Chinese propaganda has found itself a new platform in commercial radios across Europe, displaying a new form of information laundering by Beijing.
The article was originally published in The Diplomat and is republished here with the permission of the author.
China has consistently and systematically pursued the dissemination of its narratives on the global stage, with the primary aim of shaping the international landscape to align with its strategic interests and ideological perspectives.
These endeavors encompass a diverse array of tactics, including the acquisition of media enterprises, active engagement by Chinese ambassadors in both mainstream and fringe media outlets, the utilization of paid supplements, collaboration with pro-Kremlin media, and the steadily expanding presence of China across various social media platforms.
Borrowing a Boat to Go out on the Ocean
Recently, China Radio International (CRI), an official Chinese state media outlet broadcasting in multiple languages, has garnered attention for its establishment of partnerships with and provision of content to radio stations worldwide. Remarkably, CRI has effectively outsourced the production of China-related programming to local partners, often without transparently disclosing the sponsorship of content creation to the listeners. This strategy, known in Chinese as “borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean,” plays a pivotal role in laundering Beijing’s propaganda and fostering the acceptance of its messaging among local audiences.
One illustrative case of this approach within Europe involves two Czech radio stations, namely Radio HEY, a nationwide commercial radio station airing rock music, and Radio Color, which positions itself as “one of the last independent radios.” From 2019 to May 2023, these radio stations broadcasted a program titled “Barevný svět” (Colourful World), a nearly 30-minute segment aired six times a week, with the objective of acquainting Czech listeners with Chinese culture, language, and history.
Upon subjecting the program’s content to discourse analysis, it became evident that the broadcast meticulously avoided addressing any topics that could be deemed critical of China. Furthermore, it consistently portrayed the Chinese government in a predominantly positive light.
While the program ostensibly avoided delving into security and political matters, it was by no means devoid of political undertones. Quite the contrary, it frequently asserted claims about Tibet being an integral part of China and praised the “civilizing mission” of the Chinese in Tibet, often making disparaging references to the Tibetan theocracy. Additionally, the assertion that Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China was reiterated not only in episodes dedicated to Chinese islands, such as “Hainan is the largest Chinese island after Taiwan,” but also in segments discussing Chinese mountain ranges.
The analyzed broadcast was not immune to grammatical errors, and occasionally, the native Czech presenters struggled while delivering the prepared content. Furthermore, the episodes conspicuously lacked localization elements, such as references to Czech culture or the utilization of Czech idiomatic expressions, which raised questions regarding the authorship of the material.
Notably, the radio stations neglected to inform their listeners of China Radio International’s involvement in the production of the broadcast. Later on, when questioned by journalists about this association, the Czech owners of the radio stations vehemently denied any connection.
However, an archive of CRI broadcasts in the Czech language provides irrefutable evidence of this affiliation. CRI, through its Czech website, disseminated episodes of “Barevný svět” with additional content not present in the original broadcasts by the commercial radio stations.
This supplementary segment includes the following lines: “Chinese Radio International. This is Beijing. Dear listeners, welcome to the shortwave service of China Radio International, where we are broadcasting a brand new program called “Barevný svět” [Colourful World], which we are producing in cooperation with the Czech Radio HEY and Phoenix Amber [author’s note: a private company managed by a Czech sinologist with previous ties to CRI]. It’s a magazine not only about travel but also about history, culture, sports, fashion, modern technology, and other interesting facets, especially from China.”
It is highly probable that CRI’s endeavors to conceal its activities behind local entities extend beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. The content analysis of the Czech radio broadcasts leads to a hypothesis that the content was centrally produced and subsequently translated into various languages, including Czech.
Regrettably, only a limited number of China observers and security practitioners have hitherto directed their attention towards this matter. Nevertheless, in an interview with the author Stefan Vladisavljev, a Serbian analyst from the BFPE Foundation, suggested that the Czech case may not be an isolated incident: “The CRI program is also broadcasted in Serbian through the local radio station WTF (Welcome to Fun). This is a domestic radio station that regularly broadcasts content produced by CRI, consistently maintaining a positive tone towards China.”
New Propaganda Challenge?
China’s efforts to adapt its official narratives to conform to the directives of the central government and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party may initially appear rudimentary in Europe. Nevertheless, the case of outsourcing the broadcasting of Chinese narratives to two Czech commercial radios signifies a learning process on the part of China, as it endeavors to disseminate official propaganda to foreign audiences through innovative means.
The documented processes of information laundering, which obscure the attribution of the content, should serve as a cautionary reminder not to underestimate the sophistication of China’s techniques in this regard. Their demonstrated ability to employ effective communication methods, including collaboration with pro-Kremlin media and the embedding of political messages within ostensibly apolitical content, serves as a warning sign. If their gradually accumulated experience and knowledge are coupled with enhanced narrative localization and a heightened proficiency in utilizing social media platforms, China’s information operations targeting Europe are poised to become increasingly sophisticated and challenging to detect in the future.
Note: The first discourse analysis of Barevný svět was initially published in Czech on April 5, 2023. Subsequently, Czech journalists began to inquire about the program’s funding and its connections to China Radio International based on the findings of the analysis. On April 30, 2023, after broadcasting for three and a half years without interruption and airing over 1,000 episodes, it appears that Barevný svět has been discontinued on both Radio Hey and Radio Color.
Ivana Karásková, Ph.D., is a Founder and Leader of CHOICE & China Projects Lead at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. She is a an ex-Fulbright scholar at Columbia University, NYC, a member of Hybrid CoE in Helsinki and European China Policy Fellow at MERICS in Berlin. She advices the Vice-President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, on Defense of Democracy Package.