The State Department accused China on Thursday of using “deceptive and coercive methods” to shape the global information environment, by acquiring stakes in foreign newspapers and television networks, using major social media platforms to promote its views and exerting pressure on international organizations and media outlets to silence critics of Beijing.
The accusations, detailed in a report by the department’s Global Engagement Center, reflect worry in Washington that China’s information operations pose a growing security challenge to the United States and to democratic principles around the world by promoting “digital authoritarianism.”
China not only pushes its own propaganda, the report said, but exports digital surveillance tools to police information and people online. Although many of the tactics detailed are not new, the report warned that they could “lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing.”
“Every country has the right and every right to tell its story to the world, but a nation’s narrative should be facts, and it should rise or fall on its own merits,” James P. Rubin, the coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, said at a briefing. Referring to the People’s Republic of China, he went on: “By contrast, the P.R.C. advances coercive techniques and increasingly outright lies.”
The report echoes a raft of recent studies detailing the growing — and shifting — scope of China’s information campaigns. It came a day after officials disclosed in a Senate briefing that Chinese hackers who gained access to the email accounts of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other officials this year stole 60,000 emails from the State Department alone.
According to the State Department’s report released on Thursday, China’s efforts have evolved from a primary focus on promoting or defending the country’s political views on issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong to one that aims to sow disinformation to discredit the United States at home and abroad.
That has included accusations about the origins of the Covid pandemic, the new security partnership between the United States and Australia, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, disclosed last month that it had dismantled a Chinese campaign using more than 8,000 accounts, pages or groups on the two platforms, the largest inauthentic network it had found so far. Microsoft and other researchers also linked China to the spread of false claims about the causes of the deadly wildfires in Hawaii.
That campaign included images generated by artificial intelligence, a tool that the researchers, like the State Department, warn could greatly enhance China’s efforts.
China’s control over information internally is virtually absolute, but increasingly it is expanding its influence abroad, with its state channels broadcasting in 12 languages.
The report said that China has spent billions of dollars to build an expansive state news operation under the Central Propaganda Department and the United Front Work Department, which the report said oversees investments in foreign media aimed at Chinese diaspora communities.
The report cited investments in media organizations in the Czech Republic, Australia and Thailand, where Tencent sidestepped a law against foreign ownership to acquire Sanook, the country’s most popular news site.
China has also become a leading provider in digital television services in Africa through StarTimes, a Chinese company that now reaches most of the continent’s viewers.
While the department’s report was based largely on public information, it included references to knowledge seemingly based on classified information.
That included “U.S. government information” about an agreement with a newspaper “in an East African country” to publish paid articles from China without disclosing the connection and the fact that until at least late 2020, ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, maintained “a regularly updated internal list” of people who were blocked or restricted on the platform.
The report also detailed what it described as a fictitious author, Yi Fan, whose writings in English have appeared in publications around the world since 2015 under bylines describing him as an independent analyst.
China has also become adept at using social media platforms that the authorities banned inside the country’s Great Firewall. China now operates 333 diplomatic or official media accounts on Twitter, now known as X, with nearly 65 million followers, according to the report.
Those official accounts, it added, were bolstered by networks of bots and inauthentic accounts. From June 2020 to January 2021, a single network of those accounts impersonating British citizens accounted for 44 percent of the retweets and 20 percent of the replies to posts by Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador at the time and one of the outspoken “wolf warriors” of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Although more than half of Liu’s retweets during this period came from accounts that were ultimately suspended for violating Twitter’s terms of service at the time,” the report said, “new accounts continued to pop up to prolong this inauthentic amplification.” Twitter has since dropped the labels that identified foreign government accounts.
China uses similar accounts to stifle criticism. The report noted that more than 1,000 fake accounts sought to drown out a report last year by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights organization, that detailed the undisclosed presence of Chinese police officers in 53 countries. The campaign used accounts with the same name as the organization in what appeared to be an effort to trigger Twitter’s policy to de-emphasize inauthentic campaigns.
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center was established in 2011 with a focus on countering terrorism and violent extremism. In 2017 Congress extended its mandate to focus on propaganda and disinformation.
The impact of China’s effort can be difficult to measure, and the report suggests that the Chinese campaigns often encounter resistance in other countries. The country’s Communist Party appears committed, however, to reshaping the international environment suited to its political goals.
“We have every reason to believe that will continue,” said Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, a researcher at the RAND Corporation and a co-author of a recent report on China’s reliance on artificial intelligence to bolster its information operations. “They’re more likely to double down than they are to stop.”