China boosts internet propaganda effforts with Xi aide's appointment
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China appointed its former internet tsar Xu Lin, a trusted aide to President Xi Jinping, as its new international propaganda chief. The appointment is the latest move in Beijing attempts to influence opinion abroad and push the party’s line at home.
The internet is extremely important in China. According to the latest report of the China Internet Information Network, issued earlier this month, China has 802 million subscribers, out of 1.3 billion people.
And in the last six months over 29 million people started using internet for the first time.
The internet is also tightly controlled in China, there’s a so-called Chinese "great firewall" that prevents people from directly surfing on Facebook, Twitter, or foreign sites critical of China, like media or human rights organisations.
And now, by putting Xu Lin in charge, the Chinese internet will become even more of a tool for the government to spread its opinions.
“It shows that Xi Jinping is interested in revamping the whole propaganda system," says Jean-Philippe Béjà, a sinologist who used to work with the Centre of International Research with Sciences Po in Paris. “Of course the internet is very important for political control inside China.”
“But of course you have also seen that Xi Jinping intends to make China great again on the international scene. So the appointment of Xu Lin to the International Liaison Office of the Central Committee is quite important because he would be in charge of propaganda towards the outer world."
But this is a bureaucratic position, Béjà points out. “He doesn’t have any initiative. Xi Jinping has put him there because he is obedient and faithful."
So what kind of propaganda can we expect?
One case in point is Beijing’s recent diplomatic victory over Taiwan.
Yesterday El Salvador announced that it was switching its diplomaitc recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.
The move leaves Taiwan with only 17 countries that still recognize it as an independent state: the Vatican, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), six tiny island states in the Pacific (Kiribati, the Marshal Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu), 4 states in the Carrabean (Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines).
In central America, only four countries are left after the departure of El Salvador: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and only one in South America: Paraguay.
“It has to do with propaganda, of course,” says Béjà.
“But it has to do mostly with foreign policy and with diplomacy. China has decided to do all it can to isolate Taiwan. Xi Jinping seems to be reinforcing nationalism and has been much more hands-on on Taiwan.
“They’ve put pressure on various companies to change the name of Taiwan in their operations and they have been launching an all-out offensive to take back recognition from the very few countries which recognise Taiwan.
But not all experts agree with that analysis.
“I don’t think that China is exerting tremendous pressure,” says Rodrick Wye, a former diplomat based in Beijing, now working with Chatham House in London.
“It is to China’s advantage still to have a few countries that recognise Taiwan so they can put pressure on Taiwan by removing yet another diplomatic ally. For the Chinese it is a long game of cat and mouse and they aren’t in a particular hurry to wipe Taiwan’s’ diplomatic recognition off the face of the map."
Wye thinks that El Salvador recognising Beijing “shows the people of China that the present leadership is standing up for China’s interests in an effective manner".
“Internationally I think it is less important because there are very few countries or people now who care very much about the diplomatic competition between China and Taiwan," he comments.
Within China the diplomatic coup has been widely reported by Chinese media but also discussed on popular internet forums, such as China.com.
There thousands of moderators are keeping an eye on what is being said, so any hint of pro-Taiwan sentiment is quickly erased.
With a propaganda chief who used to be boww of the internet censorship machinery, Beijing’s hand in cyberspace will be stronger than ever.
“I would expect more use of internet means to put China’s message forward, both to the world, to the people of China and to the government of Taiwan,” says Wye.