China has used COVID-19 pandemic to improve its public image: Report

The findings, authors write, indicate a more active involvement by Beijing in the global media architecture

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The COVID-19 pandemic has struck down the global economies, devastated healthcare systems around the world and destroyed the lives of millions. Surprisingly, it has also helped bolster China’s public image, a new report has found, in a turn of events that authors say could reflect Beijing’s increasing media superiority over national information systems.

The report, published by the International Federation of Journalists on Wednesday, found that international reporting of the country throughout the last year has become positive, with some countries even turning to China as a source of information on the coronavirus.

“Beijing’s tactics have been quite successful,” Louisa Lim, the lead author, and a former BBC and NPR China correspondent, told the Guardian.

She and two other authors, Julia Bergin and Johan Lindberg, gathered data from 54 journalist unions in 50 countries and territories across three continents between December 2020 and January 2021. Regions such as Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe, Latin America, North American and MENA — Middle East and North Africa — participated in the review.


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Journalists from Serbia, Italy and Tunisia also consented to roundtable discussions to “build a more detailed picture of the contours of Chinese outreach.”

The data, according to the report, stated that 56 per cent of all countries showed an increasingly positive coverage of China since the start of the pandemic.

Furthermore, 76 per cent of countries reported that China had an established presence in their media reports, up from 64 per cent the previous year.

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Countries were also asked to rate how coverage of China had changed since the pandemic on a scale of 1 to 10, which 1 being very negative and 10 being very positive. On average, countries reported an overall rating of 5.38, the report stated, with Europe noticing the most positive change to China’s coverage at a rating of 6.3 and North America noting the opposite with a low rating of 3.5.

“Overall there has been a shift over the last decade from defensive and reactive tactics to a far more assertive and proactive strategy, using content-sharing agreements, journalistic tours to China and memoranda of understanding with international journalism outlets or unions,” Lim said.

The findings, authors write, indicate a more active involvement by Beijing in the global media architecture, such as “training programs and sponsored trips for global journalists, content sharing agreements feeding state-sponsored messages into the global news ecosystems, memoranda of understanding with global journalism unions and increasing ownership of publishing platforms.”


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Beijing, they wrote, would “seed positive narratives about China in national media” during the pandemic and used “novel tactics such as disinformation.”

Case studies also reflected a gap between what journalists thought of Chinese information tactics and what was being observed on the ground. Journalists, the report found, often assumed China’s influence on their domestic media is limited and criticized their methods as ‘clumsy and irrelevant’.

They were ‘confident that their own media literacy or political systems would protect the media ecosystem from Chinese encroachment,” the report stated. “But when viewed globally, the results looked very different,” it added.

Beijing’s tactics have been quite successful

Last year, Beijing also expelled and froze visa applications for several foreign journalists, which the report said, led to a “vacuum in China coverage, as some countries are left without resident journalists inside China.” As a result, journalists have increasingly relied on state-run Chinese outlets for coverage, leading to more “positive coverage overall.”

“In this way, the information landscape is slowly being massaged in a direction more positive towards Beijing,” authors wrote.

Since the start of the pandemic, China embarked on a “massive program of Covid diplomacy” in which it distributed aid to countries around the world — some journalists have opined that their actions are underlined by a image-focused agenda.

Journalists in Tunisia for example stated that China had constructed a hospital in the province of Sfax so as to “be seen as saviours.”


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How much aid a country received from China during the pandemic has had a marked effect on the news coverage of China within that country. Out of all the countries that received aid, 63 per cent stated that China’s fast action against COVID-19 has helped other countries, as has its medical diplomacy.

In the meantime, only 25 per cent of countries who didn’t receive aid felt the same way, with 60 per cent saying that China’s coverup of the initial outbreak is to blame for the pandemic.

Fifty-seven per cent of countries that received the Chinese vaccine noted attempts by China to influence media narratives around the local politics in their own countries, compared to 34 per cent of non-recipient countries.

Recipient countries also stated that they noticed a slightly higher presence of Chinese state-run media on social media.

The information landscape is slowly being massaged in a direction more positive towards Beijing

Maria Repnikova, who directs the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University told the Guardian that she was not surprised by the findings, but added that it’s difficult to distinguish how much the positive coverage is due to the country’s information strategy or their performance during the pandemic, compared to the U.S..

“[Also], the report presents the Chinese state as somewhat monolithic and deliberate. In reality, much of Chinese communication work is decentralised, the quality of reporting and communication varies a lot even across Chinese media agencies, and there is a degree of improvisation that characterises all these efforts,” Repnikova said.

Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson commented on their media strategy on Tuesday, the Guardian reported, reiterating Beijing’s argument that its voice needs to be heard even if perspectives differ from that of the West.

“The world is diverse and colourful. In the area of media, there should not just be the CNN and the BBC; every country should have their own voice,” she said, adding that China had an obligation to “tell the facts and truths of issues such as COVID-19 … this is the real responsible attitude of a responsible country.”

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