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TikTok weaponized: Experts reveal how China influences elections, controls media and propaganda, hail India for banning Chinese apps

Interestingly, Diplomatic Editor of Economic Times Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury said that Confucius Institutes, that are hubs of Chinese propaganda and their spy network has not really made inroads into India except in West Bengal and JNU.

Experts who came together in a webinar organised by Usanas Foundation on 9th December revealed the dangerous methods of propaganda used by China to influence elections globally, spy on other nations using their educational institutions and other methods, weaponise Chinese apps and essentially, how their espionage activities have intensified in the past few years.

How China tries to influence elections and the narrative in other countries

Grove Human Rights Scholar Teng Biao, who was a speaker at the Webinar, revealed the modus operandi of China in trying to influence elections in other countries. “Chinese government meddles in elections of many countries like Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, United States, etc. During Taiwan elections, Chinese government launches a disinformation campaign through its social media and uses it to defame the Party that is anti-China or hostile to it (such as the Democratic Progressive Party). They use economic blackmail as well. Every time when there is an election in Taiwan, the Chinese government puts pressure on the Taiwanese government and supports Kuomintang (KMT). It also uses the People’s Liberation Army to put pressure on Taiwan”, he said.

Further, the panellists revealed how China controls the narrative in countries like USA etc, by staging planted protests, and even controlling what is written in their textbooks.

Biao said, “University students from mainland China studying abroad organize themselves under the umbrella of Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). They get money from the Chinese embassy and receive instructions from the Chinese authorities for functioning. There have been many cases where CSSA threatened the academic freedom in other countries, similar to the incident at the University of California when it invited the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. China then pushed CSSA members to stage a protest against the proposed talks. After the speech by the Dalai Lama, the University was punished by the CCP as students and scholars were not given further permissions to study in this university”.

Biao revealed that as of this year, there are over 500 Confucius Institutes in the world. Though they are supposed to promote the study of Chinese language studies and culture, however, what they really do is spread the propaganda material on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. In a shocking revelation, Biao also said that they select the teachers and the agenda, as well as the textbooks filled with CCP propaganda.

“One of the major functions of these institutes is to block sensitive speakers from being invited and to bulwark talks on sensitive topics like Xinjiang and Hong Kong”, said Biao. Revealing how the Confucius Institutes are operated by the Ministry of Education of China, it was revealed how this institute works as a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.

China and how they control the media in different countries

Biao at the webinar revealed that China holds extensive influence over the media in several countries. “Almost all Chinese language media in the United States are controlled by the CCP. To pressurise newspapers, the method that the CCP uses is to put pressure on the businesses of papers that run articles unfavourable to China. The CCP targets advertisers of that particular newspaper until they pull their advertisements and then the newspaper loses revenues. Only a few exceptions remain, rest are controlled by the CCP”, he said.

Chatham House’s Associate Fellow Cleo Paskal also echoed the statements made by Biao about China exerting significant hold over the media in various countries. He said that China uses public opinion building and especially the media to discredit anyone who speaks against the Chinese Communist Party. “If they don’t like you, they will shut you down. They will also try to shape public opinion. Hollywood sees this a lot, there is not a single movie that has come out recently with a Chinese villain. Like the example of running large scale military operations off the coast of Taiwan, Chinese psychological warfare is focussed at scaring entire country into submission”, he said.

National Geographic Young Explorer Aadil Brar said that China has about 200 journalists and more than half of them work for the Chinese government. Journalists play an essential role in information collection and at numerous instances, reports by journalists do not even end up to the media but instead are handled by Party officials. Experts believe that reports and analysis are always written in a way that can be read by Party officials.

“The transfer of information from Chinese social media like Weibo to Western Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook has become almost instantaneous. This signifies that Chinese disinformation campaigns are becoming more efficient. China’s capabilities are growing and we must be wary of Chinese attempts to emulate Russia’s disinformation strategy. Trump has taken concrete steps to combat CCP influence in the media and his reaction has elicited a response from the Chinese, forcing many journalists to leave China and continue their operations from elsewhere. Even Hong Kong has become unsafe for journalists”, he said.

Using a country’s laws against them and social media apps

Paskal revealed a rather interesting facet of China’s propaganda war. He said that China has a habit of using a country’s law against them. Citing an example, Paksal said that the US tried to ban WeChat and suddenly WeChat groups took the matter to the courts in an effort to slow down the decision stating that it was interfering with their freedom of speech. “But on the other hand, China will completely ignore domestic laws in other countries when it suits them”, he said.

Interestingly, it was revealed that if a foreign company wants to operate in China, they have to communicate to their local vendors through WeChat because WhatsApp is banned there. This means that the CCP has full access to all of your critical information such as where the company is procuring its material from and who the company is selling to. They can then essentially replicate any company and use the local version to run the original to close operations.

Paksal said that “TikTok pulls out metadata that could be weaponized. The data can be used to shape public opinion. The app was used to try and influence the recent US elections by pushing pro-Biden content and restricting pro-Trump content”. Saying this, he expressed respect for India for having the foresight to ban apps like TikTok because it showed that on some level, India understood the methods used by China in their propaganda war.

‘Confucius Institutes have not been successful in India, except West Bengal and JNU’

Interestingly, Diplomatic Editor of Economic Times Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury said that Confucius Institutes, that are hubs of Chinese propaganda and their spy network has not really made inroads into India except in West Bengal and JNU. He said that it had tried to foray into Southern India through an engineering college, however, those attempts were arrested.

“India was one of the first countries to be sceptical of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while other countries were signing. India called China’s bluff much before the West called it. There is a lot of literature coming out in the West regarding China’s human rights abuses and its propaganda operations, but the debate regarding the BRI is still very weak. Awareness about the BRI trap has increased, but knowledge about it is still weak”, he said.

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