the return of ‘party propaganda’ in Eastern Europe

Un cartel de Xi Jinping en Serbia. (Reuters)

© Reuters
Un cartel de Xi Jinping en Serbia. (Reuters)

There was a time when the citizens of what were the communist countries had to endure a endless deluge of ideological rhetoric and imagery. Tough, omni-directional, and relentless, this propaganda flowed through the ether from the front pages of newspapers and the only television channel. The boastful comments about the five-year plans, the grand political goals, and the speeches of the party leaders they dominated the media landscape. Dismantling the infrastructure that created this informational environment was critical to the transition after communism.

It is therefore more surprising, then, that the ‘party rhetoric’ is making a comeback in some of these countries. Only, this time, it comes from a different communist party: that of the People’s Republic of China.

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Carlos Barragan

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For several years, one of the most popular news portals in Bulgaria, 24 Hours, hosted a segment dedicated to the Middle Kingdom entitled ‘Focus China’. It prescribed a daily dose of raw content and imagery supplied by Chinese media and institutional sources on matters ranging from macroeconomic data and projects to the Initiative. Belt and Road (BRI), the new Chinese silk road; even the position of Beijing on various international issues. A particular highlight are the voluminous speeches by the president and secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, which are reproduced in full. Even businessman Jack Ma made numerous headlines on 24 Hours, before his recent disappearance from the public eye.

It would be difficult to identify any ideological affinity in this new media association. Rather, the relationships are structured around a financial contract with China Radio International. The chinese agents behind the deal they explored other possible links with Bulgarian media before finally settling on their current partner.

These movements are becoming more and more common in southeastern Europe. They have often been downplayed labeling them isolated events without intention or ambition.

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However, as recent research by the European Council on Foreign Relations (supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s regional media program) shows, this is no longer the case. Actually, China is building a partner media ecosystem across the region. This emerging network has three basic parts. The first and least surprising is based on contacts and relationships that go back to the communist legacy of decades ago. The members of this network in Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria have an agenda and long experience in the local media environment. In other cases, the inherited relationships are more institutional and involve historical ties to local journalists’ associations, such as those in Serbia and Bulgaria.

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Héctor G. Barnés

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The second part is based on more formal institutional interactions and the access between China and Eastern European states. It arises from the innumerable opportunities for cooperation created by bilateral mechanisms and projects related to BRI, which extend to bodies such as information agencies, ministerial departments and organizations representing various industries. For example, some of these bodies in Bosnia, North Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria have signed extensive media cooperation agreements on various types of content with Chinese state information organizations such as Xinhua. China is gradually expanding its list of content providers in the region as it supplies information through the new Silk Road. And an increasing number of officials from the ministries of culture and education are involved in BRI-related cooperation. In Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia they have intensified institutional relations with China to regulate the media.

Lobby ecosystem

And yet it is the third part of this emerging ecosystem that is most indicative of the Chinese strategy in Southeastern Europe. This part is a fairly fluid, but increasingly integrated network of new players performing a variety of media-related functions and having a sustained transactional interest in aligning with their Chinese partners. The group is quite diverse. For example, students returning to North Macedonia, Bosnia, and Croatia from China are positioning themselves to enter institutions such as universities and ministries, slowly gaining prominence in the media as commentators and experts. Private media companies in Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia are increasingly active in engaging and accessing Chinese actors in relation to advertising and content. Independent media entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia provide consulting and project cooperation services to Chinese institutions.

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In particular, the local Chinese diaspora It is also slowly entering the media sphere, as illustrated by the activities of Bulgarian businessman Zheng Zhong. He appears regularly on major Bulgarian television channels to offer a pro-Beijing view of Chinese affairs. Its Council on Economic and Diplomatic Relations focuses on work related to BRI, providing a platform for publicity and media presence. Another new form of engagement and cooperation with local media actors comes through the work of the Southeast Europe Chinese Business Association, which has public relations and advocacy functions. pressure groups (lobby). The organization represents Chinese interests, provides content and supports publicity efforts in favor of Beijing through various means. His activities are difficult to trace, but local analysts have studied his work in Croatia. These activities have included obtaining advertising for Chinese projects, generating content for local media and coordinating messages.

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Carlos Barragan

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Bosnia and Herzegovina is perhaps the best example of the modus operandi of this third group of pro-Beijing actors. BRI’s Center for Promotion and Development, based in Sarajevo, acts as a hub for the generation and placement of media content. And the organization is creating cooperation frameworks with other actors to further strengthen their position. It is staffed by experienced journalists and hosts a website based entirely on Chinese sources. The center has contractual relations with the local Chinese embassy and increasingly works in coordination with institutions such as the Bosnian-China Friendship Association and the Confucius Institute at Banja Luka University. Increasingly, it participates in joint projects with many other universities and policy institutes, organizing public events and generating content for the media.

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In less than a decade, China has significantly expanded its media presence in Southeast Europe in terms of relationships, content, and infrastructure.

In less than a decade, China has significantly expanded its media presence in Southeast Europe in terms of relationships, content, and infrastructure. The country started its rise in the media from a low base, but it is accelerating and is about to acquire real influence over public opinion and representations of China in the wider society. This is evident in the eEfforts by pro-Beijing actors to buy media in the region, as happened recently with a failed attempt to acquire the main media group in Croatia. For example, a local newspaper in Slovenia is now owned by China. The acquisition of the influential Central European Media Companies by pro-Beijing Czech billionaire Petr Kellner could have significant consequences in the area. Overall, Beijing is increasingly well positioned in the region to amplify its voice, broadcast images and convey its narratives.

These agreements will affect political decisions, political debates and public perception of Eastern European countries in relation to China. Crucially, Beijing could use this new influence to block or marginalize what it sees as disinformation on his most controversial projects, mainly on infrastructure and metallurgy. A greater presence in the media will help China put up various issues related to areas such as debt, foreign policy, public health and interstate cooperation. And this improved structural position will help recruit more “foot soldiers” in the media. Still, geopolitical competition has reached the airwaves, television screens and smartphones of Eastern Europe.

* Analysis published in the European Council on Foreign Relations por Vladimir y titulado ‘Beijing’s megaphone: The return of party propaganda in south-eastern Europe’

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