Seize this Opportunity to Combat Chinese Misinformation

By Emily Harding

Emily Harding is deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She joined CSIS from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), where she was deputy staff director. While working for SSCI, she led the Committee’s multiyear investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. She oversaw the activities of 18 intelligence agencies and led SSCI staff in drafting legislation, conducting oversight of the intelligence community, and developing their expertise in intelligence community matters.  She began her career as a leadership analyst at CIA.

OPINION — After 1,016 days of being locked in apartments and houses, China’s citizens have been released, and they are traveling, presenting an unparalleled opportunity for the U.S. government and its allies to communicate to a huge and disgruntled Chinese population about what they’ve been missing and how their government has failed them.

In 2019, 155 million Chinese travelled abroad.  Those numbers are set to rebound. A leading Chinese online travel agency had searches for international destinations multiply rapidly within 30-minutes of the announcement on December 26th that China would scrap quarantine requirements for inbound travelers. saw reservations increase by 250% on December 27th compared to the previous day, according to The Economist. A Hong Kong travel agency showed search volume for international flights increased by 850%, and the South China Morning Post reported that top searches included Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States.

When they land, Chinese travelers will find a world very different from their lockdown.  Most other economies found a way to have both moderate COVID protections and economic activity, first with distancing and masks and moving activities outdoors, then with comprehensive vaccine programs.

China never hit that balance—the CCP locked their citizens, sometimes literally, indoors and told lies about the necessity of Chinese measures and the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines. 

They are now telling lies about how many of their fellow citizens are dying. While the CCP has only acknowledged about a dozen COVID deaths in the weeks following the lifting of restrictions in December, reports are emerging that funeral homes and crematoriums across China are overwhelmed. The Economist’s models suggest 1.5 million Chinese will die in the coming months.  No wonder Chinese people are eager to get out.

This awakening from lockdown is a perishable, golden opportunity to pierce the veil of the Chinese government’s disinformation campaign against its own citizens.  The key messages to send are clear: Beijing has botched the COVID response, keeping information from you and rejecting free, effective vaccines from abroad.  You were stuck in a three-year lockdown because your government is afraid of you and is unwilling to accept new information. The rest of the world has been carrying on, eating in restaurants, going to work, celebrating weddings and birthdays…without you.

China is the last major economy to lift lockdowns, and those lockdowns created your lowest growth rate in 50 years. And while Beijing was lying to you about COVID, it was brutally abusing your fellow citizens, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong.

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The hard work will be fighting for airtime against Chinese-sponsored news.  Since 2009, China has been working consistently to increase its influence in news and entertainment, from newspapers to TV to social media.

China Global Television Network (CGTN), and state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reach an estimated hundreds of millions of television viewers, radio listeners, and social media users abroad.

GGTN broadcasts in five languages and has hundreds of journalists stationed overseas. Thailand, Pakistan, Laos, and Cambodia all signed deals with Chinese entities from Xinhua to ZTE to create digital TV service and share content. Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Huawei, and TikTok are on the rise globally, offering a compelling degree of simplicity and convenience—users can get news, entertainment, search capability, shopping, and even e-payment in one place. Western news outlets have very little by way of Chinese-language news, save outlets like Voice of America (VOA).

To grab this opportunity quickly and efficiently, the U.S. and its allies should immediately create a focused messaging strategy aimed at Chinese travelers in southeast Asia, then spread that strategy to the U.S. and Europe.

Momentum should carry forward to locations around the globe. Messages should be across platforms in Mandarin and placed in the path of likely tourists—from TVs in hotel lobbies to billboards near tourist destinations, to ads popping up on mobile phones.

Southeast Asia should take priority.  Most of those nations are not requiring negative COVID tests for arrivals from the Chinese mainland and are establishing a communications strategy on what is, in essence, the front lines of Chinese influence. This should be a foreign policy priority anyway.

Opportunities to reach a large, receptive Chinese audience outside the Great Firewall are limited, much less on a critical issue like China’s mishandling of a global pandemic. This opportunity must be seized.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals.  Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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