Chinese propagandists court the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia
EVERY NIGHT Lee Ah Huat (not his real name) turns on the news. The 60-year-old engineer lives in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, but he doesn’t care about local channels. It goes straight to video surveillance, the Chinese state broadcaster, and generally watches its international broadcast in Chinese. Mr. Lee’s family left China and settled in Malaysia decades ago. He has few direct ties to his ancestral home and has complicated feelings about it.
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Yet when it comes to current affairs, his views are straightforward. The protests in Hong Kong and the oppression of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority, are “China’s internal problems.” American politicians who talk about the human rights violations of the Chinese state are, from this point of view, hypocrites. Just look at “how America treats African Americans or Native Americans.” They murdered them, stole their land. America is just causing trouble.
Mr. Lee’s words would delight the Chinese Communist Party (PCC). At least 30 million members of the Chinese diaspora, 60-70% of the total, live in Southeast Asia. They are the target of increasingly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored influence operations. Although few members of the diaspora are Chinese citizens, the state expects them to have strong sympathies for their ancestral homeland. They have an important role to play in what the party calls the “great rejuvenation” of China.
In 2018, the United Front’s Labor Department, the main body responsible for influencing non-party members, absorbed the Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, which was responsible for dealing with people who were not members of the party. foreigner. Jacob Wallis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, believes that “the PCC sees the diaspora as a powerful vector of influence ”and tries to recruit its members.
The Southeast Asian diaspora is of particular interest to Chinese information warriors, as China believes it has a “natural right” to primacy in the region, says Kenton Thibaut of the Atlantic Council, an American think tank . “China sees it as an easy testing ground”, she adds, where it can “begin to express itself as a world power”.
How to recruit these potential supporters? “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, this is where propaganda reports must spread their tentacles,” Xi Jinping, president of China, said in 2015. Their grip is felt almost everywhere . “Over the past decade, the top PCC officials have overseen a dramatic expansion in efforts to shape media content and narratives around the world, ”according to a 2020 report by Freedom House, a watchdog.
“This surge is particularly strong in Southeast Asia, as there are more outlets that are willing to repost some of these claims,” said Ja Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore. Leading state media like video surveillance are broadcast in all countries of Southeast Asia. Some, including Xinhua, a government news agency, have made attractive content-sharing deals with cash-strapped local newspapers, news agencies and TV broadcasters in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In 2017, a Chinese company and the Cambodian Interior Ministry launched a TV station that broadcasts content from Chinese official media.
The complexion of some local media is increasingly red. Cambodian media are now broadcasting “journalism with Chinese characteristics,” according to Reporters Without Borders, another watchdog. Chinese-language media in Malaysia muzzle journalists who violate the PCC line. In April Lianhe Zaobao, a Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper, renamed its section “Greater China” (covering China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) to simply “China,” reflecting China’s claim that Taiwan is its territory. It is one of the few foreign newspapers allowed to circulate in China.
China also spreads disinformation. A recent investigation by Malaysiakini, a news site, found that during the mass unrest in Hong Kong in 2019, mainstream Chinese media in Malaysia regurgitated false reports from Chinese state media claiming protesters launched Molotov cocktails on school buses. China is also manipulating digital outlets. His lies often appear on social media platforms in Taiwan, which is a “testing ground for [the] RPC“Global propaganda,” according to DoubleThink Lab, a local company that tracks digital information operations. From there it spread to Southeast Asia, overlapping the Twitter, Facebook and WeChat accounts of Southeast Asian migrants in Taiwan or of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia.
Chinese propagandists have a few favorite themes. These include the benevolence of China, as illustrated by its donation of vaccines to countries in Southeast Asia (true) and the invention of the first covid-19 vaccine by a Chinese general (false). Democracy is described as a messy and chaotic form of government and America as a racist country. A video purporting to depict black and white Americans beating a Chinese man with sticks was widely shared on Southeast Asian focus groups earlier this year. The caption was false: the video actually depicts a riot in a prison in Ecuador.
There is also evidence that the Chinese propaganda apparatus, which has become “much more sophisticated, multi-layered and international” over the past two years, is carrying out digital operations designed to manipulate public opinion in Southeast Asia on domestic politics, says Mr. Wallis.
It is difficult to establish whether China is winning hearts and minds with such tactics. A Pew poll this year found that in Singapore, which is home to about three-quarters of Chinese, nearly two-thirds of those polled had a favorable opinion of China. Older Singaporeans were more likely than younger people to hold such views. Last year, a Singaporean woman posted on Reddit, an online forum, about her father “self-radicalizing every night with extreme pro-Chinese videos.” Dozens of Singaporean users have recounted similar experiences with their own parents.
However, sometimes influence operations can backfire. In 2015, the perception that China was interfering in Malaysia’s affairs led tens of thousands of Malaysians to march through Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, awakening memories of past race riots.
And according to Mr. Lee, the Malaysian engineer, the party still has work to do. The haughty rhetoric about the Chinese diaspora belonging to a “community of common destiny” is fine. But his colleagues from mainland China “despise us … They think we come from a small, poor and weak country.” He adds: “[They] don’t see us as one of them ”. Neither does Mr. Lee. He does not identify as a Chinese national but as a Chinese Malay. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The Embrace of the Fatherland”