The Internet in the Battle for Hearts and Minds
I see the internet as an important battleground for hearts and minds – an opportunity to turn young people into China’s friends before others have the opportunity to make them our enemies.
China has an image problem. No one who has followed the Pew Research survey results over the last twenty years can be in any doubt about that. And particularly in what is known as “the developed world”. Since the early years of the century, the international research company has been asking the general public in wealthy countries whether they have a negative or a positive view of China. Twenty years ago ordinary people in almost all these countries had a generally positive view of China. Over a period of fifteen years there was a steady decline in this position, and then about four or five years ago there was a sudden and significant upsurge in hostility.
Let me digress for a second to make an important point. The Chinese themselves often talk about misunderstandings about China in the West. A misunderstanding is a rational phenomenon. It results from an absence of information, or from inaccurate information, and it can be remedied by rational means – by providing more or better information.
What we are looking at here is not a misunderstanding. It is a deliberately engineered and carefully orchestrated hostility that operates on a deep, subliminal, emotional level. It is not a rational phenomenon so it cannot be remedied by rational means.
Another very important point is associated with this. The vast, vast majority of the respondents to these surveys – quite possibly 99 percent or more – have never been to China or anywhere near China. Their entire image of China is a construct built on what they have been told by other people – largely their politicians and their media. How many of those 83 percent of Americans with a negative view of China have ever set foot there? Next to none.
I don’t have time to discuss in detail the means by which this hostility has been achieved, or its goals, other than to point out that it is called “manufactured consent”. If you can create enough prejudice against a “perceived enemy”, then any measures you take against that enemy, however extreme, will win public support.
In its international communications strategy, China places a great reliance on its formal political discourse. This is led by the works of President Xi, and in particular his books The Governance of China. As someone who works directly on this effort, I am conscious of its importance, and the importance of the audience it addresses. But this is a rational discourse, aimed at an audience largely consisting of educated, intelligent people with an intellectual curiosity about China, who are at least willing to consider matters with an open mind.
Unfortunately, this audience does not consist of such people. It is a mass audience with an ingrained and manufactured hostility based on ignorance and prejudice. If China is to combat this hostility, it must operate on the same emotional and subliminal level by which that hostility was created.
Now here is an interesting and more positive message. This research, also by Pew, shows that in terms of hostility to China, there is a distinct gap in age demographics. Young people are much less likely to have a negative view of China. The age split in this study is at 40. I am certain that in younger demographics, the gap would be even wider in China’s favour. This creates an opportunity. Where do young people gather their news and information? Increasingly, online, from the internet and social media.
I believe that China should in any case build its international communications strategy on more and different pillars. One of the most important of these is the internet. That is why I see the internet as an important battleground for hearts and minds – an opportunity to turn young people into China’s friends before others have the opportunity to make them our enemies.
The internet is a difficult battleground for China. For a start they are at a language disadvantage, trying to engage with audiences mainly in English, a language that is not their own but is the native language of their main adversaries – the U.S. and the UK. And discussion on social media is often robust, to put it mildly, and does not come easily to people who have grown up in a culture of modesty, courtesy, and respect.
But China has at its disposal other forces too – supporters who are native English speakers and whose background renders them willing and able to engage with anti-China voices in a direct and confrontational manner. Here are some of those who are active on X (formerly Twitter): Arnaud Bertrand, Tom Fowdy, Andy Boreham, Jerry Grey, Curt McArdle, and even me. Among them, Arnaud has a following of 138,000 and Andy 90,000.
At the moment, we are individuals, speaking with lone voices. I think we would be much more effective as part of a coordinated and integrated strategy, pooling our strengths so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Building coordinated, integrated strategies is one of China’s strengths. That is how the battle of targeted poverty alleviation was won, and I believe that that is how the international battle for young hearts and minds can be won on the internet.
The article is an excerpt of the speech delivered by David Ferguson, Chief English Editor of Foreign Languages Press under China International Communications Group and recipient of the Chinese Government Friendship Award and the First Orchid Awards, at the Forum on Internet Communication, Cultural Exchanges and Mutual Learning, during the 2023 World Internet Conference Wuzhen Summit on November 9, 2023. The article has been edited for length and clarity.