Chinese Propaganda in The Arab world

Published August 15th, 2022 - 11:33 GMT
Uighur women protest
Members of Women Muslim Uighur minority hold placards and flags as they demonstrate on March 8, 2021 [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

Amid intensifying Sino-US great power competition, China is decisively leading the war for popular opinion in the Middle East. Mass opinion polls in Arab states highlight China’s popularity while favourable coverage of China in Arab media is constant – demonstrated by responses in regional newspapers to Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan.

A columnist in the Saudi Al-Jazirah, for instance, challenges America’s “provocation of China” by violating its sovereignty of Taiwan. The author describes China’s borders as “time bombs planted by Western colonialism” to lull China into future – and inevitable – wars. A columnist in Egypt’s Al-Ahram mocks American “arrogance” for believing that it is capable of simultaneously dealing with crises it has “purposefully ignited” with Russia and China. And a columnist in Jordan’s Al-Dustour ascribes responsibility to the US for driving escalation in East Asia, warning of the US’s inability to manage it once the “wonderful Chinese genie” is provoked. 

On the popular level, China’s favourability appears the consequence of circumstance – chiefly informed by desires at large in the region for an alternative to American hegemony. While sympathetic coverage in Arab media is shaped by broad support for the One China policy amongst Arab governments won through Beijing’s economic incentives – reaffirmed by the Arab league in early August.

But Beijing seeks to strengthen this popularity through a rising tide of propaganda; it has heightened efforts to spin positive narratives of China in the Middle East in support of its growing presence – as shown by recent months.  

At the forefront of Beijing’s discursive campaign are Chinese officials. While Twitter is regarded as an important instrument for public diplomacy, it is doubtful that many ordinary people whittle away their time reading the tweets of diplomats. A more impactful platform drawn on by Chinese officials for engaging local audiences is regional media.

In July, China’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, HE Chen Weiqing, published a piece in al-Sharq al-Awsat contrasting the amicable history of Sino-Arab ties with the “brutal aggression” inflicted by the West on Chinese and Arabs alike in modern times. In this vein, he draws on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism to emphasise Western prejudices towards the East, before expressing how the principles of Chinese foreign policy – based on mutual respect and non-interference – will ensure cooperation and reward.  

Antipathy in Chinese propaganda towards the West reflects the rising tension in Sino-Western ties at present, but also Beijing’s conscious strategy to exploit the staying power of anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East to find resonance with Arab audiences.

Indeed, readers of al-Okaz have seen the Chinese Consul of Jeddah become an almost monthly feature in the Saudi daily newspaper, tirelessly promoting state-narratives. True to form in April, he indirectly counters the controversy of repressed Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In addition to offering elaborately detailed descriptions about its peace and prosperity, the Consul confirms the protection of freedom of religious belief in China while justifying Xinjiang’s security measures to address the “violence and terrorism” of past years.

Chinese officials have artfully connected policy in Xinjiang with regional concerns about extremism and counter-terrorism policies to discourage international outrage from gaining traction in the Middle East.

Since 2009, Beijing has spent around $6.6 billion  to strengthen its global media presence and check the dominance of Western media. Arabic-language Chinese media, CGTN, has consequently become a key instrument of Chinese propaganda in the Middle East.

CGTN’s coverage in recent months reveals two notable features. The first is its compulsive criticism of the US foreign policy which represents a considerable proportion of content – be it allegations about America’s unscrupulous attempts to distort policy in Xinjiang or aggression surrounding Taiwan.

The welcome decline of US hegemony is a frequent topic. Indeed, this is often accompanied by references to JK Rowling’s infamous villain, Voldemort.  One article proposes that, like Voldemort, misperceptions thrive about the “invincible power” of the US.  Another explicitly alleges a likeness between the US and Harry Potter’s nemesis: “When people see Voldemort's faith in power, his gathering of followers, the arbitrary use of violence and the repeated attempt to kill his rivals for dominance, it seems possible to find comparisons in U.S. practices.”

CGTN is not subtle signalling which country might be fit to reproduce Harry Potter’s example in challenging American hegemony.

The second feature of note is CGTN’s willingness to appropriate internal criticisms about the US commonly made by the American Left. For example, an article selectively draws on statistics to argue that “racial discrimination is embedded in every aspect of American society.” Elsewhere, the decision to extradite Julian Assange is used by CGTN to expose the “hypocrisy of American freedom.” Such examples highlight the vulnerability of open, democratic discourse to Beijing’s exploitation – especially amid the feverish polarisation of Western politics.

However, it is doubtful whether such attitudes claim the attention of Arab audiences. On YouTube, CGTN Arabic has around 360,000 subscribers but most videos struggle to yield more than a few hundred views. Equally, CGTN’s twitter page has almost 700,000 followers but this sizable figure more likely reflects the dark social media arts of Beijing than enthusiasm in the Middle East for Chinese state-media. Indeed, CGTN’s subscribers on both Twitter and YouTube are dwarfed by BBC Arabic.

On YouTube, CGTN Arabic has around 360,000 subscribers but most videos struggle to yield more than a few hundred views. Equally, CGTN’s twitter page has almost 700,000 followers but this sizable figure more likely reflects the dark social media arts of Beijing than enthusiasm in the Middle East for Chinese state-media.  

China’s ability to compete with the robust appeal of Western culture in the Middle East is often questioned. However, 2019 polling in Arab countries reveals a positive view of Japanese culture, indicating that East Asian (non-Western) culture has a greater potential to capture the imagination of regional audiences than is acknowledged.

It is unlikely that Beijing’s intensifying efforts to nurture favourable opinions of China – and hostile ones towards America – in the Middle East are primarily motivated by concerns of policy: economic incentives, not personal feelings nor public opinion, drive the policy calculations of Arab political elites with China.

Rather, they more convincingly speak to China’s search for wide recognition as a responsible superpower worthy of global leadership.

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