According to a recent report, China is making significant investments in Kyrgyzstan’s underfunded media sector, growing its state-run outlets, and forming alliances with local businesses in an effort to influence the country’s information environment.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Academy in Bishkek published a study on Chinese inroads into Kyrgyz media on August 25 as part of a multiyear research project into the strategies used by Chinese state actors to generate favourable coverage of China, spread unfavourable political talking points about the United States and the West, and suppress or drown out stories about China’s interests in Central Asia, such as worries over an international conflict.
Since [Kyrgyzstan’s] media industry is severely underfunded, “money talks,” according to Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy and author of the study, this is a concern. “[China] has a lot of money to invest and spend, and it can use that to build relationships, manage access, and create opportunities that can limit bad reporting and saturate the media with [good stories about China].”
The most widespread tactics Yau identified for influencing local narratives included: sponsoring partnerships and paid material within Kyrgyz media; increasing the visibility of Chinese media in Kyrgyzstan; and heavily depending on social media networks and online influencers to propagate messages.
The report also points out that the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek actively participates in coordinating local content by arranging free reporting trips, providing funding, and providing consultations—all of which were mentioned by local journalists as motivating factors in the publication of positive stories and the withholding of unfavourable ones when asked about them.
This entire environment is incredibly hazy and dreary, Yau declared. On the Chinese side, there is a lot of clumsiness to be seen, but it is still developing and evolving, particularly on social media, where there is a lot of tailored material and advertisements across many platforms that can be challenging to trace.
The long term
Beijing has prioritised building up its political and economic power through closer relationships to local elites, troops, and investment through its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project in Central Asia, which borders western China.
Yau’s research, however, demonstrates how Chinese influence and participation in Central Asia, notably in Kyrgyzstan, are no longer restricted to these regions and attempt to forge links with a wider sector of society.
Control over the information sphere has been a crucial component of the Chinese government’s control at home, and as Beijing’s influence has grown abroad, so has this control over other nations. The government of China has been open in expressing these objectives in public papers and has recognised the developing world as a whole as a potential market.
Since the early 2000s, China has taken the lead in negotiating agreements with Kyrgyz media businesses. These agreements have ranged from clauses allowing local media outlets to freely reprint Chinese information to stricter obligations regarding the replication of domestic and international news reporting as well as the creation of specific content for lifestyle, technology, finance, and tourism.
Three Chinese state-run media outlets, including Xinhua, Wen Wei Po, and the Silk Road Observer, are registered in Kyrgyzstan, according to a list released by the foreign ministry in 2022. Dolon TV and Land Bridge are two additional private Chinese media firms that run in Kyrgyzstan.
Although the overall success of this Chinese media approach is still unclear, Yau and the OSCE Academy’s preliminary research, which included a large-scale phone survey, revealed that it was effective in influencing public opinions of the internment camps in Xinjiang.
According to estimates from international scholars and Western governments, China has imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs of ethnic Kazakh descent, Kyrgyz, and other communities in a huge camp network in Xinjiang. Despite credible evidence of torture, forced sterilisation, and other atrocities, Beijing has defended the camps as essential for combating radicalism in the area and denied any infringement of human rights.
Yau’s research indicates that a significant portion of the travel arrangements made for Kyrgyz journalists was taking them to Xinjiang, where they were offered romanticised images of the region, complete with thriving towns and development initiatives. Then, according to Yau, these articles are distributed locally by Kyrgyz media, which confuses readers and fosters mistrust in other reports concerning the camp system and its attendant atrocities.
“It’s a two-pronged strategy for coverage around Xinjiang: The first method is to minimise media attention as much as possible, and the other is to manufacture other stories that can confuse audiences since it is so [polarising] compared to other material accessible,” she added. “In the end, I believe that’s where it’s most successful. Even if it doesn’t persuade anyone, it might make them wary of these charges about the Chinese government.
Obstacles and Inroads
Although the analysis shows how China’s media strategy has been successful in Kyrgyzstan, using the nation’s comparatively open media landscape, Yau highlighted there are still challenges when it comes to customising its plan to local preferences.
When it comes to international media, [China] is rather immature. When they travel abroad, they simply replicate that approach [from home] and, frequently, fail to pay attention to the local employees, according to Yau.
In one anecdote, a producer from Kyrgyzstan related to her how he had been approached by a Chinese delegation seeking to co-produce a film for regional viewers. He claimed that they offered him a movie about a Chinese man who travels to Kyrgyzstan to work and falls in love with a local woman. The local producer said he was astonished to hear that the Chinese delegation was completely uninformed of anti-China riots in the country and that interracial marriage had been a role in developing Sinophobia in some parts when he warned them that this would be negatively received and perceived as aggressive.
A further challenge for China in Kyrgyzstan is the local workforce’s lack of interest in cooperating with Chinese organisations and initiatives. Yau interviewed numerous current and former Kyrgyz who worked for or with Chinese media, and while many admitted they understood they were generating propaganda or even outright falsehood, they nonetheless claimed they were drawn to the country by greater compensation.
Many people don’t have their hearts in it. There isn’t any other choice, so it’s something practical, Yau said. “They probably wouldn’t choose China as a partner if given the choice between other countries, which I think [represents] the general opinion of China in this country.”