of the spread of the influence the way we did the scoring is we designated a score for influence efforts and then a score for response and resilience. We then compared those scores and designated each country as being either resilient or vulnerable. So how does their level of response and resilience face off against the actual level of influence efforts they’re encountering? And only half the countries came out resilient. The other half were found to be vulnerable. We didn’t plan it that way. That is just how it worked out. That it was even.


One of the brighter findings that I’m not even sure if you did intentionally, but some of the countries that we think of as facing democratic backsliding like the Philippines and Poland, I found to be much more resilient to Chinese influence. Part of the reason I felt was that they’ve got just a very long legacy of having strong civil societies. Did you feel that civil society was probably the single most important factor in terms of providing that level of democratic resilience?

Sarah Cook

It varies from country to country, but strong civil society and strong journalistic ethics and investigative journalism tradition which, of course, the Philippines also has very much, were really important. That’s where you just really do see civil society and media taking the lead where in a lot of countries the government response is lagging or is even being unhelpful in this case. Kenya was another country, you know, has democratic challenges, but the level of journalistic professionalism and some of the self-regulatory bodies and the editorial independence in the traditional media really came through. There was one example where the public broadcaster, which is state owned and has strong partnerships with Chinese state media, ran content that was unlabeled and the local media council actually rebuked them for doing that.

So, I think that’s where you definitely see just a sense of embarrassment, if you’re seen as being a shill for the Communist Party or just in other ways, operating in a way that isn’t ethical. In the Philippines, there was another interesting example of one of the journalist unions. Actually, this is one of the few examples we saw around the world issuing ethical guidelines about covering China and it addressed things like maintaining editorial independence, certain phrasing maybe regarding the South China Sea and what terminology that inadvertently accepts China’s position or repeats Beijing’s talking points, but also things like avoiding racist language, which we did find was an issue in a number of countries that even had stronger resilience.

So, that was a really interesting example. I think that’s where you see the response and the innovation being global too. It’s not something that’s just coming from Taiwan or Australia or the US. There’s real local pushback in so many countries.


So, Sarah, we started by asking you to provide an example that shocked you about China overstepping. Can you provide an example where civil society or a local government successfully pushed back that inspired you in terms of the response against Chinese influence particularly something that happened in a very dramatic way?

Sarah Cook

I mean, I know we’ve talked about Taiwan. But it really just stands out because of the scale and the commitment of resources on the part of China particularly in advance of the January 2020 election and the real multi-stakeholder effort by the government, by technology companies like Facebook that set up a war room, by civil society to really work together in innovative ways. For instance, they created bots for chat rooms that would be fact checking bots that link back to fact checking organizations. So, you could add it to your WhatsApp group and ask them to fact check for you. And then just like day-to-day resistance that journalists report from surveys in some of these outlets where they might be facing pressure to report in a certain way or not report in a certain way and how they kind of get around that.

So, I think it just really stands out the way in which Taiwan so successfully fended off these pressures and at the same time really maintained a high level of democratic standards. I think that’s what’s just so impressive from what they’ve done and really sets a standard and a model, I think, for other countries to look at and to follow.


Well, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time. What an impressive report!

Sarah Cook

Oh, thanks.


Yeah. Let me plug it one more time. It’s Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience. It’s available for free on the Freedom House website. So, go download a copy. It’s really impressive for the amount of detail and just a fantastic job on the executive summary. Thank you so much for talking to me today, Sarah.

Sarah Cook

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: