New report, dashboard captures Beijing’s influence in East Asia & the Pacific

New AidData report details how Beijing mobilizes media and students to bolster China’s image abroad.

December 9, 2019
Soren Patterson
The news center of the 2018 Shanghai International Import Expo buzzes with Chinese and foreign media workers. Photo courtesy Xinhua News via Presidencia El Salvador, in the public domain.

The news center of the 2018 Shanghai International Import Expo buzzes with Chinese and foreign media workers. Photo courtesy Xinhua News via Presidencia El Salvador, in the public domain.

AidData today released new data and analysis quantifying how the Chinese government uses informational diplomacy and student exchange activities to advance its strategic interests in 25 countries across East Asia and the Pacific (EAP). 

Drawing on extensive quantitative data, Influencing the Narrative analyzes which tools Beijing deploys to mobilize media and students to promote its preferred narrative, and to what effects.

AidData also today launched a new dashboard featuring data on China’s overall public diplomacy efforts, including data on Chinese investment in financial diplomacy across the EAP region. The dashboard enables users to create custom datasets and graphics on China’s public diplomacy activities with data from two AidData reports—Influencing the Narrative and Ties That Bind, AidData’s first report on Chinese public diplomacy.

Explore interactive maps and charts of China’s public diplomacy activities in 25 countries.

Chinese leaders have mobilized an impressive array of government agencies, media outlets, and educational institutions at home and abroad as a megaphone to tell China’s story to the world. In this new report, AidData takes a data-driven approach to answer one overarching question: How does Beijing use informational diplomacy and student exchange to tell its story and advance its national interests among its closest neighbors in East Asia and the Pacific? 

The researchers collected and analyzed extensive quantitative data on China’s overtures to 25 EAP countries between 2000 and 2019—including information on media partnerships between Chinese state media and local outlets, media interviews and op-eds from China’s senior leaders and ambassadors, and state-sponsored press trips to China, as well as numbers on government-sponsored scholarships to study in China, students studying in China, Chinese studying abroad, and Confucius Institute.

The researchers define public diplomacy as the collection of instruments a country uses to influence the perceptions, preferences, and actions of citizens and leaders in another country, ultimately advancing its national interests. Informational diplomacy is a set of broad-based communications activities that a country undertakes to cultivate influence by attracting foreign publics to empathize with its preferred narrative and adopt its views.

“Foreign powers have long sought to project their own narratives to move the needle of global public opinion, and indeed, Beijing’s public diplomacy playbook includes tactics originally used by other powers,” said Samantha Custer, AidData’s Director of Policy Analysis, who led the research team. “But Beijing’s moves to consolidate, expand, and professionalize its efforts—combined with the CCP’s monopoly over domestic media and its deep pockets to “go global” with international broadcasting, partnerships with foreign media, and scholarship programs—have raised questions about its motives and means. With this report, our aspiration is to begin closing the evidence gap on the scope, tactics, and influence of Beijing’s efforts to tell China’s story."

The report finds that Chinese leaders have invested substantial amounts of senior-level attention as well as financial and human resources to carry out informational diplomacy and student exchange activities at scale. “The Chinese government’s media engagement is far from monolithic, and is tailored to different country contexts depending on its strategic interests,” said Mihir Prakash, a co-author of the report and a Senior Research Analyst at AidData. “Beijing has shifted its informational diplomacy strategy for cultivating other communicators from emphasizing ad hoc interactions to institutional partnerships, and is adept at using the credibility and networks of domestic media outlets in EAP countries.

The Chinese government also undertakes an extensive array of student exchange activities to socialize educated elites in EAP countries to Chinese norms and values, as well as cultivate lasting relationships with this next generation of leaders and influencers. “Beijing actively uses cooperative agreements, institutional partnerships, and Chinese language learning and testing opportunities to attract exchange students from EAP countries, and has doubled down on offering scholarships as an inducement to study in China,” said Custer. “Students in less politically free countries in the EAP region received nearly 30% more scholarships to study in China than their counterparts in freer countries, and Beijing appears to deploy scholarships to stoke demand among countries that traditionally have not sent large volumes of students to study abroad in China.”

Read the full report for more findings on the Chinese government’s informational diplomacy and student exchange activities and their impact.

The report builds on work first published in 2018 in Ties That Bind, a first-of-its-kind study that quantified multiple aspects of China's public diplomacy—financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite diplomacy—across 25 countries from 2000 to 2016 to assess how it is received by foreign publics and leaders and determine whether it is meeting Beijing’s objectives. Research for both reports was conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of State.

Selections of data from both reports are now available through AidData’s China’s Public Diplomacy Dashboard. In addition to data on informational diplomacy and student exchange activities, the dashboard also contains data on visits between government and military officials (elite-to-elite diplomacy), sister cities (exchange diplomacy), and Chinese government spending with diplomatic intent (financial diplomacy). In the dashboard, users can create custom data sets, maps and graphs, as well as filter based on the type of public diplomacy, recipient countries, and time period of interest. While the dashboard currently contains data only for the EAP region, it will be updated next year with data on the Chinese government’s public diplomacy activities in another region key to its national interests: South and Central Asia.

Soren Patterson is AidData's Communications Associate.